Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Worth a good listen: Appealing to your inner ear and hungry mind one song at a time

Spring has arrived in splendid fashion ~ and there's plenty of promise as the weather warms up for most of us around the world. What better way to celebrate the new season than by spinning some enjoyable new tunes.

Whether you're looking to create a mood or, simply, be in the mood, here's a multicultural playlist (U.K., U.S., Australia, Germany, Switzerland) of some of my favorite music I've been in tune with via KCRW.com, and exploring through my iPod, that's worth a good listen. 

Hopefully, these songs not only will appeal to your inner ear and hungry mind. They'll make you smile, too. After all, these days everyone want something to smile about. 

Happy listening!

My Spring Multicultural Playlist

Laura Mvula - Can't Live With the World ~ England
British neo-soul singer/songwriter Laura Mvula's music has been labeled by The Guardian as "gospeldelia", calling it a new music genre. "Can't Live With the World" is from her just-released album Sing to the Moon. The song and the artist are garnering positive vibes here in the U.S. via KCRW.com's Morning Becomes Eclectic show. Hear here for yourself. 

Ivan & Alyosha - Running For Cover ~ U.S.
Formed in 2007, Ivan & Alyosha is a folk pop/indie rock band from Seattle, Washington, fronted by Tim Wilson and Ryan Carbary, who generated good buzz at this month's SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival in Austin, Texas. (For the record, none of the band members are named Ivan or Alyosha.) Their first full-length album is All the Times We Had.

Emma Louise - Boy ~ Australia
Emma Louise is an indie singer/songwriter from Brisbane, Australia, who was a featured artist on "The Austin 100: NPR Artists to Discover at SXSW 2013. Her lovely harmony is what will make you want to listen to "Boy" more than once.

Bibio - Á tout á l'heure ~ England
From the forthcoming album Silver Wilkinson, "Á tout á l'heure" (French for At the time) is by the Midlands, U.K. group Bibio, the moniker for Stephen Wilkinson, whose music is primarily electronic and experimental in nature. 

BOY - Little Numbers ~ Germany and Switzerland
Swiss singer Valeska Steiner and German bassist Sonja Glass are BOY and fans of Feist or Jenny Lewis will enjoy this Zurich-Hamburg indie-pop duo, whose album Mutual Friends, sung in English, was just released in North America after receiving good props in Europe. The song "Little Numbers" was featured in Lufthansa Airline's Business Class advertisement last summer.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Pope Francis I: He will not forget the poor

A simple wave and a smile / Pope Francis I 

Until now, there's never been a Francis.

There have been popes named Peter, Urban, Leo and Innocent. And, we've had John, Paul, and John Paul I and II.

Now, we have Francis I. With a little less silk, lace and gold than his predecessors, but no less humble.

Today, the world watched together as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, formally became Pope Francis I, the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, during a Holy Mass inaugurating the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome outside St. Peter's Basilica.

It was a remarkable morning celebrating a universal event.

A crowd estimated by the Vatican of 150,000 tourists, pilgrims and Roman Catholic faithful poured into St. Peter's Square for the two hour inauguration Mass, which was televised to a world-wide audience and, in this age of social media, was live blogged, too. In addition, there were delegations representing 132 countries in attendance, including six reigning sovereigns, 31 heads of state, three crown princes and 11 heads of government.

Before the start of the Holy Mass, the affable pope arrived at St. Peter's Square and greeted the crowd while riding in an open-top "popemobile". He appeared totally at ease and comfortable, beaming his photogenic smile for everyone, kissing babies, even giving a thumbs-up to well-wisher. He took the time to have the popemobile stop in the square so that he could get out and kiss and bless an infirmed man.

During the Holy Mass, the pope received his fisherman's ring, symbol of the pope as a "fisher of men" and a ring that only a pope can wear. In his 14-minute personal homily, reported The New York Times, the new pontiff "offered a passionate pledge ... to serve 'the poorest, the weakest, the least important,' striking the same times on humility as have marked the days since he was elected last week."

The London Guardian noted: "In his homily, the pope compared himself with Joseph, the husband of Mary who was given the mission by God of being her protector, that of Jesus, and that of the church. He said all people should take on this role of protecting those around them and the world itself, and said that goodness and tenderness were signs of strength, not weakness. Power is service, he said."

