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An opera star on the fast track

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen at Glaze on Fillmore Street.

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

At only 25, opera singer and neighborhood resident Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen has already had a head-spinning career. 

Cohen graduated from Princeton in 2015. Just two years later, he was one of 12 artists to join S.F. Opera’s prestigious two-year, performance-oriented Adler Fellowship Program, which is what brought him to San Francisco. 

He made his S.F. Opera debut this summer in a major supporting role in Handel’s Orlando. By then, he’d already held the limelight in an important tryout for future stars: the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions Grand Finals, in March 2017. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe saw several good singers onstage, but “only one complete artist,” noting that Cohen “stood clearly apart from the pack.” He was one of six winners.

Cohen is a countertenor. Singing above the vocal terrain of a tenor, he and the other 50-some quality countertenors working today perform music written in the 17th and 18th centuries for castrati — men castrated before puberty so their voices would remain high. After the practice was banned, much of that music lay dormant for a couple of centuries. When Baroque music made a comeback, the high, pure, sonorous countertenor tradition was born.

Among its most lauded practitioners, Cohen will be performing here early this month in two programs: “The Future Is Now,” his final Adler Fellows concert, with the S.F. Opera orchestra, at Herbst Theatre on December 6; and as a soloist in Handel’s Messiah, with the S.F. Symphony, at Davies Hall on December 13 and 14.

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Yet Another Hole in the Head

FILM | ANDREA CHASE

The 16th Annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, brought to you by the fine people at SFIndieFest, gathers a scintillating collection of the best of the genres of sci-fi, horror, fantasy and just plain odd films currently out there, along with the now traditional rescoring of a classic.

The fest is running now through December 15 at the New People Cinema in Japantown, and there’s not a dud in the program.

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Buster Keaton on Divisadero

A still from the opening scene of The Navigator, filmed in the neighborhood.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Atop the crest of the hill on Divisadero Street, looking north between Pacific and Broadway, a car slowly makes a U-turn, then stops on the opposite side of the street. Buster Keaton filmed almost exclusively on Hollywood lots, but traveled to San Francisco to get this one shot. 

The first five minutes of The Navigator, from 1924, are among the funniest in the entire film. The opening gag introduces Keaton’s character to us as the rich bachelor Rollo Treadway, who wakes up with the bright idea that he should get married — immediately. The caption card reads: “He had completed all the arrangements — except to notify the girl.”

Treadway instructs his chauffeur to take him at once to his girlfriend’s house. The car starts and does a U-turn and stops across the street. Treadway exits clutching a hopeful bouquet of flowers and marches up the brick-lined steps. His girlfriend, played by Kathryn McGuire, is caught off guard by Treadway’s epiphany and rejects his offer of “Will you marry me?” with a “Certainly not!”

Dejected, Treadway slinks back down the steps to the street below and quietly informs his chauffeur that he won’t be needing the car; instead what he chiefly needs is a nice long walk to clear his mind. He then walks back across the lonely street to his own mansion. 

The hilarity of this scene only works due to its extravagance. In seconds, we learn that Rollo Treadway is a young man with more dollars than sense, coupled with a keen inability to read a situation. The fact that the chauffeur is not surprised in the least to be instructed to drive his boss a mere 180-degree turn across the street paints a picture of the blissful wastefulness of the young millionaire. Keaton’s brilliance was his ability to create a character no one could relate to, but with whom everyone would instantly sympathize.

The casual viewer will laugh at the scene, but the extravagance goes past the joke. Keaton picked this spot on Divisadero Street purely because the northerly crest prevented other structures from cluttering the scope of the scene. His minimalist vision makes this scene that much more endearing. It’s as if these two giant mansions and a few others exist all by themselves. That makes the fairy tale of the two young lovers that much sweeter, even when she rejects him. 

The ivy-choked mansion on the right, which was meant to belong to Rollo Treadway, is now sadly long gone, demolished in the 1930s. But his girlfriend’s mansion is still in place at 2505 Divisadero. Built in 1899, it was more recently known as Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett’s residence. It sold for $10 million three years ago, a price at which Rollo Treadway might barely blink an eye.

There is something magical and unique about the top of Divisadero Street. Buster Keaton saw it in 1924, and we can see it still.

— Mark Fantino

VIDEO: Buster Keaton goes for a ride in The Navigator

Alfred Hitchcock on Buchanan

The entry at Sacramento and Buchanan appears in Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Walking north on Buchanan Street across Sacramento, you hardly notice the home on the corner. Built in 1900, this sheepish three-story house seems to endeavor not to draw attention to itself. But Alfred Hitchcock saw it differently. It was here that he filmed climactic scenes of his very last film, Family Plot, released in 1976. 

