Saturday, April 18, 2015

4 AM Paving on Franklin Street

Around 9 PM on Wednesday evening, a bright light appeared at the back of the San Francisco Opera House, and we assumed it was in preparation for a film shoot.

We were wrong. Instead, it was the commencement of a street repaving project on Franklin Street between Grove and McAllister that stretched from 10 PM to 4:30 AM, complete with men on piledrivers, trucks dumping tar, and steamrollers going back and forth.

Living on the streetside corner of Franklin and McAllister in San Francisco for over 20 years, I have become accustomed to noise. There is auto traffic, constant sirens, daily construction projects, and society tent parties with bad cover rock bands playing until 2 AM. None of that quite prepared me, however, for the aural assault from a street paving project outside the living room window all night long.

Thursday evening I returned home from downtown and saw the machine below parked across the street from our apartment, and the waking nightmare began all over again, except this time it was closer as they paved Franklin Street from McAllister to Turk. The noise of piledrivers and piercing beeps from reversing trucks was joined by machinery that actually shook our old 75-unit apartment building like a series of small earthquakes. It was probably similar at the senior housing project across the street and Opera Plaza further up the block.

The mayoral administration of Ed Lee has made it clear that they don't care about the welfare of most of San Francisco's citizens, but this disregard for people's sleeping habits was still a bit shocking. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for pushback as the steamroller goes north on Franklin Street to fancier real estate.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Police Murder Protest at SF City Hall

At 2:30 this afternoon, there were assorted clumps of San Francisco policemen surrounding City Hall.

They were on the front steps on Van Ness Avenue, scattered across Civic Center Plaza...

...and stationed on Polk Street between Grove and McAllister Streets.

There was a small protest on the Polk Street stairway entrance to City Hall with signage in Spanish and English decrying racist police executions both locally and nationally.

One of the doorways into City Hall was locked and a few kids were banging loudly on the door.

The doorway adjoining was open, so I walked in and was greeted by a wild scene.

The security checkpoints with metal detectors had been abandoned, while a contingent of Sheriffs stood unmoving at either side of the small crowd of mostly young people creating all the mayhem.

The most surreal sights were the women standing on top of the sheriff's security checkpoint desks leading chants against police brutality.

I walked outside and around the corner to the basement McAllister Street entrance, and was greeted by a pleasant, dreadlocked Sheriff's deputy who said, "I just saw you with your video camera on my security camera, you must have gotten some great shots," and I confessed to only carrying a still camera. I went upstairs through the North Light Court, where a catering operation was being set up for a luxury, private party in City Hall that evening, just another surrealistic detail.

The young protestors had arrived at City Hall around 1PM for speeches on the Polk Street stairs, and a number of them had found seating at the weekly 2PM Board of Supervisors meeting on the second floor, and when the meeting started, all hell broke loose with shouting and chants, so that the room was emptied and the Supervisors meeting went into temporary recess. (For an account by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez at the SF Examiner, click here.) By 3:00, when I showed up, the meeting had already resumed.

The protest and the mute, unmoving law enforcement presence reached a standoff. The rotunda area needed to be secured so party setup could get underway.

In a heartening postscript, there were a few bright, articulate, young black protestors who made their way into the Board of Supervisors chambers at 3PM and waited until 6PM to testify during two-minute Public Comments, which I just watched on the Channel 26 Government Access station. The speakers nailed the majority of Supervisors, particularly London Breed and Malia Cohen without naming them, to a wall of shame for selling out their constituents so completely.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Success of SoundBox

SoundBox, the San Francisco Symphony's attempt to draw in a younger crowd with late-evening, monthly concerts in a nightclub style setting, has been successful on a scale that probably nobody ever imagined. The Meyer Sound System has transformed an acoustically dead rehearsal stage at the back of Davies Hall into a reverberant concert hall, the lighting of the industrial looking space has been consistently evocative, and the performances have featured a lot of interesting contemporary music not usually heard on symphony programs. All the concerts have sold out, the audience does skew way younger, and the ambience is genuinely fun.

Credit should also go to the Symphony PR Department, specifically Louisa Spier and Amelia Kusar, who have spread the word everywhere, from an article in The New Yorker magazine to features in seemingly every media outlet in the country. The Seattle couple above were visiting friends in San Francisco, and they had heard the coolest thing to do in town was a SoundBox concert, so they stood outside on Franklin Street with a sign looking to buy any extra tickets. (It worked.) That is some serious buzz.

Composer Samuel Adams above was the curator of this week's concerts, thematically entitled Their Own Devices, which translated into five musical pieces from young composers that combined acoustic instruments with electronic sampling.

First up were Symphony percussionists Raymond Froehlich and Tom Hemphill, playing crotales, high pitched little cymbals, while accompanied by 6-channel, one-bit electronics in an amusing piece called Observations by Tristan Perich.

