ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Meet Drogen, the unflappable equine star of SF Opera’s “Carmen”—he’s from Penngrove and is a rare Gyspy Vanner

Drogen, a 13 year-old Gypsy Vanner gelding owned by Eugene Power, of Novato, and boarded at Caryn and Howard Hoeflein’s Sky High Ranch in Penngrove.  Drogen steals the show in Carmen, which opened SF Opera’s summer season on June 5 and runs through June 29.  Photo: Hannah Beebe

There’s nothing like an extra-large, adorable animal on stage to get an audience oohing and ahhing and that’s exactly how Drogen, a 13-year-old horse from Penngrove, has become the most talked about star of SF Opera’s Carmen.  Of course, the singers are wonderful and Bizet’s familiar music is as enthralling as ever but the chatter has been all about the bullfighter Escamillo’s horse, which bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen rides on stage for his rousing Act II Toreador aria, “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre.”  Drogen makes another brief appearance in Act IV, the final moments of the opera, when he dramatically carries in the heroine Carmen, soprano J’Nai Bridges, and she dismounts into Escamillo’s arms.

I was delighted to learn that Drogen is stabled in Penngrove, at Sky High Ranch, just a few miles from my country home.  His handler, Caryn Hoeflein of Sky High Ranch, appears on stage as an extra in the opera and works with Drogen to ensure all goes as planned for his two stage appearances.

Drogen is a 13-year old Gypsy Vanner—a rare and gorgeous breed of draft horse first bred in Europe to pull Romani (gypsy) caravans in the UK, and introduced into the US by an enamored Florida couple, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, in 1996.  Gypsy Vanners are captivating in motion because of their flowing feathers, the thick, long silky hair that starts at roughly the cannon bone of the leg and grows down and completely around the hoof.  Gypsy Vanners have always been bred for temperament too, as they needed to be able to pull heavy wagons and work with a family.  At nearly 16 hands high, Drogen is a very big boy in terms of the breed standard.

Drogen’s current owner, Eugene Power, of Novato, bought him as a private trail horse in the wake of the deadly fires last November in Paradise, CA.  Drogen had spent ten years as the loving trail horse of a family that lost everything in the fires except their three horses.  Exhausted and devastated by their loss, the owner and her daughter sold Drogen so that he could have the home and stability they could no longer provide.  Caryn Hoeflein remembers the happy day last November when Drogen arrived at Sky High Ranch, “He became a part of our family too.”  Hoeflein, who has ridden since she was a young girl, has encountered many rare horse breeds but Drogen is the first Gypsy Vanner she’s worked with.

Handsome and then some…Drogen. Photo: Hannah Beebe

When Hoeflein was first approached by Gary Sello of Indian Valley Carriage Company in Novato about providing a horse for SFO’s summer production of Carmen, her initial reaction was no. “I kind of laughed and thought no way. Generally, you don’t bring a horse into a building like that, through an elevator and up on stage with people singing, an orchestra, and a crowd…what goes through your head is everything that could go wrong.”  Hoeflein mulled it over with Drogen’s owner, factoring in Drogen’s recent experience at Petaluma’s Butter & Egg Days Parade—a big, long, noisy parade with loudspeakers, kids, balloons and general chaos.  “He really handled that very well, so I thought we’d give this a try.  I’m really glad we did.  It has been an absolute blast and everyone at the opera house has been bent over backwards to address my concerns and to make sure that Drogen is comfortable and happy.”

Before Drogen’s first visit to the opera house, Hoeflein had him fit with equine sneakers—think Sketchers…wide thick comfortable rubber shoes—so he wouldn’t slip on the painted plywood stage.  Also, all the areas he walks on within the opera house were carpeted, which helps muffle the noise of him walking around backstage and helps with his sense of secure footing.  His route was also outlined in white tape to ensure that, in low light, Hoeflein could find her way through the house.

 

Drogen’s handler Caryn Hoeflein, Sky High Ranch, Penngrove, makes two appearances with Drogen in Carmen.  She’s a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo but uses a gentle approach with all the horses she works with.  Prior to Carmen, Hoeflein had never attended an opera.  Her husband and two boys, ages 10 and 13, attended both the final dress rehearsal and last Thursday’s performance and came away proud and loving opera.  Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Just like any other SF Opera artist, Drogen has an SFO ID badge and, when he enters the opera house; he stops for a security check.  Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen wears equine sneakers. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen’s view of the house, sans audience, from the SFO stage. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

Drogen’s introduction to the stage was a gradual build-up over several visits.  At first, he went in and out of the opera house entrance.   Then, he ventured further into the house, which entails going through another set of doors after the security desk and walking through a freight elevator to get backstage.  Then, he was led onto the stage to get a good look around.  He got used to the large crowd on stage and then they sang.  Then, Escamillo mounted Drogen in the backstage area and Hoeflein led them both on stage for his aria, which is what really melts hearts in the audience.  They were three or four practice runs in before they added the full orchestra, which turned out to be a non-issue for sweet Drogen.  He seemed to find Bizet’s music soothing.  Nonetheless, Drogen wears foam earplugs for every performance, which helps muffle the music and cheering.  For the scene with Carmen, they did the same gradual build up with J’Nai Bridges.

Neither Kyle Ketelsen nor J’Nai Bridges had ridden much before and came up to Sky High Ranch to meet Drogen before the first performance.  It was one of those unexpectedly stormy days we had this spring, so all the rehearsing, including Kyle singing, was done inside the barn.  You can see that here.

Since most of Drogen’s performances are in the evenings, Caryn gives him a bath around 1 pm, shampooing his whole body, washing and conditioning his mane and tail and paying special attention to his feathers, which are “dirt magnets.”  He is served a hearty lunch (a pelleted complete stable mix, which helps him keep his weight up) and eats al fresco, air drying in the sun.  Hoeflein braids his mane and tail so that they are lush and wavy for his performance.  For the ride down to SF, he wears a lightweight equine cotton sheet.  They pack up and leave about 2.5 hours before the performance and their first entrance is about an hour into the show.

“I save his dinner (hay) for after we arrive so he has something to do while waiting,” says Hoeflein, who parks on the sidewalk of the opera house near the lawn area.  She takes him out of the trailer upon arrival, gets him ready, and then loads him back in the trailer until about 10 min before he makes his stage appearance.  “I leave him in the trailer while I go inside and get my chaps on.  He’s very comfortable in his trailer and this keeps the crowd away.  Everyone wants a photo and that can cause some anxiety.”

Caryn Hoeflein leads Drogen and Escamillo (bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen) on stage for Carmen’s Act II Toreador aria.  Surrounded by a singing crowd, Drogen is every bit the pro.  Photo: Cory Weaver

 

Drogen returns in Act IV.  Hoeflein mounts in the parking lot, rides through several sets of doors and backstage and then moves Drogen over to a large set of stairs.  J’Nai Bridges (Carmen) mounts bareback, sidesaddle style (with both legs on one side), and sits right behind Hoeflein.  They have about 2 min before the signal to get on stage.  Hoeflein rides Bridges out to front of the stage.  While the chorus is singing, Bridges extends her arms and Escamillo helps her off Drogen.  Hoeflein rides to an area in the back of the stage and waits for about 30 seconds while they do their scene and then rides Drogen backstage and they exit the opera house. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen’s original owner attended last Friday’s performance, their first reunion since his sale.  She loved the performance and Drogen received a special surprise—jolly rancher candies.  “Putting him up for sale was so hard for her,” said Hoeflein, “but she is very happy that he has a wonderful home now and she feels she made the right choice.”

Prior to his appearances at SF Opera, Drogen led a quiet life.  In fact, as a trail horse, all he had ever been asked to do was walk and trot; he rarely cantered.  If there were ever an inspirational story about life as a senior, it’s his—Drogen has embraced life in the fast lane and the attention lavished on him on the SFO stage.

Details: There are 3 remaining performances of Carmen at SF Opera:  Sun, 6/23 (2 pm); Wed, 6/26 (7:30 pm) and Sat, 6/29 (7:30 pm).  Run time is 2 hours and 47 min.  Tickets:  www.sfopera.com, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave.  Tickets are extremely limited and most performances are sold out.

Sky High Ranch’s Facebook page: click here.

 

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June 22, 2019 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meet Richard Savino, whose baroque instruments add period splendor to Handel’s “Orlando,” at SF Opera through June 27

Grammy-nominated guitarist/lutenist Richard Savino who makes a special appearance with the SFO Orchestra for Handel’s Orlando at SFO.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

When Handel’s baroque opera Orlando, opened June 9 at San Francisco Opera, guitarist and lutenist Richard Savino was the most sought after musician in the pit.  The grammy-nominated musician, making a special appearance with SF Opera, is one of the world’s foremost early music instrumentalists. His playing was magnetic and stood out, even among the rich arias in this must-see production. Savino spent much of the intermissions fielding questions from fascinated attendees about his theorbo and baroque guitar.  The theorbo is a guitar-like instrument with a very long neck—as long as six feet—with two sets of strings— a longer set tuned with pegs at the top of the fret board (for the deeper range) and a shorter set tuned by pegs on the sides of the fret board (for the higher range).  Savino also doubles in certain parts of the opera on baroque guitar.  His buoyant playing stands out in most parts of Orlando but is heard most clearly in the recitatives—the dialogue that moves the story forward.  Once you recognize his sound, it’s easy to find.  There is a lot of improvisation for Savino as Handel didn’t orchestrate Orlando but provided just the chord changes.  The musicians of the continuo ensemble—Christopher Moulds (conductor/ harpsichord), Ronny Michael Greenberg (harpsichord), David Kadarach (cello)—work together and improvise much like a jazz rhythm section, deciding together how the music will be voiced.  In person, Savino’s personality is just as energetic and engaging as his playing and his passions run wide.  He has given important works that haven’t been performed in centuries their premiere recordings and has developed a fascinating sideline, providing musical accompaniment to art works held in the world’s most elite collections and putting together programs on early artists and period music.  Savino was eager to talk about his music, Orlando and his numerous projects:

 

How did you come to early music and why? Your bio indicates you dabbled in rock and roll and then jazz fusion first which strikes me as unusual path.

