Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Wicked Witches of City Hall

San Francisco's City hall has been lit up green for the last couple of evenings...

...which looks more Wicked Witch of the West than Emerald City.

I presume it's to celebrate the return of a roadshow version of the Broadway musical "Wicked." However, it could just be a spontaneous eruption of visible evil a la "Ghostbusters 2."

Friday, January 30, 2009

Tetzlaff and Andsnes at Herbst Theatre

Thanks to the fine cultural journalist Janos Gereben (click here), I was invited to the Herbst Theatre on Tuesday evening for a joint recital by a pair of European classical superstars, Christian Tetzlaff on violin and Leif Ove Andsnes on piano.

The two played flawlessly together and the concert was quite enjoyable, but I have a suggestion for them and any other classical music organization. Don't start a concert with music by Leos Janacek because everything that comes after it, no matter how good, is going to sound like weak beer indeed.

The early 20th century Czech composer is mostly known for his short, intense operas such as "Jenufa," "Katya Kabanova," "The Cunning Little Vixen," and "From The House of the Dead" (which I would love to see in the opera house someday) and he's utterly original. Though his music is not to everyone's taste, I can't hear it live often enough, so the four-movement Sonata for Violin and Piano was a complete treat.

Poor Brahms and Mozart afterwards sounded beautiful and dull in comparison, though the Schubert "Rondo Brilliant in B Minor" picked up the pace for the finale, and a couple of Sibelius encores were fun and bizarrely cheerful for that often gloomy composer.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The World Premiere of A Sweeter Music

According to Gray Brechin's great book, "Imperial San Francisco," UC Berkeley has been an essential center of the United States military-industrial-academic complex since at least the Philippine-American War (1899-1902 with Americans slaughtering "insurgent" Filipinos until 1913). The university also gave birth and continues to sustain the nuclear arms race, which it has been spearheading since World War Two.

So it seems fitting that Sarah Cahill's "peace" commission, "A Sweeter Music," should be given its public birth at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus (click here for an earlier, more detailed explanation).

What was particularly exciting was looking at the program and seeing an asterisk, which meant "world premiere," and realizing that just about every piece at the concert was a World Premiere, something I've never seen before. In fact, Sarah only played about half of the music that's been commissioned so there are even more World Premieres left to hear for people in New York, Boston, Houston and Chicago where "A Sweeter Music" is traveling (click here for the calendar).

The concert itself was a triumph because most of the music was so good, with at least half of the pieces destined for a larger and longer life. I didn't care for the video art by John Sanborn because the music didn't need it. Part of the fun of great music is you get to envision it yourself.

I was invited to a post-concert party in the Berkeley Hills and bummed a ride from Luciano Chessa (above left), a wonderful Italian composer who lives in Berkeley and teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The party was filled with friends, family and composers from the afternoon's concert, including Mamoru Fujieda (above right) who wrote one of my favorite pieces, "The Olive Branch Speaks." It struck me as the most genuinely peaceful music of the day.

My real favorite of the concert was "There Is a Field" by Jerome Kitzke (above left) where he had Sarah play the piano, recite poetry (3 Whitmans, 1 Rumi) at the same time, drum on the head of the piano, shout, and sing/scat. She was fabulous and fearless with all of it, shifting as rapidly as the music from mournful to rocking and back again.

The lovely party was hosted by Sharon Mann (not pictured), who was Sarah's piano teacher when she was eight years old, and who currently teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. "She's the reason I'm a pianist," Sarah told me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Newspaper Noir

The seventh installment of Eddie Muller's annual Film Noir festival got underway last Friday at the Castro Theatre and its theme was the press.

In the program notes, Muller writes:
"As modern technology further isolates the public in the supposed luxury of at-home, on-demand convenience, Noir City remains dedicated to the grand communal majesty of the moviegoing experience. Enjoy it while you can, because pretty soon, watching a black-and-white movie on a huge screen will be as obsolete as...reading a newspaper."

"The films of this year's festival celebrate a time when the newspaper was the dominant influence on American daily life, the central nervous system of our society. That day is over, and we hope this series is a fitting tribute to the legacy of America's fourth estate in all its flawed and fabulous glory."

The 1,407 seat Castro Theatre may be unique in the world, a lovingly rehabilitated movie palace dating from silent film days, that often plays host to revivals of old films.

Though widescreen films are often shown, the greatest experiences at the theater tend to be older movies in a 4:3 aspect ratio which perfectly fit the original screen. The Noir City Film Festival and its accompanying Foundation specializes in restoring many of these rarities.

