Tag Archives: Performances

Thank You Very Mucha

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Exterior of Municipal Hall with murals by Mucha

Alfonse Mucha was a Czech graphic designer who was known for his advertising posters of Sarah Bernhardt, and for his signature designs that were instrumental in the Art Nouveau movement. After a successful career in Prague and New York, he decided to return to his Czech roots. He dreamt of helping to record the saga of the Slavic nation after WWII. Through his benefactor, he was able to depict the Slav Epic in 20 murals, now housed in the National Museum.
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The museum was closed, but we were able to see three of his works in the National Gallery. The poster framed in gold was one of the pieces. The Mucha Museum showed most of his work and an informative video produced by the Mucha Foundation presented the life of this artist. He was prolific as one of the first advertising artists of his day, and became famous in Paris. He hob-knobbed with famous artists and patrons, and eventually made his way to New York.

Upon his return to Prague, he was commissioned to decorate the Municipal Hall where the concert we attended last night was held. The interior was ornately decorated with etched glass, brass trim, and murals by Mucha. The view of the stage with the organ, the dome, and the interior photos you see are taken inside the hall.

More impressive was the musical performance. Despite my initial trepidation about hard sellers barking on the street to us, we were glad that we succumbed to their pleas. The music itself was delightful and the quality was very high. We heard a Mozart Concerto in C Major with a violin soloist, and Beethoven’s triple Concerto in G Major for Violin, Cello and Piano. The highlight was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, a stirring reminder of the Czech Republic’s early beginnings.

With 60 musicians performing for a small audience of less than 200 people (mostly tourists), I wondered how they were able to break even. It was great value, and I even felt a bit guilty paying so little for such a fine, ovation-warranted performance. To top it off, we continue to enjoy visiting and attending performances in beautiful and historic buildings. This particular building reminded me of the Palacio des Belles Artes in Mexico City. (See posts and video in December 2014 on Mexico City Art and Architecture).

It was particularly thrilling to reflect on the day’s exposure to Mucha and his commitment to the Czech People, followed by stirring music by Dvorak and the conductor of the North Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, in a venue decorated by Mucha himself! The visual and sound effects conveyed the passionate feelings of the artists and made the experience very moving and emotional.

As for the competition between Dresden and Prague, two musically inclined cities, I can only be politically correct and say that they are similar and different. Dresden has the Semper Opera House, the Schiller Theater, Frauenkirche and many other smaller venues that provide seasonal programs including the annual Music Festival.

Prague has its counterparts in State-supported venues such as the National Opera House, National Theater, Municipal House, Rudolfinum and many churches. With a larger population, Prague seems to rely on a pattern of daily, year-round performances for tourists who expect to hear music on demand. I’m sure there are performances catered to local music lovers, but I wasn’t able ascertain whether the tourist-oriented events were also for local residents.

I’ll continue this debate and decide after the musical events in Dresden this week as to which city I prefer (I have a hunch already–what’s your guess?). It will be strictly subjective, determined by many factors such as weather, what I ate that day just before the performance, how easily I got to the venue, and who’s in the audience! Assume all the music in both cities is the best quality and value that can be found anywhere in the world.

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Entrance to historic restaurant in Art Nouveau splendor
image Detail of hall interior

Prague Architecture & Promos


Like Dresden, Prague has a Disneyland-ish quality to it. We think of the SoCal American counterpart as fantastical, whimsical, and totally pedestrianized, and this city seems to match those descriptions. Like Disneyland, it also has hoards of tourists. For this city’s economy, tourists are no plague for Prague.

The buildings are impeccably maintained as are the streets (at least in the old town–I haven’t seen the real world by daylight anywhere yet!). It’s best to succumb to the lovely lures of the inner city and not overly scrutinize what may be beyond just yet.

Photos, from top left, counter-clockwise:
1. Tattooed Building
2. Baroque Beauty
3. Another Baroque Beauty outside hotel
4. Town Hall and Astronomical Clock in city center
5. Stone Relief on side of building
6. Effigy decorates confluence of crooked streets; impressions of Prague in 3GS: gruesome, gnarly, and Gothic.

