Sunday, June 27, 2010

SDSO & Toni Braxton Opened 2010 Summer Pops

There is a couple of hurricane off the western Mexico coast that is sending thick clouds over San Diego this weekend. It makes for a great outdoor weather for sun-sensitive me (I have SLE that loves to flare up when that big ball of helium gets to shine without any cover in the summer months). All the same, I was expecting a warmer weather while walking around the Marina District yesterday afternoon looking for a good photo shot to send to my Aussie friend.

Where do you go in the Marina District of downtown San Diego for a good photo shot? The Top of the Hyatt Lounge on the 40th floor of the Manchester Grand Hyatt's Harbor Tower, of course...

I looked down on the Embarcadero Marina Park - South (there are two of them enclosing the Marriott Marina) and spotted the tent stage and grandstand they had erected for the San Diego Symphony's Summer Pops season and couldn't resist dropping in to see if there was still any cheap ticket left available (the symphony itself rarely sells out, but this weekend they are teaming up with pop's soulful queen Toni Braxton to open the season... that makes for a different ballgame!). To my surprise, the place was only a quarter full and there were plenty of seats available so I grabbed on in the Cabaret section on the lawn in front of the stand...

One new feature for the summer pops this year.... They actually force-check your camera. Not that that prevented photo-taking inside the concert aria since most cellphones these days come equipped with a camera. Most people are good about not taking photo of the performers during the show... They mainly just take photos of themselves (and most didn't use flash, thanks goodness!).

The concert opened with a virtual battle of the brass with two different brass sections (the scaled down SDSO was joining forces with the Civic Youth Orchestra, East County Youth Orchestra, and San Diego State University Young Artists Symphony) flanking the stage with Giovanni Gabrieli's 1597 Canzon septimi toni #2, a rarely heard number that, while quite obviously fun for Matthew Garbutt to conduct, gave plenty of evidence of the reasons for its neglect (the thing even ended on a hanging note without any resolution).

They SDSO' string section then took over the stage for the first movements from Mozart's 1st Symphony (in E flat major) and the famous serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. As much as I love the SDSO, I must confess that their violin section is the most soulless bunch of technical perfectionists of the symphonies I've heard yet... They can make technically demanding pieces sound easy, but for all their virtuoso proficiency I fail to hear any point to the strings of notes they play. It is actually more frustrating than hearing someone trying to muddle through a piece of music that is beyond their ability to technically cope with. It reminds me of a much conjectured line that goes; 'God gave me the talent to sing, and so I sing'. To which I wish a question is added; 'But aren't you interested in the 'Why?' of it? Why did 'god' give you the ability to sing... if not to actually communicate something to those who may hear your sound?'

The sound amplification system was also rather ill-balanced for the orchestra with the brass and double basses getting too much unneeded help while the lighter strings were often nearly drowned out. I guess having to share the playbill with a pop band didn't help the set up.

The most objectionable thing about this night at the symphony, though, was this 50 minutes long intermission that came with an awkward rich-section-only donation auction. While most people in the audience were impressed by the promotional video that both depict the ritual handing off the baton from Jahja Ling to Matthew Garbut via a bunch of enthusiastic-kids-in-relay and the Bridgepoint Education music reach out program to young kids, the pandering-to-the-rich-in-total-oblivious-to-the-rest-of-the-audience donation auction that followed it was especially TASTELESS considering today's sociopolitical climate.
The majority of the audience was forced to sit and watch as partly tuxedoed CEO's held the stage while asking their chums in the rich 'Champagne' seating section to pledge anywhere from $250 - $5,000 donations via a paddle that no other seating sections had (the good folks in front of me in the Cabaret were seriously considering donating when they realized that they weren't equipped with any auction paddle or other goodies the auctioneer was talking about). I realize that the symphonies and the operas in the USA are mostly subsidized by their wealthier patrons rather than by ticket sales, but all the same... Couldn't this sort of thing have been done in a more private setting before the performance? Why should the general and less well cashed audience have to sit through this money-flaunting business for 50 minutes while waiting to hear the concert they had paid to attend?

The crowd had thinned to about a fifth of total capacity when Toni Braxton - now sporting a very sexy short blond hairdo - and her familiar band arrived on the stage, thankfully, with a more inclusive attitude and a greater ability to inject fun into even a cold and cloudy evening gathering of symphony goers. Her seductively dark and husky voice seems still recovering from a recent illness and I was rather alarmed to almost mistake her voice for that of the late Michael Jackson (a lot of 'Uh!..Uh! with not very audible something in between) and her diction was pretty indecipherable at first. She warmed up after a while, though, and sounded quite good in the not so heavily accompanied selections of old hits (Unbreak My Heart, Man Enough, etc) and new songs from the recently released CD, Pulse.

The lass has a star presence and easy-to-love down-to-earth personality that managed to get the mostly symphony-going crowd swaying and waving and even attempting to sing along (not as loudly as she'd like, I'm afraid. Most of us didn't know the lyrics even to her mega hit 'Unbreak My Heart'.... That's how pathetically unhip we classical music heads are!). Her little black dress was feeling the night chill, however, and kept trying to slip off as she tried to dance. I dare say that most of the men in the audience wouldn't mind it if she had let the thing drop, but it was a rather drafty and cold night so that would have been quite unpleasant, temperature-wise, for the first lady of the show...