Richard Savino:  For me, it was all very logical.  I love the Beatles and listened to them all the time.  At their core, they were rock and roll as well as pop musicians, but they were also very influenced by all epochs of classical music, including baroque music.  One reason for this is because George Martin, their producer, was a classically trained composer.  They used the harpsichord on a number of their songs and many others fall within the classical/romantic cannon.  In particular, they had a real fascination with music from the baroque era and contemporary music of the ’60s.  Listen to Penny Lane, a Tin Pan Alley kind of pop song that has a piccolo trumpet solo.  This is because Paul McCartney heard a piccolo trumpet player play Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto.  Then, listen to A Day in the Life, with its incredible orchestration.  Both songs are magnificent.

I also played rock when I was in high school and I always sang too.  I won a high school vocal competition in a school of 4,000 students.  A couple of years before me, the person who won that same competition was Pat Benatar.  I was always in choirs, so I knew the Bach cantatas, Handel, so forth.  When I went to the State University at Stony Brook, I began to have a strong interest in classical guitar, and I was lucky enough to have a wonderful teachers, in particular Jerry Willard, Oscar Ghiglia, my dear friend/colleague Eliot Fisk, and harpsichordist Albert Fuller who would have a huge impact on my life.  Interestingly, every classical guitarist studies early music because the canon for our repertoire is so rich.  I was also one of the last group of students to study with Andres Segovia.  Unlike most other instruments, guitarists are required to study early music from the 16th and 17th centuries.  The weirdest part is that I went from being a rock and roll guy to studying classical guitar to playing the theorbo and baroque guitar.  I love the Spanish canon that Segovia brought to our consciousness.

 

Most early music specialists tend to focus on the baroque and early renaissance periods but you are also very engaged with the classical music of the 19th century and play instruments from that period as well.  What accounts for your unusually broad scope?  

Richard Savino:  One could say it’s a lot of ADD.  I love playing music from all epochs and the guitar flourished during the 19th century.  It has quite an extensive solo and chamber repertoire.  The 19th century guitar is very different from the classical guitar.  It’s much smaller, more intimate and is the perfect bridge between the guitars of the 18th century and the modern classical guitars; it’s a transitional instrument.  I just love playing it.  Early in my career, I went out of my way to specialize in late 18th and early 19th century chamber music.  And while I love playing solo pieces, I also realized that the world can only sustain a certain number of solo classical guitarists and I am too much a social an animal.  I really enjoyed playing with other musicians, so I went down that path which led me directly into playing basso continuo and other plucked stringed instruments like the theorbo and baroque guitar, which I play in Orlando at SF Opera.  But I still love playing the 6 string guitar and my first recordings were for the Harmonia Mundi label and featured the complete Boccherini Guitar Quintets, which no one had ever recorded before on instruments from the epoch.  A couple of my other recordings that I’m really proud of are the romantic miniatures titled Bardenklänge by Johann Kaspar Mertz, and my recording of Mauro Giuliani’s Op. 30 Concerto, which, I believe, is the only one of its kind that is performed on period instruments with NO cuts.

 

Can you give an example of a moment in SF Opera’s production of Orlando that you have come to love through experiencing it performed?

Richard Savino:  I can’t actually watch because I’m playing but, during rehearsals, I was constantly standing up to try and see what was going on because I knew it was a contemporary adaptation set in WWII.  In a musical context, I have been very moved by the Act 1 duo between Anjelica and Medoro, “Ritornava al suo bel viso” and Orlando’s “Fammi combattere” at the beginning of the opera, and Orlando’s Act 3 aria, “Gia l’ebro mio ciglio,” which is so beautiful with the two violas that have this gorgeous full cadenza at the end of it.

Handel is a remarkable genius and I’ve played many of his operas with Glimmerglass Opera, Opera Colorado, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Santa Fe.  He is the great chameleon of all composers.  When he lived in Italy, he wrote like an Italian; when he lived in England, he composed like a Brit; and when he lived in Germany, he composed like a high German composer.  What is amazing is his ability to set music to different languages.  For example, when he was in Rome, he went to Naples and was asked to write a piece for one of the Spanish viceroys and it’s his only piece that I know of that is in Spanish.  I happened to record it a few years ago with my period ensemble group, El Mundo, on the album The Kingdoms of Castille (2012) which was nominated for a Grammy.  Handel just how to absorb the style, the native musical, as well as spoken language.

 

What is the continuo and what is its function in a baroque opera such as Orlando.  How do you work?? 

Richard Savino:  It came about at the turn of the 17th century and was meant to be a quasi-improvised manner of performing that would respond to the way the singers would sing a particular piece.  It was the consequence of the meetings of the Florentine Camarata, a group of humanists that included Giulio Caccini, Vincenzo Galilei and Jacobo Peri, who got together to emulate Greek oratory and music.  They hypothesized about how it must have entailed spontaneity and improvisation between poets, singers and how it would be accompanied by a lyre.  That was the birth of monody, the initial basis of opera.  Much of these early operas by Monteverdi, Caccini, Peri and Cesti consist of collections of these little monodies which consist of a bassline and harmony that supports a singer, much like the way the rhythm section functions in a jazz combo.  Today, when I’m playing with the continuo, I’m looking at a bassline, and am enhancing that.  The idea is to reflect the affection of the text and to create some sort of dialogue with the singer and reflect their interpretation of what’s going on and that’s a gas.

Richard Savino with his theorbo in the orchestra pit at War Memorial Opera House. The theorbo was an important instrument through the Renaissance and baroque eras. The last historical compositions written with the theorbo in mind appeared about 1750.  Savino plays a modern copy.  His theorbo has a very long neck and two sets of strings which are plucked—a longer set tuned with pegs at the top of the fret board (for the deeper range), and a shorter set tuned by pegs on the sides of the fret board (for the higher range).  Photo: Geneva Anderson

What is so special about the theorbo and the sound it produces?

Richard Savino:  First there’s understanding why the theorbo is different–it’s shaped like a lute, with a larger bowl size, no flat back, and it’s single strung, so you can pluck it harder because when you have double strings you can’t pluck very hard because they will rattle against each other.  Usually, it has 14 strings and quite long strings. The longer the string length, the lower the pitch.  The instrument has a very odd tuning in which the highest pitch string is the third string from the top and has a very strong middle and bass register with quite a few extended base strings which I pluck with my right hand thumb.  Those pop out like a cannon.  Just the other day, someone told me the other day that I was quite audible (a big compliment to a lute player) but I have always focused on projection.  I play loudly and you have to project to fill a really big hall.  The theorbo provides the bass fundamental and, sometimes, I’ll play the bassline or  just part of the bassline with some chords.

 

What is tricky about playing both the theorbo and baroque guitar in Orlando?

Richard Savino:  In this production, I’m playing just about everything—almost every recit and aria; there are just a couple that I don’t play.  In the second half, my hand just begs for a break.  Handel’s orchestra would have had two of me, so someone could take over.  Here, it is constant because the recitative moves so fast.  Some are conducive to the instrument; some would be conducive to the archlute, which looks like a theorbo but is tuned differently and is more conductive to flat keys.  The theorbo is more conducive to keys that are in the sharp side of our harmonic language.  I’m covering both players in one.  Playing continuo really keeps your brain sharp and focused.  You have to keep track of the tunings of the different instruments when you switch instruments and change your fingerings accordingly.  On one instrument, one fingering will produce the A chord and on another it’s the G chord and so on.

 

What is the difference between an original and a copy of a baroque instrument like the theorbo or guitar and what do you play?

Richard Savino:  I play very accurate copies in Orlando and, as far as we can ascertain, it’s the same sound. These are very delicate instruments and most that have survived from the 17th century suffered from some degree of neglect and damage.  I have a couple of very early guitars in my collection but nothing earlier than 1800.  I play copies of instruments that would have been built in the late 17th century and would have been part of a player’s arsenal.  I know private collectors who own some of these originals and I can say that very good copies do sound very close to the originals in their present state.  But every instrument in and of itself sounds a bit different.

 

In Orlando, Richard Savino plays a modern copy of a baroque guitar.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

The main difference between the guitar and lute and the way they were played is that the guitar, in its baroque incarnation, was strummed and provided expressive rhythm, dance melodies and dramatic battle scenes.  In SFO’s Orlando, Savino strums as well as plucks his guitar. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

Orlando marks Christopher Moulds’ (SF Opera conductor/ harpsichord) debut with SF Opera.  What does he bring to the production?

Richard Savino:  What I love about him is that he is an expert on period instruments, very well-educated and an intense worker who is demanding but never insulting.  I’d never worked with him before, but I got to know him a little before the production by exchanging emails.  He was very open and conversant, whereas a good number of conductors can be very removed.  He knows how to talk with and work with the orchestra.  A lot of period instrument conductors will talk down to the orchestra which isn’t fair really because, nowadays, orchestras tend to specialize predominantly in romantic and more contemporary repertoire.  That means a lot of the musicians haven’t touched this music in a very long time.  Chris was really good at communicating his ideas.

 

Vermeer’s “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” (1670-72), owned by the Leiden Collection, has so far been lent to the Pushkin, the Hermitage and Louvre Abu Dhabi.  For the descriptive video on the Leiden Collection’s website, Savino selected a sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi performed by his ensemble group, El Mundo on strings, harpsichord and lute.  The music’s mood echoes the sobriety of the painting.  Image: courtesy, The Leiden Collection

I’m interested in all your art and music projects—there’s something magical in bringing together different art forms. Tell me about your collaboration with Thomas S. Kaplan, the billionaire metals investor and founder of the Leiden Collection.  I understand that these artworks are being lent all over the world and the music from this same period, that matches them so well, is getting exposure.  What a beautiful project!