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Jewish Synagogue (above)

As for Prague being a musical city, it definitely is well endowed, with a twist. Tourists must run the gauntlet of mass advertising for concerts and performances held at virtually every available venue. Catholic and Protestant churches competed in the past for parishioners and compete today for music patronage. Like canned tours, it is impossible to avoid the bombardment of flyers and hawkers (not for sex, but…music???). I felt a bit sorry for those disinterested in music, like the feeling you get when you’re not a sports fan and everyone around you is a fanatic. What’s all the fuss about?!? It’s a different world.

Fortunately for us, I was a bit unprepared and the readily at-hand research saved my ogling-going on Google. Instead, we physically stumbled into an ideal performance at the Municipal Hall. Dvorak’s New World Symphony will be performed with 60 local musicians of the Czech orchestra for around 40 euros each. (Quantity, not quality matters here) It’s also easy to compare choices when ads are at every street corner.

We are about to go to a Prague State Opera performance of “Nabucco” tonight. Keep your fingers crossed. Although I bought tickets online, I wonder how many tourists got coerced into going to something at the last minute that they really didn’t want to see. As for performances in Dresden and Leipzig, they haven’t capitalized on music or pandered to tourists to the extent done here (unless I missed something before). Maybe by choice, or less desperation. Stay tuned….

Update: the Prague Opera did not disappoint…in fact, it fully redeemed my faith in coming here. The performers were stellar, the staging straightforward, and the kudos were appropriate to the performance (not overinflated as they are in the U.S. with standing ovations the norm rather than the exception).

*I couldn’t help but add a panoramic of the interior of the beautiful opera house here. The acoustics were the best of any house I have visited. It’s small, intimate, and perfectly balanced. Maybe it was sitting in dead center of the parterre that did it, but for $55 for best seats in the house it beats the Met hands down on acoustical quality and value.

imagePrague State Operahouse interior

Unplugged in Prague

imageAfter our initial determination to attend a performance at Prague Castle, we discovered the Lebkowicz Palace where the afternoon concert was held. Rather than hitting the more popular Castle grounds, we learned that the Lebkowicz Family had a fascinating history, tracing from the Spanish King Philip of the Spanish Armada and New World fame to a modern day American family. They lost their inheritance twice, first to the Nazis in WWII and then to the Communists.

It wasn’t until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 that the Lebkowicz family fully recovered its properties in Prague. The Palace boasts the largest private collection of artwork in Central Europe that includes paintings by Bruegel, Velasquez, Cranach, and Canaletto. We followed the history in a fascinating audio guide narrated by Martin Lebkowicz himself, the American heir to the Lebkowicz family. The history transcends many historic events in European history, particularly the Thirty Years’ War.

A Chinese wedding booked part of the Palace, and this entry was decorated for the affair. The musical performance in the main room included classical hits featuring flute, piano and viola solo and trio performances. The room was recently renovated as part of the Lebkowicz Palace.
Sights and sounds around the city included views of Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral exterior and interior Stained Glass Window detail, and fine examples of local Baroque architecture. The panoramic view in the header above shows the Vlatava River, Dresden’s equivalent to the Elbe River (both painted by Canaletto).
Street musicians played classical, Blue Grass and Bolivian tunes. Music in Prague is eclectic and non-judgmental. Whatever you want to hear will be here, from Pop to Classical, high-brow to low. It demonstrates the vibrancy of the city and the arts that permeate society from the past to the present.

Some initial comparisons between Dresden and Prague:
1. Both are located along a winding scenic River with many bridges.
2. Both have a historic and active musical tradition.
3. Both have a strong respect and patronage for the arts.

These are only first day impressions, more to come.

The news of the day is focused on Cameron and the Conservative Party winning the most seats in the British election!

Overboard on Opera

Why do I like opera?