It may never be considered one of Hitchcock’s greats. While it does include many of his trademark suspenseful moments and thrilling intrigue, Hitchcock injected a level of zaniness in this film he had not mastered. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern play the out-of-their-element young couple dead set on uncovering the truth about an unclaimed family fortune, as well as an enormous diamond. But instead they get caught up in the sinister skulduggery of the shiny-toothed villain William Devane’s murderous schemes.

The main entrance of the corner home at Sacramento and Buchanan is used a couple of times in the film. Around the corner on Buchanan is the garage door (below) where some deliciously dastardly scenes take place. 

— Mark Fantino

From Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

Fillmore’s own Sonny Lewis

NEW RELEASE | SCOTT YANOW

Sonny Lewis is a jazz legend who almost slipped away into history. A superior tenor-saxophonist and flutist based in the San Francisco Bay Area since the early 1960s, Lewis made relatively few jazz recordings during his career.

He can be heard with Smiley Winters (playing next to altoist Sonny Simmons and trumpeter Barbara Donald) and on two records with trumpeter Dr. David Hardiman — but until now, no albums have been released under his own name. The previously unknown music on Fillmore Street Live is a major find that gives us the chance to appreciate his inventive style and artistry.

Pianist Rob Catterton, who produced the release for Sonoma Coast Records, met Sonny Lewis at a session in 1987. Catterton says:

“I was young and green but Sonny was gracious and very kind. After those sessions ended, I eventually summoned up the courage to call him, and we would rehearse on piano and tenor or flute, just the two of us. Sonny lost the ability to play in the late 1990s due to something called focal dystonia. Despite going to a hand specialist, he had to retire from playing. We’ve remained friends all these years, and recently he brought me 25 or 30 cassettes in a paper bag. They were mostly audience tapes, but two tapes stood out. They were recorded directly from the soundboard at an outdoor fair on Fillmore Street on July 2 and 3, 1988, and they really show what a great player Sonny Lewis was. As soon as I heard them, I knew this material had to be released.”

At that point, Sonny Lewis had already had a productive career. A professional since he was a teenager in Boston, he gained early experience playing with R&B and rock-and-roll bands. Always a versatile player, Lewis could fit comfortably into almost any setting. After studying at the Berklee School of Music, he spent time in the early 1960s working in Europe, performing with Bud Powell, Kenny Drew, poet William S. Burroughs and classical composer Terry Riley, and appearing on the original recording of Riley’s In C.

After moving to San Francisco in the early ’60s, Lewis created his own combos featuring several young musicians who would go on to fame, including Eddie Henderson and Tom Harrell. During the ’70s he went on the road, touring with Barry White for a year, gigging with Merle Saunders and Art Blakey, and touring and recording with R&B group the Whispers for over a decade. Lewis played on many of the Whispers’ hit recordings, including three gold albums.

Returning to San Francisco in the 1980s, Lewis led a series of quintets featuring vocalists, including recording artist Micki Lynn, who was also featured on these dates. The Fillmore Street sessions have already provided enough material to release a full album of incredibly well-played instrumental jazz, and Sonoma Coast Records may be able to obtain the rights to release Micki Lynn’s set in the future.

Saxman Sonny Lewis performing at the Fillmore street fair in 1992.

Sonny Lewis’s quartet includes Percy Scott, a well-known Bay Area keyboardist for more than 30 years. Percy toured extensively with the Whispers, and appears playing next to Lewis on one of David Hardiman’s albums. Bassist Harley White Sr., an influential educator, has been prominent in Northern California for some time, recording with pianists Earl Hines, Ed Kelly and Jessica Williams, singer Margie Baker and many others. In addition, Harley worked with all-stars Teddy Wilson, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt. Drummer Paul Smith recorded with Sonny Simmons (Manhattan Egos, 1969), violinist Michael White, bassist Paul Brown and organist Gerry Richardson. 

All three of these fine musicians give Sonny Lewis strong support, with each of them taking concise and consistently worthy solos.

Jazz journalist and historian Scott Yanow is the author of 11 books, including Jazz on Record 1917-76. This article is adapted from his liner notes for Fillmore Street Live, which is available on Amazon, Apple Music, Spotify, and other major music outlets.

A concert series in an Arts & Crafts treasure

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church by Laurie Passey

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Andrew Dodd lives nowhere near the neighborhood, but he’s brought something special to it. Dodd created the Second Sunday Concert Series at the Swedenborgian Church, at Washington and Lyon Streets, offering live music in the stunning 1895 Arts & Crafts-style church.

You live in Concord. How did you get involved with a small church more than 30 miles away?