• A week of joyous excitement

Less than a week ago, amid chilly rain, about 150,000 jubilant faithful jammed the piazza of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, joined by a world-wide TV audience, who watched in anticipation as a new pope was announced.

Joyous excitement, colorful pageantry and a sense of orderliness ~ giddiness, maybe? ~ rang through St. Peter's Square a few minutes past 7 o'clock last Wednesday, in the twilight, as the Basilica bells chimed, confirming what the white smoke billowing out of the the makeshift chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel signaled for everyone to see: a new pontiff had been elected.

Soon, it was announced to the world: Habemus papam.

"We have a pope." 

With those terse but expressive Latin words, there was much joy and celebration among the faithful, both in the Roman piazza, and throughout the world among 1.2 billion Catholics.

Although I am not Catholic (I am a confirmed Episcopalian), I have shared in the jubilation of the new pope. Soon after there was confirmation that a new pope had been chosen last week, I was online with a longtime friend of mine from Costa Rica, who is Catholic. She was thrilled by the news that the newly chosen pope hailed from South America and expressed her hope. Meanwhile, I tried to explain to a new friend of mine from Tunisia, a Muslim, the significance of the moment, which I had been describing in detail to her, as a result of my interest in papal history, pomp and ceremony.

In an institution that is based largely on tradition, the announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio's (pronounced Burr-GOAL-leo) as the "chosen one" to succeed Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pope in 598 years to retire, brought tremendous surprise. Amid the secrecy of the conclave of cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel, it took only 28 hours and five ballots to choose a new pontiff.

• A pope of firsts

Indeed, Francis I has become a pope of firsts. He's the first pope born outside Europe since St. Gregory III 1,200 years ago and the first pope from the Americas. He's the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere and the first Jesuit pope. And, he's the first to adopt a new, unused and non-composed regnal name since Lando in 913-914.

In the spirit of St. Francis of Asisi, whom the new pope honored in taking the name Francis, we've witnessed a sense of poverty, humility and simplicity on display during the pope's first week. At least for now, it signifies a rekindling of energy in the Catholic Church, not to mention a fresh face for its spiritual leader.

Fratelli e sorelle, buonasera: "Brothers and sisters, good evening," said the bespectacled Francis, dressed in a plain white cassock and speaking in Italian, as he greeted the world and introduced himself for the first time from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica last Wednesday. "I would like to thank you for your embrace." He showed a sense of humility, too: "My fellow cardinals went and found one all the way at the end of the world, but here we are."

Among his first acts, the new pope asked the people of Rome (and, for that matter, the world) to ask for God's blessing for him before he blessed them. It was an act and gesture of simplicity, but it spoke volumes.

• A humble man, a man of the people

The former Argentine cardinal, who was archbishop of Buenos Aires, is a humble man, a man of the people. An Argentine by birth, he has Italian roots thanks to his father being born in Italy. He is comfortable speaking in many languages, including Spanish, Latin and Italian. 

A conservative with a common touch, Francis has shown he wants to be close to the people. He's taken time to embrace everyday Catholics and shown the friendly demeanor of a parish priest. Back home in Argentina, he's a fan of "the Saints" of San Lorenzo de Almagro, a top-division Argentine football team in Buenos Aires. He's well known for his outreach to the Argentine poor and the disenfranchised, and for living modestly in a small apartment and cooking his own meals.

In Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio eschewed a chauffeur-driven car for public transportation, which endeared him to his faithful. According to legend, the best way to enjoy a personal audience with him was to hop aboard the bus that he regularly rode to and from his home and the church.

"He forsake many of the luxuries. This is a man of humility," said NPR Rome correspondent Sylvia Poggioli on All Things Considered, in describing the new pontiff in his first hours after being elected. "A pope from outside of the European world is going to be received very well."

Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, in referring to the pope's position as the heir to St. Peter, told the Los Angeles Times: "He's trying to be himself, not to change himself. But at the same time he's completely aware of his role, of his Petrine ministry. He's trying to find a balance."

• Can Francis save and reform the Catholic Church?

For the moment, hot-button issues facing the Catholic Church such as a shortage of priests, the ban on the ordination of women as priests, a sexual abuse crisis in the West, as well as its staunch opposition to abortion and gay marriage, have taken a back seat. Hopefully, these issues will not be lost on the new pontiff.

