Sights and Sounds of San Francisco

If you were visiting me last month in San Francisco, I would have snatched tickets to an opera or symphony performance for us. As a city of nearly 900,000+/- techies, San Francico is graced with the highest quality music that can be managed by a small but loyal and enthusiastic following.

Many of the household names in opera today were trained in the local Merola or Adler Fellowship Programs here, including New York Metopera regulars Joyce diDonato, Susan Graham, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Deborah Voigt, and Delora Zajick; also Thomas Hampton, Brian Jagde, Quinn Kelsey, Ryan MacPherson, Lucas Meachem, Stuart Skelton, and the list goes on. Attending the concerts with current artists in training is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with fresh new talent.

 One of this year’s Adler Program presentations, the residency version of the Merola,  featured mezzo Ashley Dixon, soprano Patricia Westley, baritone Chris Purcell, and tenor  Zhengyi Bai. It’s great to see more Asians pursuing careers in opera. China and Korea seem to be particularly strong in gaining international recognition. I always look out for these talents and enjoy hearing their voices. Similarly, young composers and musicians from diverse backgrounds are flocking to the fields of music and opera in greater numbers, so neither opera nor classical music training are by any means static and uninspiring.

You can also catch superstars like Pianist Yuja Wang or Violinist Ray Chen performing annually at the SF Symphony, and a host of many other star performers. French Pianist Helene Grimaud was here for an afternoon performance at the San Francisco Symphony.  Tickets are relatively inexpensive and all seats have excellent acoustical sound quality at Davies Symphony Hall. International stars often sold out months in advance for higher prices in savvy European cities can be reasonably procured here.  I snagged a rock-bottom ticket priced at only $17 for Helene Grimaud at an afternoon performance.

For local charm, you can enjoy Chinese music performed by local high school and elementary school students once a year. Led by Sherlyn Chew, Chinese opera instructor at Laney College, she directed a score of Bay Area public school students in a joint end-of-the year performance of Chinese music for friends and family.

 In solidarity with the Notre Dame Cathedral, the San Francisco Symphony and local opera star Federica van Stade performed at Grace Cathedral.  As sister city to Paris, San Francisco and its French Community turned out to express its sympathy for the fire, as well as object to the attacks in Pittsburgh, PA and in the San Diego area.

The small but informative early Rubens exhibition at the San Francisco Legion of Honor gave me and my fellow German language partner an opportunity to discuss and discover the wonders of the Belgian artist together auf Deutsch. We challenged ourselves with the artist’s life and work while practicing our German vocabulary.

 

The annual Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) Festival held in May this year to coincide with the Asian Pacific Islander Month in San Francisco featured “Chinatown Rising”, a documentary by a Chinatown Presbyterian minister. He worked with his son to produce a film that showed the development of the Chinese community in the late 60’s and early 70’s. With his help and many local activists, Chinatown learned how to speak out about its housing crisis and poverty in Chinatown.

The second major film showing, was the now classic “Joy Luck Club”. After 25 years, the actors gathered together to celebrate their involvement in Amy Tan’s story about four women growing up in San Francisco and their mothers from China. Lisa Lu, now 90, was one of the featured actresses and a diva from traditional Chinese opera. She also played the grandmother in “Crazy Rich Asians”.

 

And a plug for Mister Jiu’s: an exquisitely prepared succulent pink trout stashed inside lotus leaves and baked in salt. The dish was perfectly paired with sides of parsleyed vinegar and trout roe. We satiated the rest of our greedy appetites with wild mushroom bao, first of the season apricot salad, crispy deep-fried shrimp, and stir-fried asparagus with black olives and smoked tofu for a leisurely two-hour meal. It was a monumental undertaking for two of us! We gladly indulged our brains and our stomaches bite by bite to the scrumptious end.

Don’t miss my upcoming, real-time travels to Germany, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Portugal and Austria in two weeks!

Sketch Prep

I’m getting ready for my annual European travels with myself and others in less than two months, so I hope you will join me! In preparation for the Portugal sketching segment in the Algarve (near Faro on the southern tip of Portugal), I have been sketching daily. Before then, I was following a number of Instagram sites and became overwhelmed by the incredible skill and agility of those who post their beautiful, lithe, watercolors. I decided not to be too discouraged by their talents. Everyone starts somewhere! So I got back in the saddle after a brief hiatus.