 

Richard Savino:  The Leiden Collection is fabulous; it’s the largest collection of privately owned 17th century Dutch paintings in the world—Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Gerrit Dou.  It was founded in 2003 by Thomas S. Kaplan, an art collector from New York, and his wife Daphne Recanti Kaplan.  He was putting together an online catalogue to accompany the part of his collection that tours and asked me to do the soundtracks which accompany his video discussions of each of the paintings.  I did 25 of these, some of which I recorded in the middle of the night in my bedroom and some were taken from tracks that I had recorded previously.  These can be seen and heard on the Leiden Collection in their video section.

 

Collector Thomas S. Kaplan acquired Rembrandt’s “Bust of a Bearded Old Man” (1633) in 2008 and calls it “the jewel in the crown” of The Leiden Collection.  Rembrandt’s smallest known painting, about the size of a baseball card, and the only privately-owned grisaille by the artist in private hands.  Savino plays an early 18th century prelude by Giovanni Zamboni on the archlute which accompanies a video of the artwork as it is unpacked from its crate and held in Kaplan’s hands for the first time. Photo: courtesy The Leiden Collection

 

How did you go about creating the music for each of these paintings?  Did you have free rein?

Richard Savino:  First of all, when I was called and they described it, I thought it was an eight to nine month long project.  But surprise!  They wanted it in a month, so I had to do it very very fast.  I had just had some minor surgery and didn’t even know if I could hold an instrument, much less meet the deadline.  It was a difficult project too.  They wanted music that was epoch appropriate, no later than the early 18th century, preferably late 17th century, luckily repertoire that I had recorded.  I also needed to record some new material so I set up a studio in my practice room at home and, right after the surgery, I started.  They sent me the script, basic mock-ups and I’d get an idea of the kind of piece I wanted.  It was important that the music conformed to the subject matter and the painting itself and, then, I had to match it to the cadence of the speech and be appropriate for the camera and scene cuts/shifts that were part of the video.  It was very challenging.  I remember being up at 3 a.m. in my studio, recording, and then editing and matching it to the video.

 

You’ve also done projects on Francisco Goya and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Richard Savino:  I’ve done quite a few of these.  In fact, I’m doing a Goya program here in San Francisco next May as part of the Humanities West series, Artistic Responses to Napoleon: Beethoven, Goya and Goethe (May 1-2, 2020).  I’ve prepared a multi-media program, Music in the Time of Goya, with music from Soler, Courselle, Boccherini and Sor that will be performed by my chamber ensemble El Mundo.  Works by Goya will be projected throughout the concert. The program was created for the Aston Magna Festival and Milano Classica.

Humanities West actually came about from a project back East, the Aston Magna Academy of Music, whose founder was Albert Fuller, one of my mentors.  It turned me on to this whole idea of interdisciplinary perspectives and putting music into a sociopolitical context which addressed literature, art, architecture and sociopolitical trends.  I attended as a participant in the 1980’s and 1990’s and was later asked to be a guest artistic director and have done that on several occasions.  Right now, I am preparing a program on Rubens with music from Holland, Italy, England, and Spain by Caccini, Frescobaldi, Marin, Arañes, and others for Aston Magna’s summer music festival this July.  My project on the Art and Life of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi received its debut at Aston Magna which then developed into the 2015 cd, What Artemisia Heard; Music from the Time of Caravaggio & Gentileschi.

 

Savino wondered why the music of Artemisia Gentileschi’s time was not as widely appreciated as the visual arts of the era. He decided to integrate the painting of Artemisia and her contemporaries directly with the music these painters would have heard at the time from composers Uccellini, Kapsberger, Ferrari, Frescobaldi, Mazzocchi, Gagliano, Caccini, Piccinini, Castello, Monteverdi, Corbetta, Falconieri, Rossi, Giramo, and Lanier. This evolved into a 2015 cd performed by Savino’s period instrument ensemble, El Mundo, along with distinguished soloists. Photo: courtesy Sono Luminous.

 

How did you go about selecting the pieces for the cd and evoking Artemesia’s struggle to lead her life as an independent woman?

Richard Savino:  Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in Rome in 1593, was one of the most impressive persons in the history of western civilization; she also was one of the most talented.  She suffered great pain surrounding her rape by Tassi and the trial that found him guilty, but there were moments of beauty and intimacy too. She was friends with a number of composers, and was very close to the very talented Francesca Caccini, who was at the Medici Court and composed the first published opera by a woman.   For the cd, I matched the music to the different cultural environments Artemisia found herself in after the trial.  She traveled widely and lived as a completely independent person, which is remarkable for a 17th century woman.

“DOMINICUS PEREGRINUS Bononiaensis,” engraving, signed “Fontana F,” (17.7 cm x 24.6 cm).  The cover to Domenico Pellegrini Bolognese’s 1650 book of guitar music.  Of note are the long fingernails.

 

Has art provided you with any interesting insights about music centuries ago?  Like the how musicians held their instruments or their nail length?

Richard Savino:  Absolutely, but you have to be careful with that as, sometimes, it’s an affected gesture and they are posing with their instruments rather than holding it the way they would play it.  With the nails, there’s this whole thing in the period instrument world about whether the “pluckers” played with nails.  I’ve seen numerous paintings by both anonymous and well known artists that do actually depict players with long nails.  An important work is the cover engraving to Domenico Pellegrini’s book of guitar music that was published in 1650.  It shows him with his right hand extended with long fingernails.  In addition to guitar, we know that he also played lute with the ensemble based at San Petronio, the major cathedral in Bologna.  We also know about these kinds of performance “practices” from the tutorials themselves.  I’ve learned that it was dependent on country and climate.  In Italy, they used fingernails because they played outdoors in cathedrals and they had to be louder, same with Spain.  In France and England, where it rained a lot, they played indoors and it was a much more intimate space and they played without for the most part.  With nails, you can project more, which some find less refined, more aggressive and in your face.

 

You mentioned that you studied with Segovia? What was that like? A memorable moment?

Richard Savino:  I played at the Metropolitan Museum for him and he actually yanked the guitar out of my hand and said ‘You should never play this piece again.’  Because this was filmed by PBS and shown on CBS Sunday morning, it gave me a degree of notoriety.  At  that stage of my life, all publicity, was good publicity.  To be fair, it was a piece he didn’t like and it was also my attitude—that I even thought of playing it for him—that he found so irritating.  But it was like meeting Buddha.  I was in front of this larger than life figure.  I also studied with him at the Conservatoire du Musique in Geneva, and was lucky enough to have a few private lessons with him in New York

 

Before we began our formal interview, you alluded to a new musical discovery you’d made…is this a historical find, something that will likely be recorded?

Richard Savino:  It consists of a collection of cantatas by some of the most important early 18th century Spanish composers.  I will edit the music and record it as an El Mundo project.  I’m a very good sleuth.  I uncovered these personally in a collection in Spain where they should not have been located.  I had heard a rumor about some wonderful other pieces and, while trying to track those down in an archive, these literally fell out of a book and are a gold mine.

 

Details: Orlando has two remaining performances at War Memorial Opera House: June 21 and 27, 2019, both at 7:30 p.m.  Run time is 3 hours and 20 min.  Tickets:  www.sfopera.com, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave.

Richard Savino’s ensemble group, El Mundo, will perform a program of 18th century music from Latin America with the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus in October 2019.

June 21, 2019 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

MTT, SF Symphony, and Mahler’s 9th—Friday magic!

MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) stepping up to the podium for his third of four ovations at Davies Hall last night for Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.  San Francisco Symphony performs the Ninth two more times, on Saturday and Sunday, before MTT takes a leave of absence for heart surgery. Photo: Geneva Anderson

MTT delivered pure magic at Davies last night, directing San Francisco Symphony in a electrifying performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, that drew four ovations from the audience.  ARThound was lucky enough to have a seat in the front orchestra, third row, streaming the transcendent sound full on.  The Ninth, Mahler’s landmark last symphony, is a 90-minute-long emotional voyage through the passing of time that was composed when Mahler himself was coping with a serious heart condition.  He didn’t live long enough to ever rehearse or premiere it, passing in Vienna in May 1911 at age 50.  Of course, times are different now.  Two weeks ago, it was announced that MTT, 74, will take a leave of absence from June 17 through September 3 to have (unspecified) cardiac surgery in Cleveland for a chronic condition and to rest up before embarking on his 25th season with SFS.  This will be his final season before turning over the reins to Esa-Pekka Salonen.

MTT has often said that the whole purpose of his music-making is passing things on.  In January 1974, he made his conducting debut with SFS with Mahler’s Ninth.  Under MTT, SF Symphony has won seven Grammy Awards for its recordings of Mahler Symphonies 3,6,7,8, and 10.  Last night, he looked weary but connected deeply with his orchestra, often guiding them with ever slight gestures such as the wriggling of a finger and they responded with a performance that we felt in our hearts and bones. Good luck MTT!

Details:  SF Symphony performs Mahler’s Ninth on Saturday, June 15, at 8pm and Sunday, June 16, at 2pm.  For tickets and more information, click here.

