Monday, May 02, 2016

White Night Riots Redux

On Friday night, the streets around City Hall were shut down for filming When We Rise, an 8-hour minisieries for ABC about the history of the gay rights movement in San Francisco and beyond. The all-night shoot on Polk Street in front of City Hall was devoted to filming establishing shots of the May 21, 1979 White Night Riots with the violent sequences involving burning police cars and people being clubbed by the police having already been filmed in Vancouver, B.C. a couple of weeks ago.

For those unfamiliar with local history, Supervisor Dan White, who represented "traditional" San Francisco values, murdered leftist SF Mayor George Moscone and gay SF Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978 in City Hall. He then turned himself in to an old Catholic high school buddy at a police station and was treated with kid gloves throughout a bungled, lengthy trial, where everything from junk food to leftist agitators were blamed for his assassinations rather than his peevish rage and homophobic bigotry. The verdict of manslaughter with its accompanying light sentence was shocking, inciting a protest march from the Castro to Civic Center which ended in a riot in front of City Hall. This was followed by a rogue contingent of SF Police Department officers beating the crap out of people on the sidewalks and bars of the Castro District before they were ordered to disperse.

For a concise post about what went down that night, click here for Uncle Donald's Castro Street website. There are a few details I would like to add that didn't make it into the historical record, but which struck me as interesting. The verdict was announced in the late afternoon, and I found out about it when a TV news van came screeching to a halt in front of the Twin Peaks bar and a reporter stuck a microphone in front of my face. "What do you think of the verdict?" they asked, and I countered with, "What was the verdict?" "Manslaughter." After expressing my disgust, the reporter's next question was, "Do you think there will be a riot?" and I responded, "I certainly hope so." I was on my way to work out at the City Athletic Club (known to initiates as the Sissy Athletic Club), but grabbed my gym bag and joined the spontaneous, angry march that went down Market Street to City Hall.

At the end of a protest march in those days, there would usually be a microphone or bullhorn set up in front of City Hall along with a roster of speakers, but none of that existed on this evening so nobody quite knew what to do. Somebody finally broke some windows at City Hall and immediately the TV news crew lights popped on. Then, when nothing else violent happened, they would go dark. Another crash and on came the TV lights again. The effect was predictably Pavlovian, and the media-induced vandalism was bizarre to witness as it spiraled out of control.

One of Mayor Moscone's first acts in office was to bring an outsider, Charles Gain, to reform the historically corrupt, insular, thuggish San Francisco Police Department. The Police Officers Association hated Moscone and Gain, and there were credible reports of policemen cheering Dan White when he first showed up at the station for his confession. On the night of the riots, the police inside City Hall were ordered at first by Gain to step down and not to confront the protesters because he didn't trust them to stay in any kind of control. Meanwhile, according to my late friend Mick McMullin, a teenaged Polk Street hustler who was next to him shouted, "Let's get some stuff for fire." The kid then broke plate-glass windows at a Goodyear tire store nearby, and joined with others to throw them into police cruisers, leading to the infamous conflagration of cop cars burning in front of City Hall. This was the final straw and the police were sent out to battle the protesters whose numbers had swelled to the thousands by this point.

Sensing that the scene was going to get seriously violent, I fled and jumped on Muni back to the Castro district, stopping at a few gay bars to spread the news of what I had seen. The response from most of the patrons was "tsk, tsk, this kind of behavior is not good for our image, people should work through the system." This turned out to be darkly ironic in that a rogue battalion of police officers invaded the neighborhood later that evening and beat the crap out of those mostly apolitical drinkers, with the Elephant Walk bar at 18th and Castro bearing the brunt of most of the official mayhem. (The Badlands bar bolted their doors to protect their patrons from the marauding police, trapping everyone inside.)

Before the police riot occurred, I met a friend on the quiet Castro Street sidewalks and we went to his place where we watched TV coverage of the City Hall riot. Leaving his place to go home, I stumbled across a remarkable scene -- thousands of neighborhood residents slowly pushing a phalanx of policemen backwards up Castro Street after their raid as they shouted, "Get out! Get out!" A few minutes after my arrival, word of this rogue operation had finally filtered back to Chief Gain and he ordered everyone out over the radio. I watched as various police officers banged mailboxes, flower boxes, and windows with their batons in violent anger at not being able to smash any more heads. It took six years of frustration and heartache for the owner of the Elephant Walk and its patrons to receive a pitiful settlement from the city of San Francisco (click here for Fred Rogers' account), and to this date there has never been any apology or acknowledgement of this thuggish behavior by the San Francisco Police Department. Chief Gain, by the way, was fired by Mayor Dianne Feinstein in 1980. (Pictured above is Alex, the amiable production assistant directing pedestrian traffic at City Hall on Friday.)