Eddie Muller (above) was a journalist for about 15 years, following in the footsteps of his father who was the boxing writer for the "San Francisco Examiner" for decades. He has written novels, scholarly books on Film Noir, a biography of Tab Hunter, and recently made a short movie with Marsha Hunt. His most outrageously successful venture, however, may be this annual film festival which sells out most of its screenings to a huge, hardcore fan base. (Click here for Muller's website.)

As Muller explained, "We're old school and don't have any corporate sponsors. This is kept going by all of you in the audience, the smartest, most sophisticated filmgoers in the world. Plus, we're offering two tightly written movies at each program that take less time to watch than 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' and cost less to watch too." The festival continues at the Castro through the weekend, ending with the smashing double bill of "The Killers" and "Sweet Smell of Success." Click here for a schedule.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Return of Anna Conda

The infamous San Francisco drag queen Anna Conda made a return to public life last Saturday after some serious surgery.

In truth, the serious surgery was on her back, but she decided looking like she was recovering from cosmetic procedures would be more glamorous and heck of a lot funnier.

She was hosting a beer benefit in the back patio of an old dive bar called The Mix, which opens at 6AM every morning in the Castro neighborhood for serious alcoholics. (Click here for their entertaining website.)

The beer bust was to benefit a Tenderloin homeless group called Community Housing Partnerships (click here for their site)...

...which was being represented by its Executive Director Jeff Kositsky (above).

The Mix lived up to its name this particular afternoon with drag queens, lesbians, straight women, and gay guys all freely intermingling.

A couple of Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there to offer support to their recovering friend...

...along with one of their Postulants (above), who was handling out free lube and condoms to everyone.

It was a seriously giddy afternoon.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The San Francisco Ballet Gala and Isaac Hernandez

On an impulse, I threw on a tuxedo Wednesday evening and bought a $25 standing room ticket for the Opening Night Gala of the San Francisco Ballet's 76th season.

Standing behind the orchestra rail can be fun and comfortable for the ballet since the programs are fairly short, though the practice of making the standees wait in yet another line in the lobby for a half hour before claiming a spot makes one feel rather like cattle.

It didn't matter, though, as we were surrounded by excited young people, most of them ballet students...

...and free bubbly was being offered to the crowd as part of the pre-performance "Champagne Promenade."

The box bar had been sheathed in white fabric, though most of the rich people were across the street in City Hall having their pre-performance dinner interrupted by immigration protesters, which is a scene I wish had been captured on film.

The program consisted of ten short pieces, some self-contained and others bleeding chunks from larger works.

Musically, the evening ranged from the pleasant silliness of Louis Gottschalk and John Philip Sousa to forbidding modernists such as Gyorgi Ligeti and Thom Willems. My only complaint is that the Philip Glass music for the "Double Evil" excerpt was recorded rather than live which is missing out on at least half the fun of the piece.

The choreographers were similarly eclectic, from George Balanchine to William Forsythe, and the dancing was mostly wonderful, and in a few cases downright phenomenal.

Tina LeBlanc, who is retiring this year after a long career with the company, was partnered in a Balanchine choroeographed "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" by a new 18-year-old member of the Corps de Ballet named Isaac Hernandez (above).

The Guadalajara born "prodigy" was in a class of his own on Wednesday, making the most fiendishly difficult dance moves look smooth, effortless and musical. This young man is going to be a superstar, and you read it here first. He also has an amusing website which you can get to by clicking here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Watching Obama's Inauguration in Civic Center Plaza

After watching Obama recite the presidential oath of office along with the inept Chief Justice Roberts, with the smashingly attractive Michelle at his side...

...I ambled over to Civic Center Plaza where thousands of people were watching the inauguration together on a large screen.

There was an extraordinarily happy vibe among the large group...

...which I would venture to say is as much relief at the world surviving the nightmare of eight years of the Bush and Cheney regime... any serious hope that President Obama is going to magically make things right.

The organizers from NextArts deserve a round of applause for putting together the event, especially since they received so little official help from San Francisco's bureaucracies.

For those in the know who wanted to sit, the inauguration was also being broadcast live on a screen in the basement of the Main Branch of the public library across the street from the plaza.

Even better, there were volunteers ladling out celebratory cake...

...complete with presidential seal.

Any euphoria was quickly dimmed upon returning home and seeing local politicos Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein playing mother hens during an official presidential signing ceremony. These two ladies have enabled a vast range of crimes during the last eight years, from officially sanctioned torture of prisoners to an unprovoked war in Iraq, and it's time for them to step up and repair some of the damage. It's also time for Senator Feinstein to start considering a new hair-do, which looks like the same one she had in the 1970s during her stint on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. As a friend from New York asked me on the phone last night, "Has her hair always been that old-fashioned? It looks like something she wore in high school.