Just a few days into his papacy, one wonders if Francis can save and reform the Catholic Church? I don't know. But, I am hopeful that he can. At least, his outward appearance ~ his magnetic personality ~ suggests a sense of warmth and friendliness, and I think he is reaching out to show openness towards other faiths, too. Patriarchs from major religions were in attendance at the pope's inauguration Mass.

“Given that many of you do not belong to the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I give this blessing from my heart, in silence, to each one of you, respecting the conscience of each one of you, but knowing that each one of you is a child of God,” the pope told a gathering of world media last Saturday at the Vatican. “May God bless you.” 

During his gathering with world media, the pope said he had chosen his name, Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who worked for the poor and worked for peace. "Francis is the man of peace." He said the name "came into my heart: Francis of Assisi.” The  pope added: "Ah, how I would like a church that is poor and is for the poor." 

I think the new pope will be very invigorating for the Roman Catholic faithful, something that I sensed was sorely lacking in the papacy of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. So far, he's resisted giving up his simple black shoes for the stylish red shoes favored by Benedict, and he wears a plain crucifix instead of something much more bejeweled and ornate. Looking at photo galleries in recent days, the new pontiff has shown he isn't afraid to smile. 

According to many, the future of the Catholic Church lies in the developing worlds of Latin America, as well as in Africa and in Asia. Certainly, I think Francis is a representative of the developing world instead of just the developed First World. And, his choice signifies a shift of the centuries-old gravity of the Catholic Church away from Europe toward Latin America, where 40 percent of the world's Catholics now reside.

The bottom line is this: Can the new pope bring the Gospel message to the world? Let's hope so. Today's inaugural Mass was marked by its simplicity, and the new pope's homily set a good tone for his papacy.

One thing's certain: This pope will not forget the poor.

After all, there's no faking humility.

• A postscript

Editor's note:  On Dec. 11, Time magazine named Pope Francis as its Person of the Year, "crediting him with shifting the message of the Catholic Church while capturing the imagination of the millions of people who had become disillusioned with the Vatican," according to Reuters.

Photograph of Pope Francis I courtesy of the Associated Press.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What we can learn from art on a starry night

Vincent van Gogh's Starry Night / 1889 oil on canvas.

I love Dutch art. I feel comfortable and at ease being around it. 

Some of my best life experiences have been spent perusing Dutch masterstroke painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens in museums across the world, in Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Amsterdam, alone, I've spent many enjoyable hours walking through the galleries of the Rijksmuseum, the Hermitage Amsterdam and the Van Gogh museums admiring the Dutch Golden Age of art and much more.

What's not to like or to learn from it?

And, then, there's famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), whose post-Impressionist work is notable for its "rough beauty, emotional honesty and bold color," that I am very fond of. Van Gogh once said: "If you hear a voice within you saying, 'You are not a painter,' then by all means paint … and that voice will be silenced." 

Art, as I have learned through my travels, teaches us to notice what we feel, and how to think for ourselves. It also helps us learn to see and appreciate the world all around us.

And, yet, art teaches us how to express ourselves in ways that words cannot ~ even though it's said that every picture is worth a thousand words.

In a project designed to engage feedback, the Bainbridge Island (Wash.) Museum of Art asked its patrons of all ages a very simple but matter-of-fact question:

"What can art teach us?"

As you might imagine, many of the responses ~ especially those from children ~ were most perceptive.

One child said: "Art teaches us about life. Art teaches us how to see the world in new ways." 

Another child's response struck a chord with many of my friends when I shared it with them on Facebook:

"Art teaches us that it's okay to color your trees purple." 

I like that response very much.

After all, if coloring our trees purple provides us with pleasure and makes us happy, I say: "Go for it!" 

While van Gogh may not have colored his trees purple in any of his paintings, his work was quite colorful and very artistic. I've always admired his painting "Les Iris", his 1889 interpretation of irises, since we have an iris garden in our back yard.

Of course, I marvel at what is arguably van Gogh's most artistic achievement, "Starry Night", which the artist painted from memory during the day time. It depicts the nocturnal view outside van Gogh's sanitarium room window at Saint Rémy-de-Provence in France. "Starry Night" has become one of the most well known images in modern culture. It became the subject of popular, 1971 song "Vincent" by Don McLean, whose lyrics were written with the iconic painting in mind. "Starry Night" is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

I have learned through studying van Gogh's life and paintings that he was very outspoken when it came to sharing his thoughts about art and its relationship with life, love and religion. After all, during his early years as an artist (1876-1880), he wanted to dedicate his life to the evangelization of those in poverty. 

