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A Conference on El Sistema in Berkeley

November 29, 2012

Cal Performances is hosting a two-day conference about music education centering on El Sistema, the lauded Venezuelan approach. The conference is part of a bunch of offerings organized around Gustavo Dudamel's present tour with the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela.

It seems that symposia on music education are springing up in many places that Dudamel and the SBOV are landing during their journey across the United States. And if the first half of the one organized by Cal Performances yesterday is anything to go by, music educators across the country, even those who profess to knowing quite a bit about El Sistema, are going to be getting a transformative experience.

It's tempting to provide a blow-by-blow account of the day's activities. But that would use up too much typewriter ribbon. So I'm going to jot down out a few of the ideas that came up during the discussions that made the strongest impression on me...

1. Eric Booth, the erudite and compelling arts education pundit who gave the keynote speech, on why Gustavo Dudamel thinks El Sistema has been so successful: "There are two reasons for this: One, it makes every child feel like he or she is an asset; and two, we never forget to have fun."

2. According to Booth, the greatest determinant of the success of a music education program is the motivation of the learners.

3. Teachers in the El Sistema system are described as "C.A.T.S." which stands for the four qualities that they all possess. An El Sistema teacher is at once a Citizen, Artist, Teacher, and Scholar.

4. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about the El Sistema way of spreading music education to large numbers of children is how the kids grow up being both students and teachers at the same time. There are several orchestral levels and those in the second level and above teach the students in the junior levels. I imagine that this duality must inspire a lot of pride, self-esteem and patience in the El Sistema tribe from a young age.

5. Jose Antonio Abreu, who founded the El Sistema movement in the mid 1970s, impressed me with his long, visionary answers to panel chairman Matias Tarnopolsky's questions. Of the many amazing things the guy said, the most compelling idea -- or at least the one that stands out for me -- is to do with how he views El Sistema not as a musical organization but rather as a movement for social change. He also added that the word "Sistema" is misleading because it makes people think of a strict and rigid system when in fact he views it as a network of educators and learners.

Paloma & Co.

November 27, 2012

Sasha Frere-Jones' recent article in The New Yorker about the British songstress Paloma Faith’s entrée into the United States market got me thinking about the fortunes of British female singers on this side of the pond.

Jones explores the potential success of Faith, who hasn’t been on the British scene for very long and is on the verge of launching over here, in relation to the most popular of the recent UK women vocalist imports – Amy Winehouse and Adele – and declares that there’s room over here for another Brit diva if Faith can come up with a certifiable hit as Winehouse and Adele did before her.

I’d argue that a hit song isn’t the only thing that will more likely ensure Faith’s name recognition in the US. The type of voice and the image the singer possesses is also an important factor. What Faith has in common with Adele and Winehouse is her old-fashioned persona and a big, soul-centered voice to go with it. That’s what American audiences seem to go for, judging by the rapturous way in which they have responded to Adele and Winehouse.

If being a 1950s throwback is what it takes to make it big in America, then it’s no wonder that singers whom I think have much more unusual and interesting voices, such as the bracing Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine, don’t get the same airplay over here.

This is a shame. Paloma Faith is a fine singer. But her voice doesn’t have much of a grain and she lacks physical presence in spite of her retro hairdos and little girl lost gaze. In short, I’d like to see more variety in the US market’s tastes when it comes to importing singing talent from the other side of the ocean.  

Spielberg the Storyteller?

November 26, 2012

I feel sort of embarrassed to say this as the thing has gotten such euphoric reviews, but Steven Spielberg's new movie about Abraham Lincoln kinda left me cold. I exited the theatre over the weekend feeling like I didn't give much of a hoot about any of the characters and the film falls way short of its director's usual storytelling skills.

The biopic is most interesting for its performances, even though Tony Kushner's script doesn't make me care all that much about the characters.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones are particularly magnetic in the roles of, respectively, the Sixteenth President of the Unites States and Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful member of the House of Representatives and a radical Republican (back in the days when radical Republicans stood for things that could make a positive impact on the country as a whole, like anti-slavery laws, rather than the sorts of ideas that today's right wing wonks hold dear.)

This film version of Lincoln also tells a refreshing narrative which focuses not on the president's untimely death or small-town roots, as so many other biopics about Lincoln do, but rather on the thorny political wranglings surrounding the passing the Thirteenth Amendment -- the bill to end slavery. As such, the movie provides a welcome, in-depth insight into some of the main players involved in bringing about the amendment -- and opposing it, as well as the causes and effects of the historical event.

