Saturday, June 22, 2013

Artistic Treasures

Artists are complex creatures. In the early stages of their careers, what sets them apart from others is what can quickly draw attention to them. That includes their passion, personality, and physique (to say nothing of  their youthful idealism, their seductive qualities, and the simple shock of the potential demonstrated by their raw talent). Unfortunately, not all artists are long distance runners.
  • Some turn out to be one-trick ponies while others strengthen their careers by diversifying their appearances and experimenting with new forms of expression.
  • Some find their horizons limited by changing technologies while others adapt to new media and new audiences.
  • Some leave the spotlight to raise a family while others are plagued by inner demons and may succumb to substance abuse.
Careers marked by their longevity are extremely rare. Bay area audiences recently had a chance to revisit two artists hailed far and wide for having made substantial contributions to popular culture. One (though long dead) was seen in the early stages of a career that helped to define certain aspects of cinema. The other, in the twilight of her career, gave a poignant demonstration of what it means to carry on carrying on.

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Born on August 13, 1899, Alfred Hitchcock's filmography is the stuff of which legends are made.  The San Francisco Silent Film Festival recently presented a weekend-long buffet of nine silent films directed by Hitchcock between 1925 and 1929.

You didn't know Alfred Hitchcock made silent films? Neither did I.

Hitchcock's debut as director of a full-length feature film took place with the 1925 release of The Pleasure Garden. Although based on a novel by Oliver Sandys (the pseudonym for Marguerite Florence Laura Jervis) and shot in Italy and Germany, the film was a financial flop.

The Pleasure Garden focuses on the the shaky lives of two chorus girls working at London's Pleasure Garden Theatre. Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) is the good-hearted chorine who offers a helping hand when Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty) arrives in London with high hopes of becoming a performer but quickly gets introduced to the hard facts of life in the big city.

Exuding delusions of grandeur, Jill bluffs her way into a featured role and introduces Patsy to Jill's handsome fiancĂ©, Hugh Fielding (John Stuart).  Hugh, in turn, introduces Patsy to his rail-thin colleague, Levet (Miles Mander). After Patsy and Levet get married and honeymoon in Italy, she returns home to London while he goes off to join Hugh working somewhere in Africa for their employer.

Virginia Valli as Patsy Brand in The Pleasure Garden

It doesn't take long for Jill to set her sights on a wealthy Russian named Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg). When a letter arrives from Levet explaining that he has been ill, Patsy heads off to Africa to take care of her husband. Upon discovering that Levet is involved with a native girl, her marriage crumbles, her husband murders his mistress, and Patsy finally finds happiness in Hugh's once-again-healthy arms.

The British Film Institute has digitally restored Hitchcock's first feature film with loving care and attention to detail. His wit shines through in telling moments and, with accompaniment by the multitalented Stephen Horne on piano, accordion, and flute, the screening offered flashes of the cinematic genius that was then in its earliest stages of development. You can watch The Pleasure Garden (fully restored) in the following clip:

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The past nine months have witnessed tectonic shifts in the local landscape of performance venues catering to jazz and cabaret artists. Last fall, the management of The Razz Room lost its lease at the Hotel Nikko, prompting a frantic search for a new venue. Live At the Rrazz had a brief run at the old Don Lee Building at 1000 Van Ness Avenue which came to an abrupt end over permit issues. The club's owners (Robert Kotonly and Rory Paull) were suddenly forced out of business.

On January 23, the new San Francisco Jazz Center at 201 Franklin Street opened for business. Soon afterward, Michael Feinstein announced plans to take over the Hotel Nikko's nightclub space. Feinstein's at the Nikko opened in early May amid speculation that its management may have overestimated what Bay area audience were willing to pay for entertainment. On June 13, the hotel's General Manager, Anna Marie Presutti, issued the following statement:
"Since opening Feinstein’s at the Nikko in early May, we have received comments and suggestions regarding the $30 food and beverage credit that was added to the price of each ticket. We wanted to let you know that we have listened to your feedback. Effective immediately, there will now be a $20 food and beverage minimum per person inside the showroom which guests can use towards cocktails as well as a variety of small plates crafted exclusively for Feinstein’s at the Nikko by Executive Chef Philippe Striffeler, through Restaurant Anzu." 
Barbara Cook with fellow 2011 Kennedy Center Honorees
Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep, Neil Diamond, and Sonny Rollins

Pricing issues and the lack of a solid database of loyal local patrons may account for the half-empty room on June 19 (the opening night of Barbara Cook's return to the same venue in which she had performed in August 2012).  Noticeably absent was the effusive and primarily gay segment of the audience which attends many of Cook's Bay area appearances.

An artist who is much beloved for her musicianship, personal warmth, and solid contributions to the art of interpreting the Great American Songbook, it was Barbara Cook who introduced such songs as "Glitter and Be Gay" (from 1956's Candide), "Till There Was You" (from 1957's The Music Man), "Ice Cream" (from 1963's She Loves Me!), and "Better All The Time" (from 1964's Something More!). Here she is with Alfred Drake in a 1957 made-for-television production of Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta, The Yeoman of the Guard.

During her 75-minute set Cook performed many of the songs she sang here last summer in her "Let's Fall In Love" show. From Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” to the Dan Hicks classic, “I Don’t Want Love”; from “Georgia On My Mind” to “Makin’ Whoopee” (a song made popular by Eddie Cantor in 1928) her intelligence and musicianship never faltered.

In her show, Cook poured her heart into Ram Ramirez’s "Lover Man” and Ben Oakland’s “If I Love Again.” An avowed fan of YouTube, she described how thrilling it has been to rediscover old songs on the Internet. Explaining that "Lover Man" had been written in 1941 for Billie Holliday and recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, she seemed amazed that, at this late stage of her career, she had finally gotten up the courage to sing it herself and urged everyone to watch Ella Fitzgerald sing this song on YouTube when they returned home after the show.

Blessed with some great arrangements by Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, Cook’s artistry links the world weariness of “House of the Rising Sun” with “Bye Bye Blackbird” through a stark dramatic explanation that offers a surprising contrast to her sentimental confessions about how she likes to use stuffed animals as pillows. Ending her performance with the purest and simplest rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” one is ever likely to hear, the 85-year-old singer seemed a bit more frail and wistful than usual. Her heartfelt rendition of "Here's To Life" (written by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary) was one of the evening's emotional highlights.

Singer Barbara Cook

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