Monday, August 30, 2010

Wishing You Were Here

The 116 degree weather in Palm Springs last Wednesday gave way to an oasis of perfection this weekend.

The highs are in the low nineties and the desert nights in the seventies.

Wishing you were here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Journeying to the Land of Hot

Via a train and a couple of buses, Amtrak took me to Palm Springs yesterday in a surprisingly comfortable, 12-hour trip.

An ancient, funny conductor on the San Joaquin train from Oakland to Bakersfield announced each stop over the loudspeaker. "We are journeying into the land of HOT. Fresno is 106 degrees right now. Then we will be stopping in Bakersfield where it is HOT, HOTTER, HOTTEST." He wasn't kidding.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2010 Merola Grand Finale

Young opera singers' boot camp, otherwise known as the Merola Opera Program, finished up its 10 weeks of instruction with the traditional Merola Grand Finale at the San Francisaco Opera House on Saturday evening. It was a three-hour concert of operatic scenes featuring the 21 graduating singers accompanied by the full Opera orchestra in the pit. The Finale used to be a competition, with cash awards given out under various sponsors' names, but that has changed over the years, and now the competition involves being chosen for one of the coveted two-year Adler fellowships by the company.

The set for the evening consisted of four tall prop cypress trees from the last act of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" which is being presented yet again this fall season in the old Zach Brown production which must be about 30 years old. The conductor was the young Dean Williamson, who was fine in the two Richard Strauss selections, but took just about everything else at much too lugubrious a tempo. The first number was from the opening of Stravinsky's "The Rake's Progress," and after a shaky start, Alexander Lewis and Janai Brugger-Orman (above), along with Kevin Thompson (below), were wonderful.

Thompson ended the first half of the program with an aria from an obscure Strauss opera, "Die schweigsame Frau," and he was great, filling the house with his monster bass and ending the piece with a sustained low note that seemed to last for a good ten minutes.

A few of my favorite other moments were Eleazar Rodriguez and Abigail Santos Villalobos (above) in a duet from Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment." Although the schtick from director Ted Huffman in this scene was a bit much, looking like "Anything You Can Do" from "Annie Get Your Gun," the performers made it work.

I also loved the stage savvy Thomas Florio (above) as Bottom in a long scene from Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" along with the lovely sounding Hye Jung Lee as Tytania. By the end, I was wishing they'd just continue and perform the whole, wonderful opera, except for the fact that they used adult women as The Fairies when they are expressly written for boy sopranos. This is the third time in a row I've heard this substitution, and I don't want to have to say this again: It doesn't work!

The penultimate number was a duet from Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," yet another selection from 19th century French opera, a genre that is not on my list of musical favorites. It was sung by Daniel Montenegro and Nadine Sierra (above), the two leads in "The Elixir of Love" earlier this month at Fort Mason, and they were fabulous, though the director had them pawing each other so aggressively, it seemed as if they might end up naked a la Zeferelli's movie version.

(All performance photos are by Kristen Loken Ansley.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Buddha's Butoh Dance

On a foggy, windswept evening in the Civic Center last Thursday, a trio of women were performing an improvised Butoh dance in front of the giant Buddha statue in the plaza.

The only spectators were the occasional passersby.

There was no music or sound involved, including speech...

...and the dancers stayed completely focused no matter what was happening around them.

According to a commenter who stumbled across this post, the dancers were Ellen Godena, Liz Saari Filippone, and Deborah Butler, founder and teacher of a group called Kitsunebutoh.

They were utterly magical.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Birth of Impressionism at the deYoung

"Birth of Impressionism," a blockbuster exhibition of French paintings from the currently-being-remodeled Musee d'Orsay in Paris, is finishing up Part One of its residency in a couple of weeks at the de Young in Golden Gate Park.

The glowing reports in the media about the exhibit turn out to be true. It's beautifully installed, lit, and has an intelligent point of view that communicates itself through the art rather than a surfeit of signage. The only downside is that word is out and the exhibit space is "hellaciously crowded," as my friend Patrick Vaz puts it.