"The best way to know God is to love many things," said van Gogh. "It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done."

According to van Gogh, there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. "Close friends are truly life's treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves," he said. "With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.”  

Indeed, art teaches us to feel emotion. And, the artistic legacy of van Gogh will forever remain with us through his paintings, drawings and writings. They are everlasting. 

"Love is something eternal," said van Gogh. "The aspect may change, but not the essence."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Girl with a Pearl Earring: Who's that girl?

Girl with a Pearl Earring 

If life is best shared through story, as it's been said, then, art is the medium through which we illustrate these stories.

One such story that has been wonderfully illustrated is Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring. This renowned and beloved masterpiece, labeled the Dutch Mona Lisais one of the most beautiful and artistically important paintings in the world.

Currently, the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park is hosting Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis. The show, which opened on January 26 to much fanfare, continues its residency in The City through June 2. It is drawing tremendous crowds and much attention, too.

Last Friday, I visited the exhibition, which is on loan from the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague, and came away impressed by the many outstanding paintings from the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. Both portraits and still lifes, which give Dutch art a visually and intellectually appealing resonance, were well represented among the 35 paintings. Among them were: A Hunting Party near the Hofvijver in The Hague, Seen from the Plaats (ca. 1690) by Gerrit Berckheyde and The Goldfinch (1654) by Carel Fabritius. Other masterstroke artists represented included: Salomon van Ruysdael, Abraham van Beyeren and Rachel Ruysch.

And, of course, the special exhibition wouldn't be complete without giving due props to the most famous Dutch master of them all, Rembrandt. In fact, a separate exhibition gallery featuring 60 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, entitled Rembrandt's Century, is also on display and included in the admission price for Girl.

However, the centerpiece of the Dutch Golden Age exhibition remained the iconic Girl with a Pearl Earring. It was the one spectacular painting that garnered everyone's attention, the one everyone wanted to see. And I must say this: The showstopper, which had its very own gallery room, was quite the jewel.

Johannes Vermeer painted the timeless portrait of Girl with a Pearl Earring using oils on canvas, circa 1665. While it's been a popular painting for several centuries, its celebrity and superstar status was enhanced only recently, in both literature and on film. In 1999, Tracy Chevallier's best-selling, historical novel fictionalized the circumstances of the creation of the painting. In turn, the novel inspired a 2003 dramatic movie starring Colin Firth as Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as the wide-eyed girl, Griet. Hired by Vermeer as an assistant, she sits for him as a painting model while wearing one of his wife's pearl earrings dangling from her left earlobe. The book and the film brought the radiant painting to life and helped introduce it to a wide-reaching audience.

On this particular morning, I took my time in absorbing the atmosphere of the spacious gallery room as I approached Girl with a Pearl Earring. I wanted to take full advantage of this rare opportunity to see the most famous of Vermeer's 36 paintings and, arguably, the second most famous painting in the world.

First, I stood to the right of the hauntingly beautiful, softly-lit masterpiece. Then, I stood in front of it. Finally, I shifted to the painting's left side. I wanted to see this lovely portrait set against a dark, neutral background from a variety of angles. In each instance, there were different aspects of the painting, which was restored in 1994, that I focused upon: the girl's beautiful wide eyes, her parted lips, her blue turban-like headscarf with its yellow veil, her yellowish-brown jacket with the shining white collar, the intimacy of her gaze towards me. And, of course, the focal point: the most famous pearl earring ever painted.

Soon, I left the exhibition and headed out into a lovely, sunlit San Francisco afternoon impressed by Girl with a Pearl Earring. Yet, after seeing this magical face full of much drama and conflict, I couldn't help but think that there were many questions about this masterpiece in search of answers. I pondered some of them while walking across the park on my way to eat lunch.

  • What is the girl thinking as she stares at us? 
  • Do her eyes and half-smile convey a sense of innocence or are they meant to be seductive? 
  • And, centrally, why is the girl wearing a pearl earring?

I'm sure others are asking the same questions as me.

Indeed, who's that girl?