Portrait Party

Thanks to a “portrait party” sponsored by Arch Supplies in San Francisco, my interest in being the perpetual sketch artist was renewed. This second annual event was as delightful and entertaining as the first. Sketchers in groups of six warmed up with one-minutes gestures using the non-dominant hand, followed by sketches using the dominant one. Here were my results:

Hmm…maybe the non-dominant hand controls a sharper part of my brain…?? Each group then progressed to 10-minute sketches of each other in the group, with each person taking turns “posing”:

100 People in Five Days

The Portrait Party helped to launch the start of a frenzied affair to draw 100 people in five days. This is a challenge to stake out unsuspecting individuals in cafes, public transit, or hotels lounges while keeping yourself from being suspect. Unless you take a “stealth bomber” approach, you will end up with many unfinished sketches of people disappearing from your cone of vision. The panel above shows the entire string of sketches I completed in five days! Here is a slide show of the best of the ten sets and where they occurred:

The process was a bit unwieldy, but it forced me to be better, faster, cheaper (on my time). My favorites were the construction crew at Seventh and Irving and the sleeping “shoppers” at San Francisco Center!

As a novice sketcher, I hope you will bear with me as you mark my progress. In case you are still foggy about the subject matter of my blog posts, they normally focus on my current interests of cultural and historical travel; art, architecture and design; German as a learner of the language, and about food. Let me know if you have particular interests in any of these!

Beginning in June, my travels this year will include a special focus on UNESCO world sites in the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia), Goethe Institute stints in Dresden and Vienna for a couple of weeks each, and sketching in Portugal. There will be a bonus stop in Italy too! This could be the last year I will be sharing my travels via blog posts, so please share your thoughts and comments. I love hearing from you particularly during my real-time travel posts.

If you want to get email notifications about postings, please join the blog. Conversely, if you feel inundated by frequent posts (2-3 times a week) during my active traveling, you can always opt out of the notifications. Whichever way you choose, stay in touch and let me know what you are doing!

Featured Image Above: Sketching at the weekend San Francisco Ortega Library Tai Chi Group

Metopera on Broadway

Aside from the address of the Metropolitan Opera being on Broadway, the opera is looking and acting more like Broadway. The opera has been transforming itself to appeal to a broader and younger audience. In doing so, it is getting a glitzy makeover.

Tonight’s Rigoletto felt more like a Broadway show, complete with neon signs, showgirls and a casino set. The first act was set in Las Vegas, and although it sounds hyped up, the stage sets were sophisticated and appealingly campy. Once the familiar music started, along with the stellar singing, you knew you were back in the good old opera house territory.

Nadine Sierra is an upcoming new starlet who has won plenty of awards for her singing and beautiful voice. It was one of those rare moments. Throughout the evening, you could hear a pin drop as the audience held its breath at each singing pinnacle. Sierra chirped long luscious notes and kept the audience enthralled.

Stage sets, which are often quickly covered at the end of the performance, were left exposed during the curtain call. The designer must have been very proud of this production to showcase it.

Be sure to look out for this live broadcast if it is shown in cinemas in the near future. It was spectacular, exciting, and the singing was stellar. An excellent reinvention of a popular opera.

The Armory Art Show at Pier 94 reinforced the thriving arts scene in New York City. More than 250 exhibitors were represented in a show that started 25 years ago in the Gramercy Park Hotel. you can see some of the works by featured artists below.

Traveling back and forth to Lincoln Center offered plenty of opportunity to view public art and hear a variety of musicians in the subway stations. They certainly enhanced the travel experience and gave plenty of inspiration. Can you guess the artist who produced the portraits?!?

The Art of an Arts Education

During this Winter lull I thought I would share a few of my favorite old and new resources for interesting cultural sites. It takes a bit of wandering around the Internet, but here are a few that I found to be helpful in my development and pursuit of an “arts and cultural” education.

One of the first places I started is the local community college website. For life-long learning at any age and an opportunity to interact with motivated students of all ages, you can find plenty of courses to inspire you and to keep your brain fit! If you are in the Bay Area, try https://www.ccsf.edu or https://laney.edu or any other local community college website. I have immersed myself in Art, Music, German, and Film classes and am very impressed with the quality of the teaching staff. You might find that it’s a cost-effective way to try out new topics. You won’t be disappointed by the City’s free system, still effective for the time being. So, San Franciscans, take advantage of it now! College fees in other cities are nominal.