What's being demonstrated is primarily a technological shift, according to my painter friend David Barnard above. "When paint tubes were invented in the 1870s, it freed painters. They could leave the studio and get rid of the baggage of apprentices mixing their paints."

The exhibit is set up so you can literally see that transformation, starting with large allegorical Studio paintings, usually involving naked ladies, and ending with the Impressionists picturing the countryside and the urban world around them as if it were brand new. There are even a few paintings set in Parisian artist's studios, with friends and admirers hanging out while the artist works or shows off, and these take you completely into another place and time.

The exhibit is also a nice combination of famous paintings and ones you have never seen. I am happy to report that Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black" aka "Whistler's Mother" is even better live than in reproduction. (The same is not true of a number of other famous paintings, i.e. the tiny, greenish "Mona Lisa.")

The crucial cusp of a painter in the migration from the Studio to en plain air is Manet, who gets a room of his own. The exhibition ends with a room of early Cezanne landscapes that are supersaturated with color and not as abstract as his later work. Alone, they're almost worth struggling through the madding crowds.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Homo Sex Is Sin

A pair of men carrying elaborate signage condemning Sodomites stood in front of San Francisco City Hall at noon on Wednesday screaming that homosexuals deserved to get AIDS for their sins.

Police were quickly erecting metal barriers around them to separate the religious provocateurs from the people who were assembling on City Hall's stairs to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Ryan White Care Act, which started federal funding for AIDS assistance programs. (For more on the issue, click here for an article in the Bay Area Reporter by Seth Hemmelgarn.)

The assembled AIDS Inc. dignitaries were doing their best to ignore the religious fundamentalist hecklers, but it was difficult, partly because their signs were veering towards camp absurdity, as if they were extras in a John Waters movie.

Instead of causing indignation or anger, "HOMO SEX IS SIN" prompted involuntary laughter, along with the thought "and thank God for that."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival

The cultural journalist Janos Gereben has been writing raves about the annual chamber music festival held in Menlo Park each summer, and insisted that everybody needed to check out their free student concerts being held at the architecturally beautiful 500-seat performing arts center that has just been built at the Menlo-Atherton High School (photo above).

Accordingly, I asked Mr. Gereben for a ride down the Peninsula, and a trio of us drove down 101 for some exquisite free music at the new building with its dazzling lighting array.

The festival, in its eighth year, is the brainchild of a legendary pair of married musicians, the pianist Wu Han (above) and cellist David Finckel that runs for three weeks every summer. In a nod to the Marlboro, Vermont chamber music festival, accomplished musicians engage with a small selection of artists whose careers are just beginning, and both groups give concerts together and separately. There's also a "Young Performers" section offering training and concerts by teenagers.

The free 6PM "Prelude Concert" started with Janacek's Sonata for Violin and Piano in a performance by Hye-Jin Kim and David Fung (above), which was okay but didn't quite get the weird spirit of the music. Part of the problem was that I heard this piece played live by Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes last year in Herbst Theatre (accompanied again by Janos Gereben), and it was so perfect their rendition still hadn't left my memory.

The next piece was a String Sextet by Dvorak that was brilliantly played, with the proper amount of Slavic soul, and extraordinary contributions by Timothy Braun and Michelle Ross, violins, Molly Carr and Mario Gotoh, violas, and Alice Yoo and Gabriel Cabezas, cellos. (Pictured above left to right are Mario Gotoh, Molly Carr and Timothy Braun.)

First among equals was 25-year-old violinist Timothy Braun who not only performed beautifully but sported some of the best big blonde hair I've seen onstage in a while.

He had a hard time exiting after the concerts because the mostly elderly crowd all looked like they wanted to kiss him.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Muni vs. Cab Death Match

At 1:50 PM on Thursday afternoon, August 12th, a large, 49 Mission-Van Ness bus driving north tried to pull into a marked stop at the corner of Jackson and Van Ness. However, a taxi slid into the middle of the marked space to let out a passenger just moments before the Muni bus crossed the street. The very pleasant bus driver stayed in the traffic lane, pinning the taxi to the curb until the Muni passengers disembarked.