After I got divorced, someone I dated in San Francisco showed it to me, and I couldn’t believe it. It’s more like a meetinghouse than a church — the original design didn’t even have a cross anywhere near the altar. Everyone who experiences it comes away amazed at its beauty and humility and simplicity and authenticity. I wanted more people to have that kind of experience.

It sounds more peaceful than religious.

The best way to explain it might be John Muir’s statement that, to him, a grove of redwoods was a cathedral. This church was conceived of and designed by a friend of his, Joseph Worcester, and it embodies in a very humble way that feeling of being in a natural, very intimate, personal place to explore one’s spirituality — much like Muir did in the wilds of California. You know, the trunks of madrone trees from the Santa Cruz mountains hold up the roof.

What about other Arts & Crafts elements, like the chairs?

The chairs were handmade by a friend of Worcester’s of hard maple with no screws or nails, just perfect craftsmanship. The rush-woven seats are from reeds in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The notion is that handmade things are imbued with the spirit of the maker. One of the prototypes of the chairs is in the Smithsonian collection.

So the idea of adding beautiful music to this beautiful place….

Yes, it seemed like a natural recipe for the experience I wanted. I came up with the idea because many people living in the neighborhood, with a National Historic Landmark right in their front yard, were not aware of it.

How do you select the performers?

I want to, as is often quoted in scripture, cast a wide net. Emanuel Swedenborg felt that all faiths are equally important in heaven, so all are valuable paths to the divine. And so many musicians are drawn to San Francisco because so many styles are appreciated here. I enjoy doing my own crossover. I find the musicians, negotiate the fees, schedule the shows and produce the advertising.

What’s your background?

I had a career in advertising for almost 30 years. I organized photo shoots, supervised copywriters and illustrators and designers. I was responsible for budgets and a year-long calendar. So I had all the tools I needed.

EARLIER: “The Arts & Crafts movement started here

Fighting as a metaphor for peace

An Israeli and a Palestinian spar in local filmmaker Pietro Pinto’s “Jerusalem in Between.”

FILM | ANDREA CHASE

Italian-born neighborhood resident Pietro Pinto didn’t set out to make a film about boxers. After winning a place in the Jerusalem Film Workshop a few years back, he arrived in Israel for the first time in his life with less than two weeks to find a subject for his short film, which will screen at the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Pinto had been one of the Bay Area’s young and emerging filmmakers between the ages of 19 to 27 chosen to participate in a six-week summer filmmaking workshop in Israel and produce a short to be screened at the festival. Fate led him to the Jerusalem Boxing Club, and to Nur and Arthur, the two protagonists of “Jerusalem in Between,” his visually poetic, philosophically dense consideration of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Pinto acknowledges the irony of using boxing when talking about detente. “It’s the perfect metaphor,” he says. “Of course, it’s fighting — but it’s also training together, instead of just looking for a victory.”

In fact, he says the first time he saw Nur and Arthur, they were sparring together in the only boxing club in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian and an Israeli could do so.

He knew it was the film he wanted to make, but convincing the Jewish Film Workshop was another matter. He persevered, introducing the young men to the producers, who finally agreed the story should be told. Thus began a four-week shoot and, for Pinto, two new friendships.

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The colors of jazz

By JASON OLAINE
Artistic Director, Fillmore Jazz Festival

What is the sound of jazz? And can jazz mean different things to different people, perhaps even different things to the same person?

Since its birth in New Orleans near the end of the 19th century, jazz was a hybrid: a mixed-up, beautiful child of Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and South America. The self-described inventor of jazz, pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton, said: “If you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right ‘seasoning’ to call it jazz.”

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24 years on retreat

“What I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship,” says Judith Skinner.

FILM | JESSICA BERNSTEIN-WAX

My mother’s friend Judith Skinner started a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in her Pacific Heights apartment in 1995. At the time, she thought it would last the traditional three years, three months and three days.

Almost 24 years later, she remains on retreat, a Buddhist practice that involves solitude, meditation and introspection — and can take place anywhere from a remote cave to a rent-controlled studio apartment in San Francisco.

I have known Judith almost all of my life. As a child, I visited her at the Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center near Berkeley, where she lived for many years. When Judith started her retreat, I thought three years sounded like a long time to lead a mostly solitary existence.

As her retreat extended for more and more years, I started to get curious. What did she do all day? And why had she dropped out of “normal life”?

To find out, I spent about a year and a half filming her on my days off and weekends. The resulting short documentary, On Retreat, will screen at this year’s SF DocFest, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. It screens on June 8 at 12:15 p.m. and on June 11 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theater.