SF Sketchers is an active group of sketchers in San Francisco who connect at interesting locations such as going to the Embarcadero to sketch king tides, the Beach to sketch nude bathers, and the Global Climate Summit at the Civic Center. As an active participant, I look forward to Lauri Wigham’s creative ideas for a healthy morning or afternoon of sketching, both outdoors and in. An upcoming “Portrait Party” at Arch Supplies is a repeat from last year’s successful event, where small groups sit and sketch each other for five-minute poses. You can find out more about SF Sketchers at https://www.meetup.com.

A smaller, neighborhood local sketch group meets regularly on Saturday mornings to sketch at cafes throughout the Sunset District. It’s a convenient time to roll down the hill or take a brisk morning walk towards the Beach, catch a cappuccino, and do a non-verbal brain dump on paper. The group is very active and you can find their future meetings at the same site above.

The Parks and Recreation Dept of San Francisco has a healthy list of activities and programs for all ages. I realized that these are some of my tax dollars being put to good use, for the benefit of everyone. Not everyone knows what they do, or the benefit they bring to the community, until you decide to get involved. Many of the arts are supported here, such as welding, pottery, photography, jewelry making, and other general art classes in addition to sports programs. See https://sfrecpark.org.

Music for the Mind

For both American and international friends, my absolute recommendation for opera and music festivals is www.https://operabase.com. It’s a complete database for opera singers, composers, performances and opera houses throughout the world. It’s a great way to maximize your time in Europe by joining a music festival the same time you plan to visit a European city. You will be pleasantly surprised! It will support and maximize your travels.

I also follow a classical music website called bachtrack.com, a UK based organization. It covers both opera and musical concerts. You can find it at https://bachtrack.com

 

My favorite opera house, the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich, Germany at https://www.staatsoper.de offers awesome opera productions. They just presented a thrilling livestream broadcast of Karl V. That may sound a bit obscure, until you realize that it’s Charles V, a descendant of Charlemagne. It gives you a chance to catch up on European history at the same time you hear the music. A drier, but nevertheless entertaining, version of Hamilton.

Speaking of Hamilton, I managed to get the last two tickets for a performance in San Francisco last week. It was only my second time seeing the musical, but it was a profound experience–hearing rap music condensing the founding history of the US into a mesmerizing array of song, dance and poetry in less than three hours. Lin-Manuel Miranda is brilliant.

And of course the Metropolitan Opera in New York is the grand dame in the US at https://www.metopera.org. for combining music, art, costumes and drama. You can catch Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment next Saturday, March 3, and a followup Wednesday, March 6 in theaters near you. Pretty Yende is the star. The METOPERA’s new season is already posted, so plan an opera visit the next time you are in NYC!

Hopefully some of the resources and websites above will be useful to you. Let me know if you have trouble locating any of them or have comments.

LA Interlude

In a quick trip to Los Angeles a couple of weekends ago, we saw “Buddha Passion”, a stimulating premiere of Tan Dun’s opera concert featuring six Chinese performers. The choir and children’s chorus sang in Mandarin, and the music was beautifully reflective of the Dunhuang Cave environment in Northwest China. It was one of my first visits along the Silk Road a few years ago, so I had a particular fondness for the subject matter. I was surprised and delighted that Gustavo Dudamel led the orchestra for this new work by a Chinese composer.

We had just enough time to slip into the Broad Museum the next morning to oogle at the wealth of big-name artists such as Beuys, Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein, and to admire the new museum. After all, what’s the point of doing art without seeing art?!?

Addendum: Check out these two food websites: https://www.chefsfeed.com and https://www.exploretock.com if you are looking for alternatives to opentable.com. They are more discriminating and provide a more professional approach to restaurant dining experiences from award-winning and innovative restauranteurs.

Zaha has Deeds

It may have been a shock back in 1975 when Zaha Hadid, a world famous Iraqi architect who died recently, won her first international competition in Hong Kong. Hadid proposed to place a hotel on the top of Victoria Peak by polishing the hilltop granite down to bedrock. Appalled as I was at the idea of this self-inflicted environmental disaster, Hadid managed to convince the jury that her bold move would, as it was, be a world-wide attention-getter. Fortunately the project was never built. Needless to say, nor was the project I entered with two other architectural students a winning entry.

Despite a spate of unbuilt designs from crazy-rich ideas, Zaha Hadid eventually settled down and managed to complete some sizable design projects. Among them are the Guangzhou Opera House, the BMW Factory in Leipzig, a museum complex in Baku, and the Maxxi Museum in Rome. Below are photos of the Maxxi Museum we visited last month.