Something else that has been little noted about the evening was that the rioters were not only white, middle-class, young gay men from the Castro neighborhood, but that they were joined by the black underclass from housing projects in the Western Addition nearby. It's the the only time I have seen those two groups in San Francisco standing and fighting together in solidarity in my forty-plus years living in this city. After the White Night Riots, the gay population stopped being beaten up with impunity by the SFPD because the local establishment was publicly shamed internationally. The white, gay middle class was eventually co-opted into the local power structure, culminating in the dreary spectacle of gay Supervisor Scott Weiner cheerleading for embattled SFPD Chief Greg Suhr whose department continues to bash and murder people of color with alarming regularity out of sheer, backwards racism. It is time to put a stop to that kind of behavior too. If you are free, there is to be a march on Tuesday from Mission Police Station at 17th and Valencia to City Hall at 12:30PM with hunger strikers in wheelchairs who are demanding the resignation of Police Chief Suhr, with a rally at City Hall at 2PM.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Obsession and Creation at SoundBox

Two years ago the San Francisco Symphony initiated SoundBox, a monthly concert series designed to lure younger audiences with a hip, fresh, cutting-edge "nightclub-like setting" in a cavernous rehearsal space at the back of Davies Symphony Hall. There are innumerable reasons that the effort could and should have been a disaster, from condescension to cluelessness to institutional stodginess. The concerts instead have been a surprisingly organic success, selling out every month within minutes of going on sale and entertaining unusually quiet, attentive audiences that range from classical newbies to sophisticated music lovers.

Contributing enormously to every SoundBox concert have been the multimedia screens created by Adam Larsen, whose imagery ranges from understated to hyperactive, depending on the piece being performed. Most multimedia efforts combined with classical music have struck me as intrusive and distracting, but Larsen manages to avoid the usual pitfalls, enriching the music with intelligence and flair.

Larsen is part of a Los Angeles creative collaborative called Chromatic, which curated this season's final concerts, starting with an amusing art installation in the antechamber dedicated to Harry Partch (1901-1974), the gay California microtonal composer who invented many of his own instruments.

The sound artist Chris Kallmyer was laid out on a white square being serenaded with Bach partitas by violinist Andrew McIntosh while on an adjoining table the evening's conductor, Christopher Rountree, was whipping up a bowl of rose-petal jam with Chromatic designer Peabody Southwell.

Rountree later explained to the audience that Partch hated Bach and loved making rose-petal jam at his house in Petaluma every year so Kallmyer decided to bridge the love-hate divide with this installation.

The concert itself began with commissioned premieres by two brilliant young composers who have already been featured at SoundBox, Ted Hearne (above) and Nathaniel Stookey.

For the love of Charles Mingus, Hearne's short, bracing opener for six electric violins, was performed in front of the stage about two inches away from the audience, with Florin Parvulescu and Raushan Akhmedyarova above focusing intently on the difficult, pulsing music with its strange bowings and sound effects.

Stookey's Yield to Total Elation is a 20-minute homage to the San Francisco outsider artist Achilles G. Rizzoli who created fantastic architectural drawings in the 1930s of an imaginary city that were "symbolic portraits" of various friends.

During the performance, on a catwalk bisecting the audience, three dancers including Nicholas Korkos above were creating chalk outlines of their own imaginary city.

Stookey above also performed on an electro-acoustic stringed instrument created by Oliver DiCicco called the OOVE. According to Stookey's online notes, the instrument "provides the harmonic background from which YTTE emerges; later, the OOVE rejoins the orchestra, which has gone very far afield in the meantime, as though to remind us of that lineage." The instrument sounded somewhere between an organ, a theremin, and a synthesizer, and the entire piece was ambitious, architectural and beautiful, swelling to a satisfying, transcendental climax.

After intermission, we jumped back centuries with Purcell's obsessive 1680 Fantasia on One Note, with instrumentalists that included violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Barbara Bogatin above.

This was followed by a performance from soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Salome singing the magnificent 1675 aria Queste lagrime e sospiri from Italian composer Alessandro Stradella's oratorio Giovanni Battista. Breckinridge was in fine voice and her interaction with the dancers stunningly theatrical as she demanded the head of John the Baptist.

Rountree introduced the next piece, Frederic Rzewski's 1971 Attica, with an explanation for young people about the New York penitentiary riot which left scores of prisoners and guards dead after Governor Nelson Rockefeller ill-advisedly sent in troops during a hostage situation. He mentioned that the piece was democratically scored, in that the musicians were allowed within certain parameters to play whenever and however they wanted, and that the audience was encouraged to join vocalist and Chromatic co-founder Peabody Southwell who was intoning the musical phrase "Attica." (Pictured above are Chromatic director James Darrah and Marnie Breckenridge, who joined the singalong while sitting on the catwalk.)