You might think documentary footage of someone on a meditation retreat would be about as visually exciting as watching paint dry. But Judith is an engaging San Francisco character.

To help finance her retreat, she worked as a gardener for many years. Now in her 70s, she follows a simple daily routine involving Buddhist practice, writing and trips to Cal-Mart in Laurel Village.

She has almost no belongings and owns just one fork, but still manages to look sharp every day. She goes for regular haircuts at Patrick Richards Salon on Sacramento Street, where she tended the flower boxes for years.

Rather than focus primarily on the logistics of Judith’s retreat, my film explores her reasons for going on retreat in the first place and why she’s continued for so long.

“My friends tease me that retreat is the all-purpose excuse: I get out of everything,” Judith told me laughingly during one of our interviews. “On a deep level, what I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship.”

Judith truly does seems to be content with her quiet, somewhat isolated life. She credits Buddhist practice and her retreat with making her a calmer, less reactive person.

Despite her solitary lifestyle, Judith says she hasn’t felt lonely these last 24 years. The retreat and the city of San Francisco have been her constant and familiar companions.

The dancer is a choreographer

Photograph of Myles Thatcher rehearsing S.F. Ballet dancers by Erik Tomasson

CULTURE BEAT | PAMELA FEINSILBER

Myles Thatcher first came to Pacific Heights when he lived in the dorm for San Francisco Ballet School students on Jackson Street. He joined the company in 2010, and still lives nearby.

As a member of the corps de ballet, he has danced in everything from Swan Lake to Balanchine gems to world premiere works by today’s hottest choreographers. In fact, Thatcher, one of S.F. Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s youngest commissioned choreographers, has created some 15 one-act works himself — and he’s only 28.

This month, you can see him perform when S.F. Ballet presents John Neumeier’s heart-wrenching story ballet The Little Mermaid from April 19 to 28.

When did you know you had to become a ballet dancer?

I started dancing when I was 8 or 9 years old and couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I started training seriously at 13 or 14 and moved away at 15.

You left home at 15?

I’m from a small town in eastern Pennsylvania, and it’s hard to find a ballet school that’s high caliber enough to get you into the career circuit. I moved to Boca Raton to a place like a ballet boarding school. From there, I moved to New York City to train, and then I joined the top level of the S.F. Ballet School. I fell in love with the city and company when I did a summer program here at 17. I just knew if there was any way I could live and work here, I wanted to pursue it.

What about pursuing dancemaking?

I remember telling a dance teacher I wanted to do choreography, and she rolled her eyes. I kind of lost interest as I was getting my technical abilities up to par, but then we had this opportunity to choreograph. I made my piece on trainees at the S.F. Ballet School, and Helgi Tomasson chose mine to go to a festival the National Ballet School of Canada was hosting. That went well, so they asked me to do another piece for the S.F. Ballet School.

And you never stopped.

Helgi asked me to do work for the company, and from there I started working with other companies, nationally and internationally, for galas, competitions, films.

Would you prefer to be known as a great dancer or a great choreographer?

I would not give up choreography to pursue anything else. I’m happy that I’m setting the groundwork for when I can no longer dance. The average age to stop dancing is the mid-30s, though we have some dancers in their 40s. Right now, I’m balancing the two.

But you’re looking ahead.

I would not want to stop dancing yet, but it’s a short career. Creating dances is a beautiful way to express myself in this art form in a different way. It allows me to discover things with other people. You can’t do ballet alone. You can’t learn it off YouTube. The human element is why it’s survived all these years.

Explain a bit about The Little Mermaid.

It’s not your typical Disney version. It’s a really powerful and moving story about giving yourself to a person who doesn’t have the capacity to give back. The mermaid sacrifices a great deal to try to be with him. The story might be a metaphor for a poet character who is constantly at the mermaid’s side, who might have been in love with a straight man. By the end, we realize the mermaid and the poet narrator have been dealing with events in kind of the same way, like a thread through the piece.

What will you be doing in the piece?

John Neumeier is just a genius storyteller. Being able to work with him, you realize every step in that ballet has a narrative intention, down to the steps for the corps. I’m one of the dancers who make up the sea; we wear long blue skirts with white at the bottom. We also reflect the mermaid’s emotions: She comes from a peaceful place where she belongs and goes to a place where no one’s really happy, so there are moments we reflect tumultuous feelings. Once she gets on land, I am one of the ship’s passengers and wedding couples.

What do you do on a typical day off?

Many days, a few dancers will go to Roam on Fillmore to unwind and have a burger. A little bar called Fat Angel always has an interesting selection of wines and beers, and they have a really good mac and cheese. Upper Fillmore has changed a lot, but I kind of grew up going to La Med, and I still go back there.