But Lincoln doesn't make for very compelling cinema. The narrative arc of Kushner's script feels stolid and there isn't a whole lot to hold on to for people who aren't well versed in American political history. In other words, it's quite easy to get confused and even bored with the focus on concepts rather than characters.

Finally, besides the extraordinarily visceral battle scene that opens the film and a few beautifully lit silhouette shots of Day-Lewis, the film isn't all that interesting to look at. The claustrophobic interiors of old wood and cold light are certainly atmospheric, but there's little in the way of visual variety.

PS On the subject of Day-Lewis' performance: I can't understand why people in the media are making such a fuss about the actor's accent and gait. I don't find the voice that Day-Lewis adopts to be particularly high. And the Lincoln in this film is captured during his Autumn years. So it stands to reason that his walk might be ambling and his frame a little stooped. I found Day-Lewis' personification of Lincoln to be nuanced and warm, but hardly weird.

Theatre Dictionary

November 20, 2012

The Theatre Development Fund has launched a whimsical online resource called Theatre Dictionary.

The tool is being billed as "a video guide to 'theatre lingo' by TDF and theatre companies from across North America."

Clearly a lot work has gone into developing the resource.

It comprises mostly lighthearted one-minute-long-ish videos explaining terms like "fight director," "hybrid theatre" and "fourth wall", along with written essays providing more background on each term.

There's also an interactive element where users can submit their own definitions and videos, making the whole thing kinda like a Wiki for the stage.

I've been spending some time with the Theatre Dictionary this morning. In principle, it provides a fun, low-barrier-to-entry way of demistifying the art form for a general audience. But the quality of the videos is patchy.

I love the one about "The Scottish Play," which features a pair of actors at Soho Rep in New York talking about how much they like playing witches, and just as they're about to utter the title of the cursed Shakspearean tragedy, another actor pops up and stops them. This leads to a funny explanation of what will befall the thespians if they utter the word. Similarly entertaining is the video about "Peas and Carrots," the term for the gibberish uttered by actors chatting in the background of a scene, while the main action / dialogue is being played out in front.

What's far less compelling, however, is the video describing "black box theatre." It features a slide show of photographic stills taken in black box spaces and narration by a guy with a droning voice. The drone may be intentional, perhaps to conjure up the concept of an "empty space" devoid of life. But its monotony exceedingly grates on the nerves.

I am looking forward to seeing the Theatre Dictionary grow and thus increase its usefulness. There's still much work to do in terms of adding more content. The site is a bit thin right now. I guess that's where the user-generated aspect of the resource will come particularly in handy.

However, even in its current form, the tool is still provides a much more tactile way of explaining theatre terms than the standard theatre lexicons that exist in print and online.

Opera Design As Mothballed Artifact

November 19, 2012

The current production of Tosca at the San Francisco Opera is wonderful to hear. The orchestra plays lavishly and the excellent double cast (which featured Patricia Racette in the title role, Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi and Mark Delavan as Scarpia the night I saw the show) perform with utter conviction.

If only this Tosca could be as easy on the eyes as it is on the ears. I don't think I've ever been forced to stare at a set as ugly as this in a long time.

It's no surprise to discover that the design, by Thierry Bosquet -- a study in kitschy gilt and teetering colonnades --  is based on that of the company's original 1932 production.

But what on earth's the point of taking this approach, especially when the company clearly knows good design when it sees it, as recent productions of Bellini's The Capulets and the Montagues featuring Vincent Lemaire's dazzlingly simple yet visually captivating designs and Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick, which brilliantly merged 2D with 3D effects, clearly demonstrate?

Perhaps back in the 1930s, the sets had to be this opulent to give people something to look at. The singers in that era generally stood stiller than they do today.

But the "park and bark" stye of opera performance went out of style long ago. Performers move around the stage and actually engage in quite a bit of acting as well as singing these days.

But their efforts, no matter how vivid, end up being wasted in the case of this production, as the set is so busy and gaudy that any attempt at blocking is severely upstaged by the surroundings.

Opera is already considered to be a moribund art form by most people. Turning it into a museum piece, at least visually speaking, can't possibly help matters.

We Are Now Entering The Theatre Time Zone (Bring Earplugs And A Blanket)

November 14, 2012

Why does time so often play tricks on us when we go to the theatre? Why do plays rarely feel the length that they actually are -- even ones that claim a unity of time, place and action?