June 15, 2019 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adoptees piece together Korean identities that bind them to a homeland they never knew: Deann Borshay Liem’s “Geographies of Kinship” has its world premiere Sunday at CAAMFest 2019

Emmy-winning Bay Area filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem (L) and subject Estelle Cooke-Sampson (R), a retired general and state surgeon for the District of Columbia National Guard, at Cooke-Sampson’s home in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C..  Liem’s new documentary, “Geographies of Kinship,” (2019) has its world premiere at CAAMFest 2019 and is the festival’s closing night film.  Cooke-Sampson was adopted from a Korean orphanage at age 6 and raised in the U.S.  She is one of over 200,000 South Korean children adopted from Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53) and part of a much smaller pool of mixed-race children whose parentage was a source of stigma in Korea.  After years of searching, Cooke-Sampson found a picture of herself as a child in a Korean orphanage, but she still knows little about her birth parents except that her birth father was most likely an African-American soldier.  Liem, Cooke-Sampson, and subject adoptee-activist Kim Stoker will be in attendance.  Image: Allison Shelley, courtesy of CAAMFest

Bay Area filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem’s new documentary Geographies of Kinship aptly has its world premiere this Sunday (May 19) at CAAMFest 2019, the annual festival that showcases Asian American filmmakers and artists and Asian stories from all over the globe.  Borshay Liem is an ARThound favorite.  I’ve written about her award-winning adoption documentaries “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” (2010) and First Person Plural (2000), both of which explored her own adoption story and the reconciling of her Korean and American identities.  She has a remarkable gift for weaving together personal stories to create a living tapestry of collective history and, through her films, she has brought crucial awareness of the tensions within many Korean adoptees over their experiences.

Geographies of Kinship explores yet another facet of Korean adoption.   Borshay Liem tracks four adult adoptees who were raised in foreign families as they return to South Korea to reclaim their personal histories and make sense of the complex trajectories of their lives.  The stories are all immensely captivating, revealing the lifelong emotional struggles that many adoptees (Korean or not) face around identity and the struggles that are unique to trans-racial adoptees.  She employs riveting images—black and white newsreel clips, U.S. military footage, archival photos, propaganda posters—to frame the complex political, social and historical forces that set the post-war Korean adoption machine in motion and its messy aftermath.  Stay tuned to ARThound: I interviewed Liem last week and will be posting the interview shortly.

Details:  Geographies of Kinship (80 min) screens twice at CAAMFest 2019— Sunday, May 19, 2019, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Roxie Theater,  3117 16th Street, San Francisco. Expected guests:  Deann Borshay Liem (Director), Estelle Cooke-Sampson (Subject) and Kim Stoker (Subject). Purchase $20 tickets direct from CAAMFest here.

 

May 17, 2019 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFFilm Festival 2019—here are the films to see this weekend

All the way from Kenya! Emmy and Peabody winning filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone will be at the San Francisco’s Castro Theater in conversation for Saturday’s screening of their stirring new documentary, The Elephant Queen. The film follows the impact of drought on Athena, a 50-year-old giant husker elephant matriarch and her youngsters who are forced to undertake a perilous migration across the savanna to ensure their survival. No ordinary nature film, this was four years in the making.  Deeble’s intimate cinematography shines a light on the refined intelligence and distinct personalities of these unforgettable animals as well as the interrelationships of various species they co-exist with.  Narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor with extraordinary shots of the elephants and their animal world, this film will resonate on the big screen with a huge audience and engaging conversation about the chain of survival. Photo: Deeble & Stone Productions

SFFilm Festival 2019 has been off and running since April 10.  This extraordinary showcase for cinema, now in its 62nd edition, just keeps getting better and better.  One has to wonder why it’s had such a difficult time with leadership—the latest debacle is the April 1 announcement of executive director Noah Cowan’s resignation after just five years at the helm.  Cowan rebranded the festival from the San Francisco International Film Festival to SFFilm Festival and, under his tenure, festival attendance has grown each year for the past three years according to festival sources.   This year’s festival seems to be running quite smoothly, presenting 163 films and live events from 52 countries in 36 languages with over 200 filmmakers in attendance.  As the festival enters its final weekend, there are plenty of great films to be seen.   Here are ARThound’s recommendations:

 

Friday/Berkeley: Walking on Water

A still from Andrey Panouov’s documentary, Walking on Water of famed installation artist, Christo, at the summer 2016 press opening of his and Jeanne-Claude’s “Floating Piers” project at Italy’s Lake Iseo.  Christo’s first large-scale project since “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park (2005).  Image: SFFilm

There’s something about Christo and his unflinching passion, brilliant wit and stubbornness that has enthralled the world for decades, making any film about this intriguing artist a must-see.   Bulgarian filmmaker Andrey Paounov’s The Floating Piers (2018) chronicles the evolution and realization of Christo and the late Jeanne Claude’s 2016 site-specific work, The Floating Piers, which created a golden path that stretched for two miles across northern Italy’s rustic Lake Iseo.  The idea: let people experience walking on water.  Designed as a gently undulating walkable surface, the artwork was an international sensation.  First conceived of in the 1970’s, the highly-engineered project ultimately consisted of 70,000 square meters of yellow fabric, supported by a modular floating dock system of 226,000 high-density polyethylene cubes.  Christo’s strong personality rises once again to do battle with bureaucracy, corruption, and nature.  Coming seven years after the death of his beloved co-creator and life partner, Jeanne-Claude, Christo, age 81 when the project was completed, has painstakingly regrouped and once again asserted his unique vision in a world of skeptics.  (Screens: 3 p.m., Friday, April 19, BAMPFA)

 

Friday/SF & Sunday/Oakland: Meeting Gorbachev

A still from Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s documentary, Meeting Gorbachev (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eight and final president of the Soviet Union, the architect of Perestroika and Glasnost, sits down with iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog to discuss his life and achievements in the fascinating documentary Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer.  As might be expected, it’s an engaging battle of wits as Herzog tries to pierce the Russian’s psyche and Gorbachev emerges resilient, preferring to curate his own story.  Broadening the perspective are interviews with former Polish president Lech Wałęsa, the Bay Area’s George Schultz, and Horst Teltschik, former national security adviser to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the reunification period.  Walesa’s shrewd assessment of Gorbachev’s critical errors seem to resonate even more when we hear then live but, most likely, you’ll come away with a sense of Gorbachev’s charisma and leadership skills.  (Screens: 9 p.m., Friday, April 19, Creativity, SF, and 5 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Grand Lake, Oakland)

 

Friday/SF & Saturday/Berkeley: Honeyland

A still from Macedonian co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary Honeyland, which won the grand jury award at Sundance. Photo: SFFIlm

Macedonian filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary, Honeyland focuses on Hatidze Muratova, the last of Macedonia’s nomadic beekeepers and shines a light on the fragile and deeply poetic relationship between her and her hives.  Hatidze’s harmonious way of life is interrupted when a Turkish family shows up in her remote mountainous stomping grounds and disrespects her sustainable beekeeping practices to turn a quick profit.  Shot by a six person crew who lived beside her for three years, this tender documentary delicately captures a life rarely depicted on screen and sheds light on threats to our environmental balance from an entirely different perspective.  It also features mesmerizing cinematography of rural Macedonia, a land so blessed by the gods that its name and status has been the subject of bitter dispute for centuries. (Screens: 6 p.m., Friday, April 19, Victoria, SF, and 1:30 p.m., Saturday, April 20, BAMPFA, Berkeley)

 

Saturday/ San Francisco: The Elephant Queen

A still from Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone’s documentary, The Elephant Queen (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Vaguely, we know it happens—the annual migration of animals in Africa.  And we assume that as climate change continues to wreak havoc on weather patterns, the stakes are getting higher and higher for animals in the wild.  Kenya-based filmmakers’ Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone’s documentary, The Elephant Queen is a miraculous testament to the ingenuity of animals in the face of unprecedented threats from nature and mankind.  It took four years of living alongside elephants in the African savanna to make their film, which tells the story of the life and death struggle of Athena, a 50 year-old giant tusker elephant as she makes critical decisions to help her family survive during a season drought in Kenya.  Filmmakers Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone in attendance.  (Screens: noon, Saturday, April 20, Castro)

 

Sunday/Oakland:  world premiere, We Believe in Dinosaurs

A still from Clayton Brown and Monica Long’s documentary We Believe in Dinosaurs (2019), about creationism, assembling the contents of Noah’s Ark and America’s perplexing views of science.  Image: SFFilm

Shot over the course of three years, this exceptional doc recounts how the rural community of Williamston, Kentucky, planted firmly in the Bible Belt, supported the creation of a $100 million, 510 foot-long replica of Noah’s Ark, replete with the all the creatures they imagine would have been in the ark.  Their theme park venture, Ark Encounter, was meant to debunk evolution and increase tourism to their community.   Filmmakers Clayton Brown and Monica Long follow the designers and builders of the ark, from the blue prints phase to opening day and present an eye-opening glimpse into all the assumptions and decisions that are made along the way, talking with both proponents and protestors.  Inside the theme park are exhibits showing how the universe is roughly 6,000 years old and how dinosaurs walked with early man.  The assertion is made that dinosaurs were on board Noah’s Ark during the great flood.  Both state and local government got behind the project, questioning the separation of church and state.  Filmmakers Brown and Long will in attendance for what should be a riveting Q & A.  (Screens: 2 p.m., Sunday, April 21 at Grand Lake Theater, Oakland)

 

Sunday/Oakland: Meeting Gorbachev

A still from Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s documentary, Meeting Gorbachev (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eight and final president of the Soviet Union, the architect of Perestroika and Glasnost, sits down with iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog to discuss his life and achievements in the fascinating documentary Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer.  As might be expected, it’s an engaging battle of wits as Herzog tries to pierce the Russian’s psyche and Gorbachev emerges resilient, preferring to curate his own story.  Broadening the perspective are interviews with former Polish president Lech Wałęsa, the Bay Area’s George Schultz, and Horst Teltschik, former national security adviser to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the reunification period.  (Screens: 5 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Grand Lake, Oakland)

 

Sunday/San Francisco: Official Secrets, Closing Night Film

Keira Knightley in a still from Gavin Hood’s political thriller Official Secrets (2019), SFSFilm Festival’s 2019 Closing Night Film. Image: SFFilm

Keira Knightley stars in Gavin Hood’s exciting thriller Official Secrets (2019) as Katharine Gun, the real-life British intelligence translator-turned-whistleblower who leaked classified documents revealing how the U.S. intended to strong-arm the U.N. Security Council into backing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Outraged by a confidential staff email about coercing small countries to vote for a UN Iraq War resolution, she leaks the email to the British press and, after her identity is revealed, she is charged with treason.  The cast couldn’t be better—Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans.  This promises to be an enthralling real-life thriller that will surely hit Bay Area’s theaters but there’s something extra special about SFFilm’s big nights that makes the experience memorable.  (Screens: 8 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Castro)

Details: The 2019 SFFilm Festival is April 10-23, 2019.  Most films are $16 and big nights, awards, tributes, and special events are priced higher.   Advanced ticket purchase is essential as most of the screenings and events sell out.  For full program information and online ticket purchase, visit sffilm.org.  Plan on arriving 30 minutes before each screening to ensure that you are seated in the theater.