By the final number the lackluster opening symphonic act was largely forgotten, overshadowed by the Braxton bomb that could still rock the park even when not firing on all cylinders. Vocally she was far from perfect, but she connected fully even with an unfamiliar crowd and communicated loud and clear that her first tour after a long absence is something to look forward to.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Just a day on the town...

This little video clip was shot a few weeks back when I went up to the city again to pet-sit for a friend over a Saturday and went on a little trolley ride to downtown San Diego to catch up with a couple of long lost friends.

The first part of the clip was at my old favorite hang out, Filter Coffee House at the corner of 30th & Polk in North Park. It is a laid back place with good coffee and pastries and free WiFi where the neighborhood gays (in more ways than one) hang out. It is a real neighborhood coffee shop rather than a franchise like Starbucks'. No other cafe in town is quite like Filter... Heck, even the chairs and the corners in this place aren't alike. Every bit of the place has its own personality... And you even get your coffee or tea in a real mug instead of standardized plastic thingy you get at franchise places that can't wait to get you out of the place as soon as you have paid for your drinks!

I'm afraid the cheesy deep dish pizza isn't available at Filter, though. We (my friends and I) had moved on to Wolffy's Place in downtown then. The food is pretty good but a bit overpriced... which is quite typical of downtown eateries. The place specializes in Chicago dishes... And what is more Chicago than a deep dish pizza???

After some roaming around riding the trolley up to Fashion Valley and back, we passed through Lindberg Field (San Diego International Airport) just as a plane was taking off from SAN's single runway. We hopped off at the next station in Little Italy and ran right into the Sicilian Festival!

Little Italy is really a cool neighborhood of downtown San Diego with its colorful and individualistic buildings and shops... and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks with sitting piazzas. The other neighborhoods in downtown seem to discourage public benches because they are afraid the homeless folks would take over them and scare potential customers away. I don't really know how Little Italy keeps the homeless folks out of the area... Perhaps I don't want to know...

I like the water. And so a trip to downtown isn't complete without a short visit to the Embarcadero. They are building on the Broadway Pier so I couldn't get on it (the tip of the pier was a great place to sit and relax while bay-watching with the local sea gulls and pigeons), but I did get there just in time to catch a ferry boat coming in from Coronado.

We went and walked around the Gaslamp Quarter in downtown... And passed by Balboa Theater at Horton Plaza just before a Mainly Mozart Festival concert. There was a street saxophonist there jamming with a street keyboardist. I had a second look and realized it was the same start up saxophonist who used to play by himself along 4th Avenue when I lived near there a year ago. The dude was just learning to play the thing on his own then... and really was more of a sound pollution than anything else (people threw him money for him to stop playing). It is amazing what a few month of determined practice can do... He can actually carry a bit of a tune now when he isn't doing little staccato jazz phrases.

Once that Mainly Mozart concert started, though, the street got quite quieter without the concert goers waiting in front of the theater. The street musicians moved with the crowd toward the restaurants row (4th and 5th Avenues between E and Island Sts). I was pretty well spent by then, though, and had to go back to the friend's to put the dog inside before he spotted a raccoon and started barking (and driving the neighbors mad(der than usual), so I hopped on the next bus#2 that came down Broadway and went back uptown.

I think one of my foreign friends asked about the terms 'downtown' and 'uptown' once. Downtown is where the concentration of city business is along with small flats on top of the shops that are just big enough to accommodate claustrophobic inhabitants. Uptown is the more spacious and affluent residential area a bit removed from downtown's commercial district... You know, where the abodes with backyards are.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Coming Up: Amigos en Concierto, Spanish Theme Concert in San Diego

This coming Saturday night (June 19th) the San Diego Master Chorale is teaming up with the Romero Duo, Mariachi Garibaldi, San Diego Children's Choir, Tijuana Children's Choir, tenor Enrique Toral and soprano Monica Abrego for a spectacular Spanish-theme Amigos en Concierto at Copley Symphony Hall.
Aiming to raise fund for the Master Chorale's community outreach programs, the concert is packed full of music from Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean. You know, the good stuff that we sway to whenever we chance upon but always seem to neglect on this side of the border. If you are in town on Saturday evening and feel like getting acoustically zested by some classically spicy music, drop in at Copley before 8PM and buy a ticket to the show (tickets available at the Symphony Box Office (619) 235-0804, or at!

*Smorg is not connected to any of the performing group or Copley Hall... though does tend to find it irresistible to promote good local classical music groups.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Making Pad Thai Chicken In the New Kitchen

I've been getting used to the kitchen at this new pad I moved into a month ago. I still occasionally open the wrong cabinet door(s) when looking for plates or cups... and even forgot how to use my roommate's fancy electric salt & pepper grinders while the omelet is threatening to catch fire in the pan (did manage at the last salvageable second and that egg was very well done indeed!).
All that aside, though, I am now comfortable enough around the place to attempt to cook some real food other than omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches (have been having that so much for the last few weeks that I might bleed cheddar if I scratch my knee!).

On the menu a few days ago was Pad Thai noodle with chicken.... And this was how it turned out:

OK, I confess there was supposed to be tofu (the hard fried type) in this, too, and you would have put it in when the noodle hit the pan/wok... It was just that I bought a package of like a month ago (?), and had completely forgotten all about it. So when I fished the package out from its cozy little corner of the fridge, it was all black and blue instead of healthy yellow in color (I think it even attempted to move as my hand approached!).
As tempting as it was, I didn't think colorful blobs of fungi would make all that good substitutes for germ-free soy bean, so I left it out.... and lived to eat another day.