The taxi driver, however, in an outrageous bit of reckless driving, decided he was in a hurry for his next fare and quickly drove along the right side of the stopped bus, nearly killing a half dozen passengers who were exiting. It was so infuriating that I grabbed my camera and took a picture of the taxi's license plate, which was 8J28710.

The amused Muni driver asked, "Did you get him?" as I walked back toward the bus. "Yep."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Gay Marriage Interruptus

Federal judge Vaughn Walker announced that he would be ruling Thursday morning concerning lifting the stay on his Proposition 8 decision, possibly allowing for gay marriages to commence once again in California.

As it turned out, the decision wasn't announced until 12:30 PM, by which time there were dozens of couples lined up in front of the clerk's office at San Francisco City Hall. The announcement was that the stay had been lifted.

We ran into an aide to State Senator Mark Leno, above, who told us there was a big "however..." It seems that Walker issued another temporary stay of the ruling until Wednesday, August 18th at 5:00 PM, presumably to give the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals time to issue their own stay on the decision if so inclined.

There was a hastily called press conference by Assessor Phil Ting and City Administrator Edwin Lee above, who explained that a host of volunteers had been assembled for the clerk's office just in case they could start the marriage mill, but that there wouldn't be anything happening on that front until next Wednesday.

So the legal rollercoaster continues. For the latest in motions filed with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, click here for Brian Devine's lawyerly explanations at Calitics. The latest twist is that Proposition 8 supporters have until Monday at 9AM to file their appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Michael Nava Reaffirmed

The Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) of San Francisco met early Wednesday evening to vote on their many endorsements for the November 2nd election to be held in three months.

The room was a small, narrow union hall in the Tenderloin on Golden Gate Avenue, and it was stuffed to the gills with the 33 voting members of the DCCC and a couple of hundred interested parties sitting and standing against the walls.

The meeting agenda was juggled so that The Controversial Case of Michael Nava (above left) could be heard first. The DCCC had endorsed Nava in his run for Superior Court Judge during June's primary election against an incumbent judge, Richard Ulmer, and another challenger. Nava won the election but didn't gather the 50%+ majority required, so he is running against Ulmer alone this November 2nd.

After the primary, a legal cabal, spearheaded by presiding state Court of Appeals judge Anthony Kline and presiding San Francisco Superior Court Judge James McBride, decided to do everything possible to make sure Ulmer wins the November contest. It fits in with their vision of "judicial independence," which is another way of saying they don't believe judges should have to stand for election if at all possible.

A good article by Tim Redmond at the Bay Guardian (click here) details the campaign against Nava, including a war cabinet meeting of judges summoned for battle at the law offices of Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro in early July. The main organizers, by the way, are all Democratic judges rather than Republican ones as has been misreported elsewhere, which only made the meeting that much more disgraceful. It really was about protecting an insular, class-bound white man's club. According to the article, the main dissenter was the indispensable Peter Keane, dean emeritus of Golden Gate Law University, who was quoted as following:
Keane said that “to frame this as an independence of the judicary question cheapens that argument.” Nava, he said, has every legal right to run and make the case that he’d be a better judge than Ulmer. “Ulmer’s been endorsed by the Republicans,” Keane said. “So what’s wrong if Nava is endorsed by the Democrats?” Keane said he’d voted for Ulmer in June, but was switching to supporting Nava this fall, in part because he sees a powerful attack coming down against the challenger. “A lot of Brahmins in the legal society have gotten stampeded into the lynch mob against Michael,” he said.