April 18, 2019 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 22nd Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off Wednesday—here are your must-see’s

Luminous, emotional, dazzling…if you see just one of SIFF’s 123 films, see Yuli!  Directed by Catalan filmmaker Icíar Bollaín (Take My Eyes) and written by Paul Laverty (I, Daniel Blake) with cinematography by Alex Catalán, this bio-pic follows Cuban dance super-star, Carlos Acosta, from his early life in an impoverished Havana neighborhood as he defies all odds and becomes the first black artist to perform as Romeo at the Royal Ballet in London. Acosta goes on to dance in the world’s leading companies and form his own dance company in Havana.  Bollaín masterfully conveys the pride, frustration and contradictions of living in Castro’s Cuba.  Wonderful performances by Carlos Acosta and the participation of the Acosta Danza Company will raise your heart beat.

Ask anyone who makes the film festival circuit and they’ll tell you that the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF) tops their list for the “best time” fests–good film, incredible atmosphere, great parties and music, and the Backlot tent’s superb food and unending flow of wine and craft booze.  The 22nd edition of this gem kicks off Wednesday, March 27, with an opening-night reception at the Backlot Tent from 5 to 7 pm, followed by two screenings of Bruce Beresford’s new period drama, Ladies in Black. SIFF continues in full force Thursday through Sunday offering some 123 films from 31 countries with an anticipated 200 filmmakers in attendance who will participate in on stage interviews and audience Q&A’s.  All films are shown at seven intimate venues within walking distance of Sonoma’s historic plaza so there’s no driving, just meandering charming streets where all the plants are beginning their glorious spring bloom.

SIFF has lots to offer both locals and destination visitors.  Festival passes are the way to go if you’re interested in easy access to films, the marvelous parties, and the Backlot tent.  If you want to see a few films, single tickets are $15 when purchased in advance.  SIFF caters heavily to pass holders and offers just a limited number of individual tickets for many of its films.  Lock in those tickets right now before they are snapped up.  Click here to read about all the pass options and price points.

Here are ARThound’s festival recommendations:

OPENING NIGHT (WED):  Ladies in Black

Australian director Bruce Beresford’s drama Ladies in Black stars Julia Ormond and Angourie Rice and powerfully recreates the postwar culture of 1950’s Sydney.  It took Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Tender Mercies (1983)) 24 years to bring the story to the big screen but it has become Australia’s highest grossing film, ever.  Photo: Sony Pictures, Lisa Tomasetti

Based on Madeleine St. John’s 1993 debut novel The Women in Black, Ladies in Black is set in 1959 Sydney at a time when European migration and the women’s movement are starting to impact Australiaand offers an upbeat reflection on the impact of immigration and integration.  Julia Ormond (Mad Men) stars as Magda, a wise and sophisticated Slovenian emigre who heads the evening wear section of a large department store.  She, along with several other immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, are vital to the store’s success.  Angourie Rice plays the fresh faced and adorable student, Lisa, who lands a temporary job at the store and ends up working alongside these glamorous and self-assured women who encourage her to embrace fashion and to empower herself.  SIFF always pairs shorts with features.  Screening first is Domee Shi’s 8 minute animated film Bao about a dumpling that springs to life as a lively growing boy and gives a weary Chinese mom a life lesson.

Beauty and Ruin (THURS)

A still from Marc de Guerre’s feature documentary Beauty and Ruin of school children at the Detroit Institute of Art. Photo: courtesy Subject Chaser Films

How much does art matter to a city on the verge of distinction?  Canadian director Marc de Guerre’s latest feature documentary explores the fate of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of America’s great art museums, in the wake of the city’s 2013 bankruptcy.  With a debt approaching $18.5 billion in 2014, and the DIA the largest asset the city of Detroit owns outright, a bitter brawl emerges over whether the city-owned artworks should be sold to pay down the debt.  DIA housed 66,000 artworks, including an irreplaceable collection of European masterpieces from Titian, Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Bellini, Brueghel, Tintoretto, Fra Angelico and dozens of others. Most of these were bought during the 30-year period, a century ago, when Detroit was the center of American industry.  No other American museum the size of the institute has ever confronted such a threat to the integrity of its collection.  Emotions and racial tensions reach their zenith when it is revealed that the pending bankruptcy has put the pensions of retired city workers are at risk.  This thorough unpacking of the museum’s story includes interviews with all the key players—the DIA director, the Emergency Manager of Detroit, the retirees, an activist Baptist pastor and acclaimed artist Charles McGee.  Screens: Thursday March 28, 6:30 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. Open to festival pass-holders only.

Botero: (THURS and FRI)

A still from Don Millar’s documentary, Botero, the definitive documentary profile of the life and work of Fernando Botero, one of the world’s most recognized living artists.   Image: Hogan Millar Media

Directed by Canadian film and television director, Don Millar (Oil Slick, Full Force, Off the Clock), Botero offers a poetic behind-the-scenes look at the life and art of the 86-year-old self-taught Colombian painter and sculptor whose unique style always evokes strong reactions.  Art critic Rosalind Krauss of Columbia University calls his work “terrible,” while others offer praise and penetrating insight into his oeuvre, calling Botero’s critics intellectual snobs.  Don Millar lets you decide.  Either way, Botero’s story is fascinating.  Born in provincial Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, he arrived in New York as a young artist with $200 in his pocket.  Through a stroke of luck, he meets a curator whose connections get him into MOMA and, all of a sudden, he is famous. “I like fullness, generosity, sensuality” says Botero.  “Reality is rather dry.”  The audience learns that, even today, Botero is happiest in his Monaco studio where he says he is still learning as he strives to be the best painter in the world, because “my life is to paint.”  The film weaves together original footage shot in 10 cities across China, Europe, New York and Colombia, with decades of family photos and archival footage alongside unprecedented access to the artist.  Screens:  Thursday, March 28, 4:14 p.m., Landmark Vineyards at Andrews Hall and Friday, March 29, 3:30 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

 

Yuli (THURS & SAT)

A still from Icíar Bollaín’s Yuli with Edilson Manuel Olbera as the young Carlos Acosta.  Yuli won the Best Screenplay Award at San Sebastian and has gone on to receive five nominations for the Spanish ‘Goya’ awards including Best New Actor for Carlos Acosta, Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It’s very difficult to pull off a drama about dance where the acting is an engaging as the dance itself.  Icíar Bollaín has done it with a riveting drama set largely in Castro’s Cuba with astonishing dance scenes and bursts of family drama.  Sit back and soak in the artistry of the astounding Carlos Acosta.  (In Spanish with English subtitles) Screens: Thursday March 28, 1 p.m., Burlingame Hall and Saturday, March 30, 11:30 a.m., Meyer Sound & Dolby Hall at Vets I)

 

Yellow is Forbidden (FRI and SAT)

Chinese designer Guo Pei’s international breakthrough moment was designing Rihanna’s golden gown for the 2015 Met Gala. The 55 pound dress took 100 workers 50,000 hours to create and became one of the most talked about dresses in history. Pietra’s Brettkelly’s documentary explores Guo Pei’s rise to fame and her unique way of interpreting her aesthetic history.  Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand documentarian Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth, 2015) has created a fascinating and intimate portrait of fashion designer Guo Pei that also speaks to the energy and aesthetic of a rapidly evolving China.  She tracks Guo Pei just as she has burst onto the international scene—when Rihanna wore her hand-embroidered canary yellow gown to the Met Gala in 2015—through her remarkable 2017 show “Legend,” presented at La Conciergerie, in Paris, where Guo Pei proved to the world that she had penetrated haute couture’s most elite circle.  The film takes us into Pei’s life, connecting the dots between her life experiences and aesthetic expression—her upbringing in the Cultural Revolution; her relationship with Cao Bao Jie, her husband and partner; her elderly parents who don’t grasp the scope of her talent, her A-list clients, and her team of craftsmen and embroiderers.  Her world is one of struggle, passionate dreaming and a constant balancing of her artistic passions with the financial reality of running a business.  Ample attention is devoted to her atelier, where she obsesses over the handcrafting of garments that can take over two years to create.  Pei is a curious mix of old and new, a balancing of East and West with an absolutely unique way of interpreting her aesthetic history.  (97 min, in Chinese and French with English subtitles.) Screens:  Friday, March 29, 2019, noon, Andrews Hall, and Saturday, March 30, 2:15 p.m., Vintage House

 

Restaurant from the Sky: (FRI and SUN)