Her wavy gravies were never among my favorite buildings and trended toward the Gehry-esque camp. But I have to admit that the staircase in the Maxxi Museum was impressive and much more successful that Snohetta’s version at the SFMOMA. The overall design seemed well suited for the video installations displayed in the museum. I missed posting these last time, so I hope you enjoy seeing the interiors. Make a plan to go there next tine you are in Rome. It’s a refreshing antidote to the Renaissance and ancient architecture.

Matera and Plovdiv starring as EU Capitals of Culture

The cultural heritage cities designated by the EU for 2019 are Matera and Plovdiv. Each year, they highlight undiscovered gems. Do you know where these cities are in Europe?

Panorama of Matera, January, 2019

Daughter Melissa learned about Matera just before we flew to Rome, so we carved a day from our itinerary and flew to Bari. After that, it’s only an hour away by car. We covered most of the main hill town by walking. Locals are intent on managing tourism responsibly to preserve the natural beauty of the area developed over many centuries. You can see more photos of Matera in the previous post.

Both Plovdiv and Matera will feature open-air operas this summer. One of my favorites, Cavallera Rusticana will be presented in Matera in August, and in July the Roman Amphitheater in Plovdiv will present Aida and Rigoletto. This is a good chance to visit either city or both as they are filled with fascinating history and architecture. Here’s a good resource to learn more about both cities: https://europediplomatic.com/2019/01/04/matera-and-plovdiv-starring-as-eu-capitals-of-culture/

Ralph Steadman Restrospective–San Francisco

Back in San Francisco and thanks to SF Sketchers, I found my way to the Ralph Steadman retrospective presented by the Haight Street Art Gallery. Although primarily a political cartoonist, Ralph was highly appreciated for both his skill and wit. Although I had never heard of this artist before, I loved learning about his life’s work. I particularly liked the typically dry humor in the sketch about the Pastry Chef!

Steadman was fascinated by famous artists or political characters and traced their footsteps meticulously. He became the characters as he absorbed their psyche. Each scene he depicted seemed to represent a play he had written in his mind. He imagined Michelangelo throwing a fit in the Sistine Chapel, Nixon “discharging” Spiro Agnew, and one of Freud’s clients receiving therapy on the couch in the stuffy office where the psychoanalyst practiced. He even lampooned Trump.

And to record a few sketches made in the past week:

Be sure to catch a summary of travels for this year in the 2019 tab in the header at the top of the page!

Italian Highlights, Jan. 2019

High Renaissance Rome

St. Peter’s Baldacchino by Bernini and Michelangelo’s Dome,
in the most magnificent interior space in the world

Napoli Pizzeria

Famous Pizzeria da Attilio, Napoli: Pure, straight, and to the Oven

Sassi di Matera, Italy

A World UNESCO site dedicated to restoring hill towns with little or no environmental impact

Swan Lake Ballet in Rome

Delightful Swan Lake Ballet at the Opera Theater of Rome

Chef’s Personal Tour of Italy

Food in Rome, Naples and Matera

In a frenzied week of food, history of art and architecture, and archaeological sites, it was easy to be overwhelmed by Italy’s riches. The time was afforded and determined by a rare winter hiatus at the restaurant where pastry chef/daughter Melissa works. Between two of us, we tag-teamed on where to go, how to get there, and making sure that we maximized resources.

Speed traveling in a slow country by two generations of sturdy travelers was achievable, satisfying, and forever memorable. With Rome as our base in Testaccio, we took a full day trip to Naples by train. An inexpensive flight to Bari at the heel of Italy enabled us to visit Matera in a second, dawn-to-dusk trip. A one-hour drive from Bari allowed us to reach Sassi, two ancient hill towns straddling a deep valley. This UNESCO area is designated to become a major destination in 2019, to showcase sustainable tourism and environmental protection of treasured and not-to-be forgotten settlements.

Matera Hill Town

Elena Ferrante in Napoli

Famous Pizza and the Opera House drove us to Naples, but we couldn’t help but think about the stories written by Elena Ferrante in her four book series about scrappy Neapolitan life. We stopped at the Archaeological Museum, one of the country’s top sites holding treasures from Ercolano and Pompeii. Porn was thriving in Pompeii, as witnessed in this museum, along with all the other artifacts that are no longer available at the sites. In between glutting out on pizza (shown above and in video on next post) and a lackluster Nutcracker at the historic Teatro di San Carlo, the food won hands down.

Reminder: Click on any area of the galleries above for a full-fledged slide show.