The political pressure brought to bear by statewide heavyweights was impressive, led by John Burton who is the Chairman of the California Democratic Party. On Saturday afternoon, there was a meeting of the DCCC to hear a quintet of Nava's judicial attackers, including gay Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy. According to an article by Kate Moser in "The Recorder" legal paper:
San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy also spoke at the meeting, saying Nava's challenge is different from his own. McCarthy, one of three candidates to successfully challenge an incumbent San Francisco judge in the past 20 years, said he decided to run in the 1990s when he was discouraged by what he saw as an unwillingness by governors to appoint lesbian and gay candidates to the bench. "I did it because there was no other choice," McCarthy said. Despite the comparisons of McCarthy's path to Nava's, he said, "in the context of this particular race, the balance between diversity and judicial independence is different." There are "people in the pipeline now" from the LGBT community, he said, in line for appointments.

I believe this is called slamming the door shut once you've entered yourself.

The debate on rescinding Michael Nava's endorsement started off with a rambling disquisition by the former California State Senator newly elected to the DCCC, Carol Migden. She was spearheading the defense of "judicial independence" and continuity in the courts, and it soon became obvious that Frank Chu (above) is a model of clear-thinking sanity compared to the lunatic Ms. Migden.

Then Supervisor David Campos, a friend of Michael Nava, stood up to speak, and he gave one of the most impassioned, angry and beautiful speeches I've heard from him or any other politician lately. He first detailed the reasons why Nava should be elected as judge and then described the outrageous campaign of political pressure by judges who were doing so in the name of "keeping politics out of the judiciary." By their very acts, he said, they were making the election that much more political with every bit of lobbying. Greg Kamin at Fog City Journal wrote the best account of the meeting I have found (click here). Here's an excerpt:
Um… yeah. It’s every bit as bad as it sounds. The rationale seems to be that incumbent judges shouldn’t have to face opponents for re-election. Back when I lived in the Soviet Union, they had elections where you only had one candidate, and (surprise surprise) that candidate always won. But last time I checked, the Iron Curtain came down, and this is not the Soviet Politburo. Former California Senator Carole Migden and Attorney Bill Fazio, who squeaked into 12th place on the west side, had requested a re-vote, on the somewhat specious reasoning that they didn’t have a chance to participate the first time. Migden spoke first, repeating the assertion that incumbent judges should be given the benefit of the doubt. But boy, was team Nava ready for them! Supervisor David Campos gave one of his most eloquent and passionate speeches ever. The audience repeatedly applauded. La Raza Lawyers Foundation was in the house. Alice B. Toklas Club members were on hand to lend support. By the time DCCC member Arlo Hale Smith started speaking in favor of keeping the endorsement, it was pretty clear that the coup had failed.

The final, shortest speech came from chairman Aaron Peskin who noted the "double standard" of the judiciary requesting that the Democratic County Committee stay neutral in the race while Ulmer, the Decline-to-State candidate, had already requested and received the official endorsement of the San Francisco Republican Party.

The entire scene was quite dramatic, and by the end the near-unanimous vote against rescinding Michael Nava's endorsement was greeted with cheers. The only person posting a yea for a revote was Mad Ms. Migden, the nemesis of CBS-TV Blogger Beth Spotswood (above).

Michael Nava looked a bit blown away and bewildered by the entire drama, though he shouldn't have been, since the scene was straight out of one of his seven Henry Rios detective novels. If you've read the series, one of the best California detective fictions ever, it's obvious why Nava would make a great judge. If you haven't, the best reason to vote for him is what a commenter wrote in response to the Bay Guardian article:
We have a system that allows for the election of judges. I'm not convinced that it's necessarily the best system, but it's what we have to work with. As such, my duty as a voter is to cast my vote for whomever I think will be the best superior court judge. That will be Nava. It's not because he's gay or Latino, it's because he's the better candidate. This is a guy who took his Stanford J.D. and worked as a prosecutor in L.A. instead of settling for a six figure salary at a big firm. Ulmer, on the other hand, took his Stanford J.D. straight to a series of big corporate law firms. There's nothing wrong with that, but for a judge I value Nava's experience in a City Attorney's Office *and* in private practice at a seriously intense boutique litigation firm over Ulmer's more thin experience at large corporate law firms.

The strongest element of diversity that Nava brings isn't his race or sexual orientation, it's his experience working in a wide range of legal contexts.