I asked myself these questions as I left the Magic Theatre last night after opening night of Anna Ziegler's perfunctory-schmaltzy new play set in a kids' camp in Maine, Another Way Home.

The drama, in which an American, upper middle-class family's testy relationships with each another come to a head when the teenage son, Joey, runs away from his job as a volunteer counselor at a kids' camp in the woods of Maine following a sparring match with his visiting parents,  is heavily preoccupied with the concertina effect of time.

Ziegler explores how we seemingly have no control over the way in which time has this habit, on occasions, of stretching out endlessly long, and on other occasions, appearing to squish so tightly that 30 years seem to go by in a flash.

Disappointingly, the play doesn't really tell us anything new about this truism of human existence.

What was palpable to me, however, was that despite Meredith McDonagh's tight direction and some muscular, sensitive performances from the small ensemble cast (Mark Pinter's explosion of temper during a pivotal scene in his role as the family patriarch, Philip, was scarily engrossing) Ziegler's short, 80-minute play felt much longer than 80-minutes to to me.

Martin Sexton's Incomparable Thing

November 9, 2012

From the moment a friend in Washington DC introduced me to Martin Sexton this summer (when I was over there doing a fellowship at the Library of Congress) I have been hooked on the singer-songwriter's voice and music. 

Last night, I made the four-hour roundtrip from Silicon Valley to Sacramento and back to experience the artist live at the Jean Runyon Little Theatre, and it was totally worth the schlep.

One of the things that impressed me most about Sexton's gig was the variety of sounds he got out both of his voice and his guitar.

All too often, I go to concerts where the artist is surrounded by a battalion of instruments. Sexton, contrastingly, produced roughly just about as many different timbres as another artist might switching between various stringed instruments, looping pedals and synthesizers, by using only one guitar and his body.

I didn't realize from the recordings I've heard just how accomplished a beatboxer and body percussionist Sexton is.

And his one guitar sounded at different points of the program like many different guitars such as acoustic, bass, and steel-stringed. He even managed to channel Hendrix at one point, with some dirty reverb effects generated by putting his instrument close to a speaker.

Sexton is extremely playful on stage. Every song sounds like he's making it up on the spot, feeling the room for the right sensation and mood to build around him.

I wish I could go to Petaluma's Mystic Theatre tonight to hear the artist do his only other Bay Area gig. Why oh why doesn't he have a date in Oakland, Berkeley or San Francisco???

Alas, I am otherwise occupied.

(If you're anywhere near Marin county tonight, come check out the Mill Valley Philharmonic's Sibelius-cetric program in which yours truly will be essaying the second oboe line!)

However, a much better use of your time might be to head to Petaluma to watch Sexton do his incomparable thing.

11-year-old Jasmin Tejeda reviews The Lion King

November 7, 2012

Today's blogpost is brought to you by 11-year-old San Francisco school student Jasmin Tejeda (pictured left). Jasmin joined me for The Lion King during its latest run in San Francisco. Here's what Jasmin made of the production...

If you’re thinking of seeing The Lion King, here are a few things you might want to know about the show. 

The costumes are amazing and the scenery is spectacular. The designs are incredibly detailed. The elephant looks so huge because there were five people acting out as the elephant. All the animals look very realistic. 

The show is fantastic. When the actors sing they also act. When they were sad, I felt sad with them.  

Some things to improve on are cubs having masks, and more liony costumes. Also one of the drum players was more experienced than the other one. 

I’m recommending all my friends to go see the show.

Thanks Jasmin!

Hack Day

November 6, 2012

I snapped the poster pictured on the left this morning when I was in a stall in the ladies bathrooms at the Stanford gymnasium. It was hanging on the inside of the stall door and I suspect every cubicle had one of these posters in it.

As a cultural commentator, I felt compelled to take a picture and Tweet and write about it here because the project described on the poster pretty much epitomizes what Stanford culture is these days -- a mass of wolfish tech startups masquerading as sheepish humanities projects.

There couldn't any more Stanford-trendy buzz words and phrases in this advertisement, from"hack day," "coders," and "women developers," to "mobile, digital and social products," "prototypes" and "evangelists." The fact that the endeavor has a high-profile corporate sponsor -- ESPN -- and is taking place at the D-School (Stanford's uber-hip, corporate-fawning design institute) makes this the kind of project that many students, faculty and administrators will no doubt be drooling over.