A sill from Yoshihiro’s food drama, Restaurant in the Sky (2019). Photo: SIFF

Yoshihiro Fukagawa has made a number of dramas that tenderly explore human emotions against the gourmet food backdrop.  Restaurant in the Sky unfolds on a bucolic cattle ranch in Setana, Hokkidao where Wataru (Yo Oizumi) lives with his wife Kotoe (Manami Honjou) and his daughter, Shiori.  He inherited the cattle ranch from his father and he also runs a cheese workshop but he lacks passion.  He enjoys hanging out with his sheep farmer friend Kanbe (Masaki Okada) who moved to the area from hectic Tokyo.  After a chef from a famous Sapporo restaurant visits and praises Waturu’s produce and creates a masterful farm-to-table meal with ingredients sourced the ranch, Wataru has his ahh-hah moment.  He will open a restaurant for only one day to let people know about Setana’s wonderful food.  This is a goal that unites the family and community but suddenly a tragedy occurs.  (126 min, in Japanese with English subtitles)  Screens: Friday, March 29, 9 a.m., Sebastiani and Sunday, March 31, 1:45 p.m., Sebastiani

Details: The 22nd Sonoma International Film Festival is Wednesday, March 22 through Sunday, March 31, 2019.  For information, tickets, festival passes, prices, and benefits visit www.sonomafilmfest.org.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | Art, Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 13th California Artisan Cheese Festival is this weekend: cheese and all the wonders that pair with cheese

Petaluman Phaedra Achor, founder of Monarch Bitters, will be sampling her craft bitters and flavored syrups at Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace at Grace Pavilion.  Last September, Monarch Bitters was ranked second place in a USA Today people’s choice competition for the nation’s top 10 Best Craft Mixers and in November 2018, the Press Democrat ranked it #6 of top Sonoma County businesses.   Achor’s bitters, potent extracts, are handcrafted from organic and wild harvested roots, barks, aromatic herbs and flowers which are sourced in Sonoma County and bottled by hand in Petaluma. Achor operates out of a rented space in an industrial park in Petaluma, so the Artisan Cheese Festival is an opportunity to meet her in person, learn all about bitters and taste her wondrous concoctions.  Her newest flavors include Smoked Salt & Pepper Bitters; Honey Aromatic Bitters; and Honey Lavender Bitters, which join her famous Bacon Tobacco, Citrus Basil, Cayenne Ginger, Celery Horseradish, Cherry Vanilla, California Bay Laurel, Orange, Rose Petal, and Wormwood bitters.  Photo: courtesy Monarch Bitters

Bring on the cheese and please, bring on the cocktails!  For the first time, specialty cocktails will be served at the California Artisan Cheese Festival’s Sunday Marketplace at Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.  Of course, cheese is front and center as the California Artisan Cheese Festival kicks off this Saturday morning with eight fabulous full-day Farm and Producer tours all around Sonoma and Marin Counties (there are a few remaining spaces in five of these tours) as well as educational seminars and pairing demos in the morning and afternoon at Santa Rosa’s historic mid-century Flamingo Hotel.  Led by cheesemakers, cheese experts, bestselling authors and luminaries of wine, craft cocktails, ciders, and beers,  these seminars ($75-$85) are a convergence of expertise and passion.  Each seminar entails informed tasting, useful science and lots of ideas for inspired pairings.  This year’s Seminar #5 “Cheese & Cocktails: The Basics of Bitters, Booze and Cheese,” promises to demystify the universe of bitters and help identify the cheeses that will round out cocktails like Manhattans and Mai Tais.   Saturday evening’s new event, “Cheese, Bites & Booze!” at the Jackson Family Wines Hangar at the Sonoma Jet Center is sold out as is Sunday’s celebrity chef gourmet brunch.

Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace, from noon to 4 p.m. at Grace Pavilion, at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, is the event’s grand finale ($50).   If you never attended the festival before, it’s an excellent introduction.  The soirée is abuzz with energy, bringing together over 125 leading artisan cheese and food producers, winemakers, brewers, specialty spirit producers and makers for a final round of indulgence as participants chat, taste, sip, shop while meandering through a delightful epicurean maze.  Everyone brings home an Artisan Cheese Festival insulated cheese tote bag, a wine glass, and oodles of ideas for elegant home gatherings.  And most importantly, new and dear cheese friends.

 

Phaedra Achor, owner of Petaluma-based Monarch Bitters. Photo: courtesy Monarch Bitters

It was ARThound’s pleasure to speak with Phaedra Achor about Monarch Bitters, which will be featured in Saturday’s seminar, “Cheese & Cocktails,” Saturday evening’s swank “Cheese, Bites & Booze” event at the Jackson Family Wines Hangar, and Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace.

What are bitters?

Phaedra Achor: Bitters are high ABV (alcohol by volume), mine are 40-44%, and extracts that are created by macerating alcohol with any number of botanicals and aromatics such as spices, barks, roots, fruits.  My syrups have no alcohol content, and are infusions.

What’s behind the name “Monarch Bitters”?

Phaedra Achor:  I’ve always been very drawn to the monarch butterfly, its beauty and place in the world, its journey and metamorphosis, all of which are very symbolic for me.  Another piece fits in with my logo—a woman wearing a crown of wild flowers.  Since this is a botanically based product, I really wanted to convey the message of a strong and purposeful woman, a monarch of the forest, who is using the power of botanicals to create.

When and how did you start Monarch Bitters?

Phaedra Achor:  I love flavor chemistry, especially working with plants and botanicals to create flavor profiles.  In 2015, I hosted a cocktail party and wanted to do something very different, so I started planning a few months early.  My idea was to create five unique cocktails.  In my research, I came across these wonderful pre and post-Prohibition cocktails, all of which called for bitters.  I remember looking into bitters and thinking ‘I can do this.’  I ended up using barks and roots and herbs and spices and I created five bitters, one for each of the cocktails I served.  It was a huge hit.  At some point during this gathering, I walked into my living room and found this woman, a guest of a guest, someone I did not know at all, sniffing my tincture bottles.  She asked where these bitters came from.  I told her I made them all and she was blown away.  She explained that she was a bartender and that my bitters were far superior to what she was using and she offered to connect me with the owner where she worked.  I never followed through on that, but she planted a seed at just the right moment.  She left and I never saw her again but she was vital.

After that party, I started researching who was making bitters in Sonoma County, no one, and the craft cocktail industry.  I learned that people were using bitters like cooks use spices in the kitchen, so I thought this was a very interesting niche.  I was surprised that no one was doing this in Sonoma County because we are such an artisanal community.  I spent all of 2016 researching and reformulating and that’s because a lot of the botanicals I had chosen to use were considered dietary herbal supplements by the FDA.  I had to decide if I wanted my business to be categorized as a medicine, a dietary herbal supplement, or if I wanted it to be food bitters.  I’m not an herbalist and wasn’t interested in making herbal medicine, so I had to make some changes.  I launched in 2017 and from there, it just taken off.  Those contests which have recognized my bitters have been such a complement and honor and really fueled my business.

How do you come up with your flavor profiles, which are so unique?

Phaedra Achor:   The ideas just come to me.  I think this comes from my culinary background.  It’s taken a long time for me to own this and to state it out loud but I have ‘flavor wisdom.’  I just know how flavors will come together and taste.  Aside from the orange, lavender and aromatics, which are quite common bitters flavors, I have very intentionally created flavor profiles that didn’t previously exist outside of my brand, such as cayenne ginger, bacon tobacco, and honey aromatics.  I recently created a smoked salt and peppercorn bitters, which is also a fantastic culinary bitters.  Bitters can be used widely and people just aren’t aware of their versatility.  Aside from alcohol, bitters can be added to sparking water, lemonade, teas, coffees and in baking and cooking to replace an extract.  I’ve added my cherry vanilla bitters to whipped cream and it creates a wonderful cherry cordial whipped cream with a gorgeous flavor.

Is there a reason why you use dropper bottles?

Phaedra Achor:  Yes, it’s for accuracy and it recalls the history of bitters, which were initially used as medicine.  When I’m using the dropper and drawing up the bitters, it feels healing and right.

What the best way to taste bitters?

Phaedra Achor:  If people want to taste bitters straight, I will have them make a fist and hold out their hand upright, like they were holding a candle.  I’ll put a little drop right into that little divot between the thumb and index finger and they can taste it with their tongue.

Your ideas for bitters and cheese.

Phaedra Achor:  I tend to like softer, creamier cheeses, like bries.  Typically, the astringency of high fruit alcohol can be challenging with foods, so for a cocktail, I tend to go with a lower AVB  (alcohol by volume) content found in sherries or brandies and add my bitters to that when I want to indulge in cheese.  I’ve also taken my Citrus Basil Bitters and mixed it with honey to create a bittered honey to use as a pairing with cheese.   Bitters, adding bitter to the palate, can create wonderful opportunities to pair with food and cheese.  When it comes to cheeses, I work more with my citrus and aromatic flavors.

What’s next for Monarch Bitters?

Phaedra Achor: I am working on opening up a little apothecary in downtown Petaluma that will be a storefront for all of my products and hope to be open in June.  Right now, I am one of three bitters companies in the North Bay (King Floyd’s, Bitter Girl Bitters) and on Sunday, March 31, we will all be competing in The Bitter Brawl at Young and Yonder Spirits in Healdsburg.  This is a benefit for Compassion Without Borders.  We’ll each be paired with a bartender and will compete to create the best cocktail.

 

Details:  California’s 13th Artisan Cheese Festival is March 23-24, 2019 at various cheese country locations in Sonoma and Marin counties. Tickets for all festival events are sold separately online.  All events take place, rain or shine.