Frappucino Trappizzino

It’s too chilly in Rome for iced coffee but the antidote was a toasted pocket pizza with tantalizing and meaty fillers for a quickie dinner.


On arrival at the exquisitely appointed Air BNB in Testaccio, daughter and discoverer of discriminating accommodations took our host’s recommendation for dinner and led us to Trappizzino.

It’s a short, safe walk from the Marmorata Building and past numerous inviting cafes and restaurants still open to business after 9pm on a weeknight.

After entering the first door to Trappizino, we are told that we are in a wine bar. If we want food we should go next door. We follow instructions and U-turn. We go next door and order what appear to be pocket pizzas.

While that may not sound so appealing, we quickly realize that we are in a gourmet ghetto. Choices of octopus, tongue or a variety of other meats are delicately flavored with pesto or marinara sauce and inserted into lightly toasted focaccia envelopes.

As we wait for our orders to be processed, we peruse the joint and the scant table layout. Sides appear to be non-existent, so we focus on the drink case. Hmm, I thought. Was that price of 9.80€, written in scrolly cursive the way Europeans write, the price of a glass, or a bottle?

Couldn’t break my reticence to ask. It didn’t matter, the counter server advised, go next door for wine, where there are more tables and a better environment for dining. We pay a whopping price of 8€ for food and collect our prizes.

Clad with our pizzas fully exposed and mounted in a custom-designed wire toast holder, we traipse back over next door. Business looked like it had picked up, with a couple hovered at the prime window spot showcasing the presence of customers.

We settle on a hightop and pursue the wine mystery. This side of the establishment is serious about drinks. A number of specialty beers are displayed in the refrigerated cases and stare longingly at our religiously unfulfilled table. One beer displays printed labels for Trappizzino, with each of the letters T-R-A-P-P-I-Z-Z-I-N-O on 11 bottles in a row.

Further down the cases are bottles of local wine, in competition with the beers.

I quickly choose a bottle of Roman wine slightly above 9.80€ and pay for it. The hostess brings my selection over to our table and in Italian words, animated gestures, and truth-telling facial expressions communicate that she is unable to open the wine for us.

After some confusion about why she was unable to perform this task (out of plastic cups? was wine drinking prohibited in a wine bar on a Tuesday night after 9pm? Did we really look that young, just because we were Asian?!? Had we triggered some violation of Italian protocol by purchasing a bottle of weed-laced wine, that could not be served in a public establishment?!?)

We soon deduct that she is telling us that she must go next door to get someone to open the bottle for her.

Apparently she is afflicted with a wine shop worker-related injury. She has developed carpal tunnel wine bottle opener syndrome!

Melissa quickly steps up and offers to uncork the wine. The hostess smiles, gratefully relieved. Business is now standing room only, and it’s one less trip next door, into the 4 degrees of separation.

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WRING OUT THE OLD

Before the year closes out, I wanted to combine a number of videos and photos that I collected during this year’s travels. The selection includes a life-changing trip to Iran, first-timers to Korea and Hungary, and regular mainstays in Germany, Austria and China.

These travels entailed detailed planning and visits to friends and family. While most of the visits were with those who follow or are aware of my intrepid travels, fresh new friends taught me bout the hardships and endurance needed to survive the complicated political and economic world we live in. Shared laughter helped to offset an arduous year and to renew hope for the future.

I hope you will enjoy this quirky video. I’ve culled material from travels this past year, based on Barbara Streisand’s moving song, “Imagine/What a Wonderful World”, from her album “Walls”. Let’s hope that we can resist building walls and find ways to build trust and friendship instead.

Here’s the video:

The video includes clips from Shiraz, Persepolis, Isfahan, Yasd, and Tehran in Iran, as well as a few from Seoul, Korea. There are clips from my month-long sojourn at the Goethe Institute in Munich, Germany. Featured friends include Lisa from New York City, Alberto and Miki from Crema/Elba/San Diego (our fellow travelers to Hungary and Austria), Helena from Lucerne/Wallins in Switzerland, and former student Xiao Lin and his wife Susan, who live in Guangzhou.

If you are interested in reading more about Iran, you can find the blog posts from April 2018.

I’m still debating about whether I will extend the blog into 2019. Traveling to Italy with daughter Melissa starting on New Year’s Day may help to inspire me to continue, so stay tuned if you are interested. We are also planning to go to the Caucasus in April (can you guess which three countries?)

Have an overwhelmingly, delightfully unexpected, fruitful, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!

Real Time Creative and Independent World Travel