At times it was impossible to separate the sounds of the live crotales and the beeping electronics, which was half the fun, and the poker-faced percussionists did a brilliant job with the hypnotic, minimalist music. This was followed by Clara Ionnatta's Àphones for chamber orchestra and no electronics on an adjoining stage. The composer mentions in her notes that she was attempting to embrace the "extreme acoustics" of electronic music with acoustic instruments on which there was a lot of unconventional sawing away, but the piece felt strangely old-fashioned in its avant-garde mannerisms.

Pianist Sarah Cahill commissioned various composers this year to write tribute pieces for San Francisco composer Terry Riley's 80th birthday. One of them was Samuel Adams, who wrote Shade Studies for piano and echoing electronics, a gentle and unusually subtle acoustic/electronic combo that Sarah premiered during a set at the New Music Gathering at the SF Conservatory in January.

As she began to play, a videographer and a still photographer from Associated Press sat on the floor directly in front of us, which was fine, but the photographer was shooting with a noisy single lens reflex shutter, which was not. After a minute of listening to him destroy the gentle piano piece with his clicks, I tapped him on the shoulder and told him to stop, which he ignored. His videographer companion whispered, "We were invited here," and I whispered back, "Not to make noise you weren't." In this digital era, there is absolutely no reason to be using a noisy camera, particularly at a musical event that includes quiet dynamics. The phrase "lamestream media" immediately came to mind.

Without pause, Amos Yang followed Sarah on the same stage with Daniel Wohl's Saint Arc for cello augmented with electronics. The composer noted that he was trying to create "a cathedral of sound through sampling, inverting, and stretching the natural sound of the cello." Yang did a bang-up job and enough people were giving the AP guys the stink-eye that they left midway through the piece.

After another intermission where everyone was drinking and comparing notes about the music, a string orchestra augmented with electronic samples played Ted Hearne's 6-movement, 35-minute Law of Mosaics, which was lively and simply brilliant in its use of complex rhythms and textures. Movement III was entitled Climactic moments from “Adagio for Strings” and “The Four Seasons,” slowed down and layered on top of one another while Movement V was entitled Climactic moments from movement three, 3 times as slow as before. The orchestra sounded great in what was probably very tricky music to play.

The multimedia projections on three huge screens by Adam Larsen all season have been an integral part of SoundBox's success. I'm usually extremely critical of attempts to marry visual multimedia with live classical music because it can be so distracting in all the wrong ways, but Larsen has been remarkably restrained and subtle in his use of imagery, often settling for stills or moody abstraction. For Law of Mosaics, he finally decided to go flat-out psychedelic trippy and it worked, since Hearne's music is so strong that it held its own.

Friday was the final concert of the inaugural SoundBox season, as the space reverts back to a rehearsal stage for the San Francisco Opera. SoundBox's second season will start up again in December, and I can't wait to hear what's next. How about Lou Harrison's La Koro Sutro for American Gamelan and 100-person chorus singing in Esperanto? Anything seems possible.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

John Adams, Schoenberg & Piotr Ilyich at SF Symphony

The young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado is conducting a marvelous program at the San Francisco Symphony this weekend. I heard the first performance at Thursday's matinee and there are three more chances to catch the concert at Davies Hall on Friday at 6:30, Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 2.

It started with the Symphony's first performance of John Adams' Chamber Symphony from 1993. I have been listening to the Nonesuch recording for decades and love the Looney Tunes meets Arnold Schoenberg work for 15 players, but had never heard it live before.

Though hyperactive and continually pulsing with energy for twenty minutes, the piece felt oddly delicate in Davies Hall. Keisuke Nakagoshi was on a very subdued sounding synethesizer while percussionist Jacob Nissly was mostly very gentle in his playing. They were both superb, playing Adams' fiendishly difficult time signatures with style and accuracy.

Violinist Nadya Tichman gave one of the best, fiercest performances I have ever heard from her, and the composer seemed to agree as he embraced her at the end of the performance.

Son of Chamber Symphony, Adams' sequel, is more frequently performed, partly because it was written for a Mark Morris ballet, but the original is top drawer John Adams.

This was followed by Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, the piece of music Adams was riffing on, which also calls for fifteen instrumentalists. However, the programmers went for Schoenberg's reorchestration of the piece for a larger orchestra that he did in the 1930s after leaving Austria for Los Angeles. It was fascinating music but made me wish some programmer would repeat this program in a small concert hall with the Adams and the Schoenberg in its original 15-person version.

After intermission, there was a performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto with Joshua Bell as the soloist, and it was a surprisingly great performance in music that can be dull from overfamiliarity. There was nothing routine about Bell's performance and Heras-Casado brought out the sheer fun of this score in a sharp turn by the orchestra.