Attica is the second section of a piece called Coming Together, and because of the subject matter I was expecting a harsh, brutal and dissonant sound. Instead, it was a sweet, hippie-dippie, hypnotically gorgeous tune repeating over and over, with Southwell intoning Attica as a prayerful chant with many in the audience joining in on their own. This included composer Ted Hearne above who wandered onto the stage and sang out full voice. It was an amazing experience that had me crying by the end, and after checking out other versions on YouTube I can attest that the orchestra and the audience gave what may have been the most soulful rendition of the music imaginable.

The third set was devoted to three pieces from Frank Zappa's final early 1990s work, Yellow Shark (click here for a YouTube concert of the entire album), which felt slightly anticlimactic after the previous performances even though the orchestra swelled to twice its size. To make room for all the extra players, the audience front rows were evicted. We were amusingly led to the side of the stage where there was illuminated signage designating the area as "VIP Seating" after being offered pieces of bread slathered with Rountree's freshly made rose-petal jam which was unexpectedly delicious. (Pictured above is Nicholas Pavkovic on keyboards.)

The entire evening felt simultaneously loose and structured, improvisatory and tightly honed, a perfect summation of West Coast experimentalism. The Chromatic group above did themselves proud and I hope they return soon.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Cherry Blossom Intruder Bunnies

Five, 23-foot white rabbits have been installed in Civic Center for most of the month of April.

Australian artist Amanda Parer created the public installation in 2014, and since then the bunnies have been traveling the world.

The artist's stated intention is to highlight the environmental devastation rabbits have caused on the continent of Australia after the non-native species were introduced by European immigrants in the 18th century.

On Sunday morning, there was an additional resonance to the art installation as the annual Japanese American Cherry Blossom Festival Parade was assembling on Polk Street before marching to Japantown on Geary Boulevard.

Australia has been famously, historically racist in its immigration policies, doing its best to keep out the Asian hordes surrounding its white, Anglo culture...

...which made the juxtaposition of people dressed in Japanese manga costumes posing in front of the rabbit "intruders" even odder to witness.

In the United States throughout most of the 20th century, Japanese Americans were legislated against as foreign intruders...

...and during World War Two they were sent to concentration camps, including a holding center at what is now the Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno (click here for a recent historical account by Gary Kamiya in the SF Chronicle).

The entire concept of what is "native" and what is an "intruder" is a thorny one, depending very much on who is supplying the historical narration.

Particularly in the two Edens that are California and Australia, we are all intruders, except for the aboriginal tribes who were here centuries before other humans.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Posthumous Symphonies and The Divine Sasha

Last week Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in a pair of famous symphonies that were premiered after the deaths of their respective composers. The first half was devoted to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony which the composer wrote in 1822, shelved after two movements, and premiered in 1865 decades after his early death. The melodies are so catchy that it's easy to hear why the piece is so popular but MTT's interpretation last Saturday evening was grave and serious, finally settling into the lugubrious.

Things picked up immensely after intermission with Mahler's mammoth 1909 symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde or The Song of the Earth. It was a 2007 performance with MTT leading the SF Symphony with tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Thomas Hampson that finally converted me to the strange piece, an hour-long setting of six Chinese poems translated into German that glides seamlessly between utter delicacy and total cacophony.

As great as that 2007 performance was, this version was better because the two soloists were extraordinary. Simon O'Neill, who memorably performed as Chairman Mao in SF Opera's Nixon in China a few years ago, managed to sing over the huge orchestra with beauty and humor, especially in his near-impossibly difficult opening Drinking Song of Earthly Woe, which ends with "Leert eure gold’nen Becher zu Grund!/Dunkel ist das Leben, ist der Tod!" or "Drain your golden goblets to the last/Dark is life, dark is death!" His counterpart was alto Sasha Cooke whose voice was so meltingly beautiful I alternated between wanting to cry and to laugh because Mike Myers as Linda Richman kept coming to mind with her catchphrase, "Her voice, it's like buttah!"

The 30-minute final song, Der Abschied, with Mahler saying goodbye to the world (he died six months before the first performance) was exquisite, and if you don't know the music, you should (click here for Christa Ludwig singing with Otto Klemperer conducting on YouTube).

The orchestral playing all evening was fabulous and the orchestra will probably sound even better tonight in Carnegie Hall where the orchestra is repeating this program on tour.