Here’s a typical synopsis: Boy meets girl. Boy is king in disguise. Father of girl is banned from kingdom. Father wants daughter to marry another boy. But girl is in love with a third boy. All get called to war and sort it out after the tribal war. This is the material of opera, a mirror of life.

What’s your favorite? A musical? Poetry? Symphony? Art? Technical perfection? As a novice to opera, I found that it combines all of these forms into one efficient, elaborate, and exhilarating performance.

Songs are stitched together to make a story. The stories are not always realistic, but they end up being strangely irrelevant anyway. The pacing builds the drama and time slowly sucks the viewer into revelation, rapture, and eventual addiction. That’s what opera has done to me. These are true confessions of a hopelessly vulnerable opera fanatic. Maybe you know one.

Or perhaps you relate to another passionate persuasion. Being or knowing a skier? Snowboarder? Card player? These are obsessions that keep us going. After this week in New York, I can say opera is mine. Like anything, it grows with commitment.

For those of you just dipping into the scene, here are a few tips I can offer:

1. This is an expensive sport, just like golfing or skiing. Rather than get cheap tickets in the beginning, choose one opera and the best seats you can afford. Bad seats, especially in the balcony, will put you to sleep. You need eye contact with the performers on stage, no more than 80-100′ to stay engaged. I like the ones on the sides of the orchestra. After you have seen the same opera a couple of times, you can then buy the cheaper tix.
2. Rest or take a nap before the performance (you have to quit your job first).
3. Knowing a little Italian, French, or German will really enhance your experience. One of the reasons I am learning German is for this purpose.
4. Watching Metopera high definition movies is definitely the best way to learn and appreciate opera. For the price of the balcony seats live you will get a much better experience seeing the performers close up (heaves, sweats, and bad makeup), but you will learn from interviews with performers what inspires them to perform. You can imagine being a composer like Rossini or a performer like Anna Netrebko, and vicariously live their lives? What wouldn’t I give to be one, short of talent and dedication???

If you really don’t intend to commit to live performances, you can see plenty of excerpts on YouTube. Look for Anna Netrebko or Jonas Kaufmann. I learned about them from the Metopera Movies, and they are currently among the best in the business and highly sought after.

You can also see and hear clips of the Donna del Lago Met performance I saw today with Joyce diDonato and Juan Diego Flores at http://www.metopera.org/opera/la-donna-del-lago-rossini-tickets#. Where else would you find a Mezzo-Soprano won by another Mezzo soprano in a male role in a kilt skirt over the King of Scotland?!? A good starter.

Man Oh Manon!

My last night in New York was topped off by seeing the third opera I booked, Manon by Massenet. There are two operatic versions of this story. Puccini wrote a version known as Manon Lescaut. They can easily be confused with each other. It must be a well-known French melodrama to warrant two operas of the same story!

Watching this production live in New York with Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo could only be the ultimate experience. The story is complex and dense. It takes place in Amiens and Paris, and inside the church at St. Sulpice. It portrayed 19th C. France at its best and worst, with many social pressures and expectations surrounding all classes of society.

I was first drawn to this opera listening to the music in the Sirius Metopera Channel. The excellent staging and acting make going to the opera a complete experience. If you looking for lesser-known operas and have the opportunity to catch it, I highly recommend investing in this one. It’s a bit risqué and even blasphemous, but contains all the lust and drama to engage us yet remind us how normal and healthy we are today.

You can see an X-rated clip of the 3rd Act with another diva (and my favorite), Anna Netrebko, in the lead role at http://www.metopera.org/video/2014-15/manon/watch/manon-act-iii-finale-anna-netrebko-piotr-beczala/1532430307001#play. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an exact video of the opera stars who performed last night, but this gives you an idea of the intensity of the act. Des Grieux has joined the priesthood in St. Sulpice and Manon comes back to find her spurned lover there. Note the clever way the columns are erected–askew–to reflect the instability of the situation. Brilliant artistry!