But the sports journalism angle, and the Graduate School of Journalism affiliation with the project, seems a little by-the-by to me, as if someone wanted a way to validate an unfashionable and commercially-questionable humanistic / artistic pursuit through embedding it in code.

Not that I don't applaud attempts going on all around campus -- and beyond -- to find ways to turn journalistic ideas into viable business propositions. The media industry would certainly benefit from the development of sustainable commercial models. But the power of the coder over all other fields around here seems both awe-inspiring, intimidating and, frankly, just a bit boring and predictable at this point to me.

Its hard to walk around this campus without running into some new app that's being prototyped or venture capital-backed incubator for hungry, student-run startups. But where the humanities fit into all of this is currently a matter of puzzlement.

Perfect Pitch Perfect

November 5, 2012

I am hard-pressed to find a more wonderful anecdote to these discombobulating times of mudslinging politics, economic crises and really awful weather, than Pitch Perfect. I saw the film yesterday afternoon in a mall multiplex with my friend Kate and its life-affirming effect will stay with me for, hopefully, weeks to come.

Based on the non-fiction book Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate A Cappella Glory by Mickey Rapkin, the fictionalized film paints a vivid, humorous and touching portrait of the American collegiate a cappella scene.

Here's what I appreciated about the movie: It's very tightly written. We care about all the characters. The actors dance and sing with passion and dexterity. The music, which veers between oldies like Toni Basil's "Hey Mickey" and newer hits like Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA,"  manages to retain personality despite the high gloss of the production process. The story is engaging. It's pacey. There are some hilarious lines.

I also got a lot out of the wonderful yet subtly-communicated message at the heart of the film about oddball-ism. Collegiate a cappella is widely thought of as incredibly geeky and embarrassing, even in the light of hit TV shows like Glee and The Sing-Off. But as in Glee, Pitch Perfect aims to show how cool geekery can be.

The film's many references to the 80s teen movie The Breakfast Club are interesting in this regard. Not only does the appearance of that chestnut (which was an important part of my life when it first appeared in 1985) make the new film appeal to an older generation. But it also points to one of the central conceits of Pitch Perfect. The characters in Pitch Perfect share oddball status with the misfit yet lovable characters in John Hughes' movie, demonstrating that the walls between people who all seem to come from very different worlds are in fact very thin.

The wonderful advantage that Pitch Perfect has over The Breakfast Club, however, is that the thing that brings the walls down is music. That's an altogether more positive ice-breaker than the weekend detention scenario that brings the kids in Hughes' film together.

I bought the soundtrack this morning and listened to it on my way down to Stanford. I'll be bopping to it on my way home too.

The Greeks

November 3, 2012

My head was full of thoughts about Costas Vaxevanis, the journalist who was arrested and put on trial by the Greek authorities a few days ago for publishing a list of wealthy Swiss bank account holders / tax evaders in his country, when I went to see the American Conservatory Theater's production of Sophocles' Elektra.

The play, in an intelligent, new English language version by Timberlake Wertenbaker, focuses strongly on notions of justice and what radically different things it means to different people.

Elektra isn't extremely compelling theatre. I couldn't understand David Lang's noodling musical score (performed live on stage by Theresa Wong on solo cello). And Rene Augesen in the title role behaves and looks like a deranged sheep throughout. Not even the much more compelling performances by Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus and Caroline Lagerfelt as Clytemnestra could mitigate the bleating, wild-eyed monotony of Augesen's Elektra.

As a result of the shortcomings of ACT's production, I found myself thinking quite a bit about Vaxevanis and the weird way in which justice is and isn't currently playing itself out in modern day Greece several thousand years after Sophocles wrote his tragedy.

In Elektra, justice is a sort of impulsive, tit-for-tat sport rather than something metered out carefully in court. Agamemnon kills his daughter so his wife Clytemnesta kills him so their other daughter, Elektra, plots to revenge her father by killing her mother.

The courts acquitted Vaxevanis on Thursday of charges of violating personal privacy laws after he published the list of 2,059 names of prominent Greeks sequestering money in Switzerland.

The journalist's acquittal shows some measure of legal justice, I suppose. But the injustice of the divide between rich and poor in that country will continue to loom large over Greece long after the news of Vaxevanis' case fades.

I wonder whether the authorities' treatment of the journalist and attempt to cover up corruption will lead to more trouble? Let's hope that things don't escalate to the point where they start to resemble the House of Atreus' idea of "justice."