Click here for full information. Chick here to go to Eventbrite to purchase tickets

 

March 21, 2019 Posted by | Food, Wine | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Connoisseur’s quest—13th Annual California Artisan Cheese Festival, March 23-4, 2019

Farm tour participants at Tomales Farmstead Creamery, learning all about dairy goats and cheese-making.  This year, nine farm tours are offered at the California Artisan Cheese Festival.   In Tour E,  “Farm Forward, ” Farmstead Creamery will showcase their new Daily Driver SF venture by providing a gourmet brunch to participants.  This tour starts out Saturday morning at Tamara Hicks and David Jablons’ Toluma Farms dairy in West Petaluma, where guests will meet “the kids.”  Afterwards, it’s off to historic Tomales to Jan Lee’s AppleGarden Farm, where grazing pasture has been transformed to an orchard where apples are dry-farmed for cider. The tour wraps at the Marin French Cheese Company, the country’s oldest continuously operating cheese company.  All along the way, there are bites, drinks, and photo ops. Photo: Kelly J Owen

It happens every March—people from round the country gather for the California Artisan Cheese Festival and a weekend of cheese and all it can be paired with.  Tickets are on sale now for the two-day festival, which turns 13 this year, and is now headquartered at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa.  If you are interested in a farm tour, buy your tickets now.  Who wouldn’t be?  Nine wonderful tours kick off this year’s festival on Saturday morning and they all include an upscale lunch as well as lots of interaction and sampling.  You get to meet innovative local cheesemakers and “ooh and ahh” their baby goats in bucolic abodes, as well as sample and learn about artisan delicacies that pair well with cheese.

Back in town, at the Flamingo Hotel, the festival offers five interactive seminars with bestselling authors, cult cheesemakers, and luminaries of cocktails, ciders and craft beers. On Saturday evening, a new event, “Cheese, Bites & Booze!” at the Jackson Family Wines Hangar, promises nonstop fun as cheesemakers, chefs and cheesemongers compete to create the best cheesy bite.  Regional artisan wine, cider, spirits, and beer are on the house!

Get up early Sunday morning for a scrumptious brunch, at Saralee & Richard’s Barn at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, featuring cheese in every course and a live cooking demonstration by chefs/owners Daniel Kedan and Marianna Gardenhire of Michelin Guide awarded Backyard Restaurant in Forestville.  The weekend concludes with the renowned Artisan Marketplace which brings together leading artisan cheesemakers, authors, and dozens of specialty food, beer, wine and spirit producers for a final round of cheese and shopping.  This year, the marketplace will be serving specialty cocktails too.  And did I mention samples galore?  The festival has non-profit status and its proceeds support California farmers and cheesemakers in their ongoing effort to advance sustainability.

For those of lucky enough to live in the heart of cheese land, this is an event that is too good to pass up.

Details:  California’s 13th Artisan Cheese Festival is March 23-24, 2019 at various cheese country locations in Sonoma and Marin counties. Tickets for all festival events—farms tours, seminars, Saturday evening “Cheese, Bites & Booze,” Sunday morning “Bubbles & Brunch,” and Sunday’s Marketplace—  are all sold separately online.  All events take place, rain or shine.

Click here for full information. Chick here to go to Eventbrite to purchase tickets.

February 3, 2019 Posted by | Food, Wine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Proud Mary! Mary Fassbinder’s National Park Project has its reveal at Petaluma Arts Center— artist talk Thursday, January 31

Petaluma artist Mary Fassbinder at the opening of “National Parks Plein Air Project by Mary Fassbinder,” at Petaluma Arts Center.  She visited all 60 U.S. National Parks, painted a plein air landscape at each one and then built exquisite frames for each work.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

“It’s been the road trip of my life,” said Mary Fassbinder at Saturday’s opening of her “National Parks Plein Air Project” exhibit at the Petaluma Arts Center (PAC).   Fassbinder’s epic 72,000 mile, 3.5 year journey to every U.S. national park is captured in 60 vibrant plein air paintings, one for each park.

“Inspiration is the thread that runs through the entire project,” said Fassbinder at Saturday’s crowd-packed opening reception at PAC. “Set a goal and follow through.  Don’t let anything get in the way.  You have to own your goal, that’s what keeps that thread of inspiration alive.”

“Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN #29,” May 2016, oil, 10 x 13inches. Photo: Mary Fassbinder

The Petaluma artist is well-known for her light-infused expressionistic landscapes, which capture Sonoma County’s rustic beauty.  She’s also a renowned picture framer.  She created all the frames for the 60 paintings at PAC.  The paintings sales and frame commissions helped finance this large-scale project, which she broke into 12 separate excursions.  Just last summer, Fassbinder turned the framing business over to her daughter, Nicole Carpenter, so she could devote her full attention to painting and finishing the parks project.

“Lake Clark National Park, AK #48,” August 2017, oil on panel, 13 x 10 inches. Photo: Mary Fassbinder

“I’m happy to be home but happiest on the road and shockingly very comfortable with just myself,” said Fassbinder, who turned 59 at Yosemite, her 59th national park.  Actually, Fassbinder made the epic journeys with Charlie, her beloved used VW Westphalia, that she picked up in Ohio at the beginning of her journey.  Charlie appears in several photos on display at PAC.  “She had some rust but she took me up into Canada where she got strip searched at the border.  I miss her.  I had to sell her so I could get to Alaska, where I painted at each of those eight epic parks.”

Normally, Fassbinder created a single painting at each park.  Upon entering the park, she would ask the park ranger where the best spot was and “make a beeline” there.  Sometimes, she spent the night, and, on several occasions, she hit two parks in a single day, never varying her method.

“I am out there in nature, slopping that paint around, trying to get what I can get, when I can get it.”  Mary Fassbinder

“Yosemite National Park, CA #59,” May 2018, oil, 27 x 9 inches. Photo: Mary Fassbinder

In May, 2018, she lingered in Yosemite National Park,  #59, where she created five oil paintings.  Her portrait of Yosemite Falls, captures its majestic 2,425 foot vertical drop.  The 27-inch-long composition stands out for its long narrow shape; most of the other paintings in the park series tend to be more or less proportional rectangles. Painted from the trailhead, looking through towering pines at Yosemite Falls, Fassbinder captures a group of tourists, mere dabs of bright colors so expertly applied we sense them looking up and taking in the magical booming rush of water.  While she loves all the paintings in the parks series, this one is special— “It’s my heart and soul.”

At the time, Fassbinder thought Yosemite, the 59th park, was her last park.  With a surge of energy, she applied her wonderful sense of color and texture to her jeans jacket and hand-embroidered it with a Half Dome scene.  To her surprise, when she returned home to Petaluma, she learned that Gateway Arch, in St. Louis. MO, had become the 60th national park in February, 2018, necessitating yet another road trip.  “To me, that was St. Louis trying to get federal funding to get their city park re-built,” said Fassbinder.  Off she went in June 2018 to capture Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri.

Fassbinder hand-embroidered her jeans jacket with a Half Dome scene.  At the time, she thought Yosemite, #59, was her last park.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Later last fall, while visiting Yosemite, Fassbinder showed her National Parks project portfolio to the manager of the renowned Ansel Adams Gallery.  She was offered an exhibition.  Details/dates to follow.  “This is such a critical time for our national parks,” said Fassbinder.  “It takes an act of Congress to establish a national park; it takes the power of the people to protect and preserve.”

Upcoming Events:

Thursday, January 31, 7-9 pm:  An Evening with Mary Fassbinder and Davis Perkins, conversation in the gallery, Petaluma Arts Center (Click here to pre-register; $12 non-members, $10 members)

 

Also at Petaluma Arts Center:  Davis Perkins landscapes exhibit:  California landscape painter Davis Perkins is also at PAC with an exhibit featuring his landscape paintings from around the world.  Perkins has had an adventurous career as smokejumper, firefighter, and paramedic.  He spent several of his winters attending art school and received a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Oregon.  His paintings are in the permanent collections of the Alaskan State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution Air & Space Museum and one hangs in the Pentagon with the United States Air Force Art Collection. In 2015 he was selected as a Signature Member of the Oil Painters of America.

Details: “The National Parks Plein Air Project by Mary Fassbinder” and “Landscape Paintings by Davis Perkins” are at Petaluma Arts Center through March 23, 2019.  Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, Petaluma in the train depot between East D and East Washington Streets.  Hours: Tues-Sat, 11 am to 5 pm.  Closed Sunday, Monday and holidays.  $5 General admission, $4 senior, student, teacher, military.  PAC Members free.

For detailed information about Mary Fassbinder’s National Parks Painting Project and a chronological list of parks painted, visit Fassbinder’s website:  https://fassbindergallery.com/

Fassbinder’s gallery and painting studio is located at 900 B Western Avenue, Petaluma 94952.  (707) 765-1939  By appt. only.

January 30, 2019 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Your must-see list for the Legion of Honor’s luxurious jewelry show, “East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection,” through February 24, 2019

The Nawanger Ruby Necklace sums up all the themes of the Legion’s Al Thani Collection exhibit.  Made in London by Cartier in 1937 for the Maharaja of Nawanger, the necklace has moved between East and West and male and female and has dazzling stories associated with it.  When the young Maharaja came to power in 1933, he inherited an enormous trove of jewels and began modernizing their traditional settings, deepening the relationship his connoisseur father had formed with Jacques Cartier.  The necklace’s 116 Burmese rubies came from the Indian Royal treasury while Cartier supplied the diamonds and the Art Deco design.  The Maharaja wore the necklace with pride.  By Western taste, it would have been worn only by a woman.  When heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post saw the necklace, she immediately commissioned Cartier to make a sapphire and diamond version of the necklace for herself.  After Indian independence in 1947, the Maharaja’s necklace was returned to Cartier and it was worn by style icon Gloria Guinness at Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball of 1966.  Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

A visit to the Legion of Honor’s jaw-dropping jewel exhibit, East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection is pure delight.  It features more than 150 exotic treasures—gems, pieces of jewelry, jades, and objects—made in India or Europe and associated with Mughal emperors (1526-1857), maharajas (1858-1947), and their courts.  The Al Thani collection is owned by 30-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Abudullah Al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family.  The sheikh’s love of Indian jewelry was itself inflamed by a museum visit to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum where, in 2009, he saw its wonderful Maharaja show.  He began collecting Indian jewelry in 2010.  It took a few years, but he nabbed the exhibition’s accomplished curator, Dr. Amin Jaffer (who by then headed Christie’s Asian Art division) and went on to amass one of the world’s finest collections of Indian gems,  jewelry. and artifacts.  An avid collector, the Sheik keeps adding to the roughly 6,000 works of art in his encyclopedic Al Thani Collection, housed in Qatar.