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If you thought opera was boring, this will change your mind. I’ll sign off with this thought and the Manon curtain call. Adieu (to God?)!!

Sadly, this is my curtain call for a week’s venture to NYC opera, theater, and museums. Please look for posts from the Dresden Music Festival in May (my fourth in four years!) when friends from Switzerland will be meeting Gee Kin and me. We plan to include side trips to Prague, Czechoslovakia, and revisits to favorite cities Weimar and Moritzburg, both in Germany. (Auf Wiedersehen! Or ’til we see each other again!)

Post a comment or send me an email if you have questions about any details.

I’m in a NY State of Mind…

Although Billy Joel has been performing at Madison Square Garden, I wasn’t able to see him because he’s off during the time I’m here. Nevertheless, the weather, cultural riches, and access to all forms of public transportation have sucked me in to see it, do it, and think it just like a local New Yorker.

On a recommendation from New Yawka Peter (who lives in HK), I was inspired to head back down to Nolita’s neighbor, Chinatown. The new Museum of Chinese in America was recently coined by Maya Lin, the young architect who designed the Vietnam Vets Memorial in Washington, DC. Tracing Chinese American history and seeing the Chinese diaspora felt like going home to an old but familiar story. Just like popular Italian operas, you recognize the tunes, the stories, the characters. Only the comedic element was missing.

Nevertheless, the timeline was well presented. The history of the railroads, promises of gold, through days of war, Nationalism, and Communism in the home country were captured efficiently. I learned about the achievements of many Chinese Americans whose names were not familiar to me. They included an astronaut, a prominent AIDS researcher, and a female pilot. Maya Lin and the museum curators did a decent job highlighting the right amount of information for visitors.

Photos, from top, left to right:
1. Display area
2. Restored storefront of Chinese shop
3. Sign that bears a chilling similarity to the anti-Islamic protests currently in Germany

This museum is worth a visit, for content and the Maya Lin oeuvre. You can see and hear her talk about it at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=976o62w45zg.

On a lighter note, the rest of my afternoon was devoted to seeing another theater production, “It’s Only a Play”, with Martin Short, Stockard Channing, and Matthew Broderick. Sorry to say, (to friend David, who was anxious to hear), that despite the big names, the script failed to keep the audience engaged. The actors were skilled at their craft, particularly my favorite Stockard Channing (from Grease and Six Degrees of Separation), but the story of the failure a Broadway play felt weak and contrived. It’s sad to think that the talents of so many were put to the task of delivering an uninspiring story, that ironically was the topic of the play.

The highlight of the evening was having a delightful dinner at Blue Hill on Washington Square with fellow architect Rik. We shared stories of being in the “order”, keeping up with the new techies, and fast-forward Chinese students. The food and service were impeccable, so definitely worth the cost of being entertained. Highly recommended.

Photos, from top, clockwise:
1. Thousand Year-old Egg and Pork Congee, Chinatown lunch
2. Mustard Relish for Bread, radishes from Stone Barn, and kohlrabi with cheese at Blue Hill;
3. Blue Hill dessert, sponge cake , apple crisp and ice cream

Coming up: Natural History Museum, Manon, and maybe the Neue Galerie on the final day in The Big Bad Apple.

Holita Nolita

I was up early today, and had a light breakfast in the hotel. The Cafe serves pastries and bagels from Balthazar and Ess-a-Bagels, both famous institutions in themselves, so I am in breakfast heaven (ironically I ordered steel cut oats!).

I headed down to Le Labo in Nolita for custom mixed fragrances from Grasse (the home of French perfumes) and ordered two scented candles and a musky flavored spray.

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Next I managed to get a seat at Balthazar for a bar lunch of scrambled eggs and mushrooms in a puff pastry and a glass of champagne.

I ripped back up to the Theater District to catch “the Heidi Chronicles”, then returned by subway with relative ease to the Ramen Lab for a quick dinner. After waiting outside in line for over an hour, I finally was able to get a seat at the bar at the Ramen Lab (what’s with these “labs”?). It was worth the wait, since I wasn’t dying to get home or go anywhere else. The noodles were decent but the miso soup and the pork belly were superb. The seat at the bar was moot, as the restaurant is so small. All 10 seats are “at the bar”, with no chairs, no stools, nada.

When the chef heard I was from San Francisco, he asked me if I had heard of the Ramen Shop in Oakland. He had worked there last summer for three weeks. The hostess told me she loves Tartine and Bi-Rite. She goes there every time she’s in SF. I was tempted to ask her if she had imported the idea of long lines from there to create hype for this place.

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People in photo above showing the noodle bar appear to be seated, but in fact they are standing. The bowl of noodles looks innocuous, but was delicious, particularly after waiting in the cold outside for so long. A guaranteed thumbs up no matter what the food tastes like, eh? All of these food and mood shops are within walking distance of the Spring Street Station Number 6 line near NY Chinatown.

My last destination, the Storefront for Art and Architecture, was no where to be found. In its place, I discovered a spanking new building just before hitting Nolita. It looked a little out of place among the old brick warehouses along the Bowery. It turned out to be the new campus of the Cooper Union.

I ventured inside and asked whether anyone knew who the architect was. The guard and a student shrugged their shoulders and one finally out of desperation uttered that they thought it was some blankety blank architect from CALIFORNIA. The style and design looked familiar, but the name danced on the tip of my tongue. When I found out later who it was, it seemed obvious. Anyone willing to guess?!? (Hint: we have a building in San Francisco by this well-known architect).

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Photos above: exterior and interior of the Cooper Union, by___.

Footnote: the Heidi Chronicles started out on a light note, but ended up being emotionally draining for me. In that respect I enjoyed it. It’s a boomer story of a woman who studied art history at Vassar (hmm…). After recounting each decade of her life with familiar friends, the lead character tries to make sense of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Maybe not for all, but I could relate to this story.

On the menu tomorrow: “It’s Only a Play” with Martin Short” and Blue Hill with Rik

The Mighty Mets

My focus for the Metropolitan Museum was to see the Central Asian and Silk Road related items to reinforce my understanding of the intercourse between East and West.

(You can tap on one photo to get full screen views in a slide show. Give time for them to upload.)

These are examples of Central Asian Art, beginning with the establishment of Islamic religion around 700AD through the reign of Timur or Tamarlane around 1350. If you remember from my travels in Samarqand and Bokhara, Timur’s base was there but he and his descendants conquered Iran, India, and everything in between.

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At the museum, huge scale entry gates, temple facades, and rooms or courtyards installed in large rooms or areas help visitors understand the architectural scale and context of various cultures. Above is the neo classical facade of a U.S. Bank from Wall Street. Below is the description and view of Assyrian entry gateposts. The map shows the location of various products traded throughout the world, including slaves from Africa, spices from East Indies, and chocolate from Mexico.

Here are a few selected Chinese items from the extensive Asian wing (only the first item is Silk Road related):


1. Horses and camels were coveted from Tang period when they were first traded from the Ferghana Valley, the narrow passage between China and Today’s Uzbekistan. The woman wears headgear to protect her from sand and dust.
2. Ming scholar’s room displaying furniture from period.
3. Bronze wine vessel that depicts serpent on cover and handle. Steam comes out of mouth when wine is hot.

Another “MET” addendum, from the Metopera: curtain call for Don Giovanni by Mozart. 19th century writers admired Mozart as one of the first musicians to tackle deeper psychological aspects of human triumph and tragedy in the main characters.
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Photo: Opera cast with Kate Lindsey and Peter Mattei, and Guest Conductor Alan Gilbert congratulating his orchestra.

Sorry, sports fans, I didn’t make it to any NY Mets baseball game, as the season hasn’t opened yet (Or that I am aware of; unless they are training elsewhere I don’t think they schedule games on snow-covered baseball fields!). Otherwise I coulda hit a triple!