The Al Thani Collection’s Indian jewelry has toured widely, from Beijing to Venice.  The savvy San Francisco iteration, co-curated by FAMSF’s Martin Chapman and Dr. Amin Jaffer, emphasizes cross-cultural exchange between India and the West and gender.  It closes on February 24, 2019.

At the press conference, it was made known that the Sheik especially loves the Legion of Honor building.  When Beyond Extravagance, the Al Thani Collection’s first catalog of Indian gems and jewels, was launched in 2013, it was at the original Palais de la Légion d‘Honneur in Paris, making our Legion of Honor the perfect West Coast venue for the exhibition.

Here’s your must-see list:

Opening Gallery:  Maharaja of Patiala portrait and necklace, Queen Alexandra portrait

Vandyk, “Sir Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala” [wearing the Empress Eugénie diamond necklace], 1911, from glass plate negative, original size 12 × 10 in. Photo: ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Upon entering the exhibit, you’ll encounter dazzling display cases of jewels.  After you’ve ogled the Newanger Ruby Necklace, described at the top of the article, head further through the golden arches (crafted in Rome by artist Giuliano Spinelli) to the blown-up portraits of Indian, European, and American rulers and aristocrats, male and female, all sporting their jewels.

Look no further than the 1911 photo of the Maharaja of Patiala for a lesson in “more is better.”  In matters of jewelry, it was the Indian men who showed Western female style icons what extravagance really was.  To confirm their prestige and stature, India’s male rulers covered themselves jewels.  In addition to numerous ropes of exquisite pearls, the maharaja wears a diamond necklace created for France’s Empress Eugénie, which includes the Potemkim diamond, formerly owned by Catherine the Great of Russia, as a pendant.

The wearing of pearls starts out with the men of India and the Middle East and is appropriated in the 20th century by women in the West.  An adjacent wall photo of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII, speaks volumes.  Taken in 1902, on the day of her husband’s coronation as King of England and Emperor of India, she has draped herself in fashionable ropes of pearls, just as the Maharaja of Patiala.  She wears the famous Indian diamond, the Koh-i-Noor, in her crown and an exquisite dress that was embroidered in India.  Many of her jewels were given as tribute by Indian princes and were originally intended to be worn by men.

The re-worked famed Patiala necklace.  The original necklace disappeared after the1947 fall of the British Raj and resurfaced in London in 1988, stripped of its largest jewels. Cartier restored the necklace using zirconias, topazes, synthetic rubies, smoky quartz, citrine. Photo: Vincent Wulveryck, Cartier Collection ©Cartier

The 1928 Maharaja of Patiala necklace, made for wearing at court, represented the largest commission made by Cartier at that time. Originally, the necklace comprised 2,930 diamonds, set in platinum and cascading in five tiers around the exquisite 234 carat De Beers yellow diamond, roughly the size of a golf ball.  The Maharaja bought the diamond following its display in Paris in the early 1920’s and brought it to India.  When he commissioned the necklace in 1925, he sent an overflowing trunk of precious stones, including the yellow diamond, and jewelry to Cartier in Paris with a note requesting him to create a ceremonial necklace worthy enough for a king.  It took three years.  The necklace also had a rare 18 carat tobacco colored diamond and a number of Burmese rubies.  The Patiala necklace at the Legion has been re-worked.  Cartier restored the necklace using synthetic and lesser value stones.

Gems: Engraved Imperial Spinel Necklace

Imperial Spinel necklace, North India, spinels, 1607-1608 and 1754 -1755. Spinels, pearls, emerald, and modern stringing. Length 20 3/8 inches. Image: @The Al Thani Collection

While diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires and emeralds were prized in India, the deep red spinels of Central Asia were most valued at the Mughal court.  Don’t miss the huge translucent watermelon-colored spinels found on the Imperial Spinel Necklace.

Engraving detail, Imperial Spinel Necklace. Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

They bear multiple dynastic inscriptions, including to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, as well as to his father, Akbar the Great, under whose rule the Mughal Empire tripled in size and wealth.  Akbar had so many unmounted precious stones that by the 1590’s, one of his 12 treasuries was reserved solely for these loose jewels, the most valuable of which were spinels.  These blood-colored gems were associated with vitality and wearing them was believed to enhance life force and stamina in battle.  Dynastic inscribed gemstones of this size and quality would have originated in the Mughal Imperial Treasury where they were prized not only for their material value and physical properties, but also for their distinguished provenance.

Idol’s Eye Diamond

The Idol’s Eye Diamond, a 70.21-carat light blue diamond from India’s Kollur mine in the Golconda region.  2.6 x 2.8 x 1.3 cm.  Modified brilliant-cut, VVS2 clarity. (The legendary Hope Diamond, also blue, is a mere 45 carats.) ©The Al Thani Collection. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd.

Romantic unsubstantiated stories are often attached to prized diamonds.  Legend has it that the 70.21 carat Idol’s Eye, the largest cut blue diamond in the world, and the largest diamond in the exhibit, was so named because it was torn from the eye of Hindu deity venerated in a temple in India.  The Idol’s Eye does have a mystical pear shape.

Diamonds, like many gems, were considered talismanic in India.  A 6th-century Brhat Samhita text promises:  “He who wears a diamond will see dangers recede from him, whether he be threatened by serpents, fire, poison, sickness, thieves, flood, or evil spirits.”  Large diamonds in Mughal India were cut into talismanic shapes, often an amulet (ta’widh), a form that would maximize the volume of stone.  Unfortunately, few diamonds have survived in their original cuts as the taste for diamonds in the West was different.  And, as cutting technology advanced, these prize gems were cut and re-cut to reflect contemporary taste, resulting in lost carats but maximizing brilliance and color.  The Idol’s Eye was once owned by Philippine despot Imelda Marcos and it was likely purchased it with the billions of dollars of public finds embezzled by her or her husband, Ferdinand Marcos.  It has passed through the hands of leading diamond dealers Salmon Habib, Harry Winston, Robert Mouawad and Laurence Graff.

Jahangir’s Jade Wine Cup

The Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s Wine Cup, dated AH 1016 / AD 1607-1608, mottled grey nephrite jade, Height 5.7 cm, W 5.4 cm.  Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

Emperor Jahangir’s wine cup is the earliest dated jade artifact that can be linked without question to a Mughal emperor.  In the Mughal court, jade was thought to invoke success in battle and was used for daggers.  It was also believed that jade could detect the presence of poisons, so there were many jade drinking vessels.  Jahangir’s cup is magnificently incised with Persian and Arabic calligraphy. The central band, carved in sols script, has a royal dedication announcing that the cup was made for Jahangir.  The upper border, in Nasta’aliq script, confirms it was the emperor’s personal cup and that it was made in the second year of his reign, therefore between April 1607 and March 1608.  Persian poetry also adorns the cup, including some contemporary 17th century poetry.  The Mughals of this period were very influenced by Chinese ceramics and jades and this cup’s shape is exactly that of a Chinese tea cup of this period.  The mottled jade used in the cup also reflects the Mughal affinity for Chinese bronzes and their mottled surfaces.

Jewel-encrusted Rosewater Sprinkler

Rosewater sprinkler, North India, 17th century base, late 18th century neck. Gold inlaid with rubies, emeralds, pearls. Height: 10 1/8 inches.  Image: ©The Al Thani Collection

The bottom of the rosewater sprinkler has an inscription and weight identifying it an as Imperial treasury object.  Image: @The Al Thani Collection

An entire section of the exhibit explores the opulence of the Mughal court at its height, during the 17th century.  At public court, a ruler would receive ambassadors, petitioners, nobles, returning generals, etc.  These were great events where the ruler was richly attired and the way in which he presented himself, completely adorned, was much like how a deity in a Hindu complex would be presented, as an ascendant divine being.  The ruler was normally on a textile throne and when supplicants came, there was an exchange of gifts and perfume and sometimes condiments.  This jewel encrusted rosewater sprinkler would have been used for a splashing of the hands.  It is of extreme importance because on its underside it has a Mughal imperial weight which identifies it as an Imperial treasury object.  It also relates to a group of three similar 17th century sprinklers in the Hermitage Museum which came from the loot of the Mughal treasury when the Mughal empire collapsed in 1738.

Upcoming events:

February 2, 2019: Docent Talk: “All That Glitters: The Jewels of the The Al Thani Collection,” docent Marsha Holm, John and Cynthia Fry Gunn Theater, Legion of Honor, 12:30-1:30 p.m. Free after general admission.

Paris, Spring 2020:

The Al Thani collection has found a home in Paris—the historic Hôtel de la Marine on place de la Concorde in Paris, the original warehouses of the French royal art collections.  Following an agreement signed last fall with France’s Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN; National Monuments Centre), the government body which manages the 18th-century property, the Al Thani collection will be exhibited in a dedicated gallery over a 20 year period.  The inaugural exhibit is due to coincide with the reopening of the Hôtel de la Marine in spring 2020 following a €100m refurbishment.

Details: East Meets West: Jewels of the Maharajas from the Al Thani Collection,” ends February 24, 2019 at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.  Tickets:  FAMSF members free; $28 general admission; $25 (65 and older); $19 students, $13 (6-17). Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays.  Closed Mondays.  For more info, visit: www.famsf.org

 

January 27, 2019 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment