Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Santa Barbara Winter

Visiting a pair of friends in storm-swept Santa Barbara this week...

...and the wealthy Southern California tourist town is looking as ridiculously beautiful as ever in the winter light.

My friends are the only two people I met as a teenager who are still friends, and in a bit of good fortune, they are aging nicely.

Jack Murray (above), a retired UC Santa Barbara French professor who turned 80 this year, seems to be getting happier with every day he's not working, which is something of an inspiration.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

City Hall Solstice

City Hall has been specially lit for the Christmas season, but instead of looking festive, the red and green lights appear a bit sinister, as if the Wicked Witch of the West were holding a Christmas party for the Church of Satan. That latter event, by the way, is actually happening at the Elbo Room on Valencia Street this Saturday.

Another event that would have fit well at the demonically lit City Hall was the recent 90th birthday party at a "private club" for former Secretary of State George Shultz (click here for an article by Catherine Bigelow). The photo from the party above, by Michael Mustacchi, is a rogue's gallery of war criminals with Schulz posing next to (left to right) James Baker, Condoleezza Rice, and Henry Kissinger. It doesn't get much more satanic than that.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A World Series Trophy for Christmas

San Francisco City Hall, with its seasonal origami crane "Tree of Hope," was host to a photo opportunity on Wednesday afternoon.

For a couple of hours, you could stand in line and wait your turn to pose with the World Series Trophy recently won by the San Francisco Giants, as Supervisor Bevan Dufty is doing in the picture below.

A favorite T-shirt from the baseball playoff series was worn by an old bartender at Zeke's Sports Bar & Grill that illustrated a Job-like character looking to the heavens, asking, "Just one World Series win in my lifetime, is that too much to ask?" Apparently not.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Celebrating John Adams at the San Francisco Symphony

The great living composer John Adams (above left) was just given a mini-festival over the last two weeks at the San Francisco Symphony before Christmas music officially took over for the rest of December. Adams himself conducted his 2000 oratorio, "El Niño", and the next week Michael Tilson Thomas (above right) and the orchestra gave four knockout performances of the 1985 "Harmonielehre."

On the final Sunday afternoon, there was a chamber music concert that was all-Adams, which was delightful and reassuring. Adams used to premiere just about all his orchestral works with the San Francisco Symphony, but lately most of his commissions have come from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, such as "Naive and Sentimental Music," "City Noir" and "Dharma at Big Sur." Some of his Bay Area fans were feeling a bit like neglected hometown yokels, so this two-week celebration was more than welcome.

Earlier this month, my friend Janos Gereben sent out a request to a wide range of people for favorite Christmas music, which he could publish as a recurring feature for the San Francisco Examiner. My response was on the order of "I hate Christmas music and your newspaper," but it was the catalyst for asking people at Davies Hall over the course of two weeks about some of my favorite music. The question was, "What are your three favorite John Adams pieces?"

In no particular order, here are the responses I received from music writers, performers, and random audience members who were Adams fans. About 20% of the strangers I approached were familiar enough with Adams' music to reply with some thought, and there was one hapless young man who said, "I love his Olympic Ode, and of course all those soundtracks for 'Star Wars,'" and I felt like an insufferable pedant telling him that he meant John Williams, not John Adams.

Richard Scheinin: Harmonielehre, A Flowering Tree, Dharma at Big Sur
Peter Olmer: The Transmigration of Souls, El Nino, Harmonium
Adam: Shaker Loops, Fearful Symmetries, Harmonielehre
Norman Larson: Nixon in China, Harmonium, and none of his later stuff which Norman told Adams to his face one time, and the reply was "You'll come around eventually"
Katie Hackett: City Noir, Harmonielehre, Dharma at Big Sur
Alan Ulrich: Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer, El Nino, Grand Pianola Music ("because he brought some humor back into music when we really needed it")
Horacio Rodriguez: Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic
Axel Feldheim: Nixon in China, The Chairman Dances, John's Book of Alleged Dances
Robin Sutherland: Harmonielehre, Harmonium, Hallelujah Junction (which Mr. Sutherland played on Sunday afternoon)
Fred Martin: Harmonielehre, El Nino, Slonimsky's Earbox
Jack Comerford: String Quartet (2008), Doctor Atomic, Nixon in China
Howard Rubin: Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic, Gnarly Buttons
Gene Nakajima: Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer
William Weber: Grand Pianola Music, Christian Zeal and Activity, Nixon in China
Patrick Vaz: Nixon in China, A Flowering Tree, Phrygian Gates
Janos Gereben: Choruses from The Death of Klinghoffer/1st Act of Doctor Atomic, Harmonielehre, Shaker Loops
Jeff Dunn: Harmonielehre, The Wound Dresser, I Was Looking at The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky
Cedric Westphal: Shaker Loops, Harmonielehre, Violin Concerto
Michael Strickland: Nixon in China, El Nino, and a rotating autoplay of his "California" compositions such as El Dorado, Dharma at Big Sur, Hoodoo Zephyr, John's Book of Alleged Dances

The chamber music program on Sunday was a mixed bag, including "Road Movies" for violin and piano (Yun Chu, violin and Keisuke Nakagoshi, piano, right to left above) and the seminal "Shaker Loops" in its septet version conducted by Adams himself. This was followed by "Hallelujah Junction" for two pianos which was exuberantly performed by Robin Sutherland and Nakagoshi.

The final work was Adams' 2008 string quartet performed by the group for whom it was written, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (above). It was way too dense to absorb on a first hearing, but I look forward to getting to know the music. Maybe it will end up on a Top Three Adams Favorites list.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gavin Newsom's Snow Party

For sheer surrealism, it's hard to top the sight of children sledding on a hill of manufactured snow in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza, backed by a huge, three-headed, six-armed Buddha statue. There's a reason we live in San Francisco, part of which is its pure weirdness.

Sunday's outdoor children's event was put on by an outfit called Steve Restino Event Services out of San Rafael, which also stages everything from the St. Patrick's Day Festival in Civic Center to the Petaluma Butter & Eggs Day Parade and Celebration.

The crowd seemed small, under a thousand adults and kids, for such an ambitious event, and when I asked at the Information Booth who was paying for the activities, the organizers weren't quite sure.

It wasn't the Recreation and Park Department, nor the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services. It turned out to be the first City Hall Holidays Open House, which was being hosted by the departing Mayor Gavin Newsom (above). Newsom is set to become California's Lieutenant Governor on January 3rd unless he decides to stick around San Francisco longer, and cause more trouble.

After making an appearance at the snow hill, Newsom spoke to reporters and then went to his office at City Hall to join his wife and young daughter as they received the public in small groups who waited in a line that wrapped around City Hall.

According to an article by Carolyn Jones in the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday,
"Officials said the $65,000 event was covered by Wells Fargo, Levi Strauss and other corporations."

Those corporations, I am sure, were donating money towards this event out of the sheer holiday goodness of their marketing budgets, and were certainly not looking towards any past, present or future political paybacks from Mr. Newsom.

I do hope that the next mayor continues this new holiday tradition, because the kids on their sleds looked like they were having a blast. And next time, maybe they could tell a few people ahead of time about the event.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Bay Bridge

Last Saturday afternoon, we went to a screening at Pixar Studios in Emeryville of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1," and returned over the soon-to-be-replaced Bay Bridge in time for a corker of a sunset.

Splitting up the final book into two films was a good decision, since they didn't need to cram an overabundance of narrative into a two-and-a-half hour film, and there was actually time for character development among our three nearly adult hero(in)es.

In her seven Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling seemed to be the only storyteller in popular culture who seriously tapped into the malevolence of the Bush/Cheney/Blair administrations and their legions of Deatheaters while they were actually running amok over the last decade. She also taught generations of children not to trust their elders when they say one thing and do another.

Something similar seems to be happening with the late Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson's "Millenium" trio of thrillers. The Julian Assange and Wikileaks story is straight out of one of those "The Girl Who...Kicked Butt" novels, even down to the trumped-up rape charges against Assange in Stockholm. Let's hope reality mirrors fiction and justice triumphs in this particular case.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

America's Cup Controversy, Round One

In San Francisco City Hall, there was a Budget and Finance Committee meeting of the Board of supervisors on Wednesday morning that stretched into the early evening.

The reason for the length of the meeting was because they were considering a take-it-or-leave-it presentation from the Mayor's Office on Workforce Development and the Port Commission which has been negotiating furiously for the last three months with the BMW Oracle event team on conditions for hosting the 34th America's Cup sailboat race in San Francisco.

The Mayor's people were armed with binders so thick they looked comical (above).

The America's Cup yachting race started in 1857, and was won continuously by the New York Yacht Club until 1983, when the Royal Perth Yacht Club finally snatched it away after more than a century, and it's been bouncing around the world ever since. After Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison successfully sued the organizers in Valencia, Spain concerning the rules governing the 33rd America's Cup, he and the Golden Gate Yacht Club beat the defending team from Geneva in February of this year. Since that time, Ellison and his BMW Oracle team have been dangling glittering promises of overwhelming economic prosperity if San Francisco would just give them a few concessions. The Mayor's office and most of the Board of Supervisors, including Board President David Chiu and Supervisor Elsbernd, above, have gone on record that this would be a fantastic opportunity for the city and they will do just about anything to lure the America's Cup to town.

There are just a few problems, such as Ellison's demands that he be given development rights for free along the newly opened up waterfront that used to be blocked by the double-decker freeway, from approximately the Ferry Building all the way past the Giants ballpark. He is also demanding that these rights be applicable for 75 years, which is where the proposed deal leaves the realm of arrogant to just plain insane.

Unfortunately, we have "moderate" Supervisor Elsbernd (above) on the committee, and though his reputation is as a hawk-eyed fiscal conservative, in truth I have never seen him vote against public land being turned over to private management. See Harding Park Golf Course, with its $25 million of state funds that were supposed to go for open space being used on a municipal course that has just been handed over to the PGA Tournament.

Brad Benson (above) was speaking for the San Francisco Port Commission, and he was part of the curveball the Port has thrown into the works by their suggestion for a less expensive, "Northern Waterfront Alternative" for the race and its facilities and its real estate giveaways. However, the latest news that arrived this weekend is that the Northern Waterfront Alternative is not acceptable to the BMW Oracle team, and they want their original $128 million giveaway, and their deadline is this Friday.

For a great series of articles by John Upton at the Bay Citizen on this evolving story, click here. Upton ends his last post with these words:
"The team's credibility in negotiations with San Francisco is questionable. [Photo above is of Jennifer Matz who is on the city's negotiating team.] It previously told city leaders that cities or ports in two other nations had offered hundreds of millions of euros in a bid to secure rights to host the event. With less than a week before San Francisco's newly imposed deadline passes, neither of those bids appear to have been submitted, although Barclay in his letter said the team had shown city officials documents proving other bids existed."

The millionaire real estate developer Mark Buell (above), who is president of San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department, gave a presentation where he promised that fellow rich private citizens had promised to raise $32 million in the next three years to pay for city expenses associated with the event, which doesn't include the lost rent from businesses along the waterfront evicted by Ellison's lightly regulated developments.

Senator Bernie Sanders on Friday talked about greed as an addiction, as pitiable and destructive and ugly as any other form of substance abuse, and Larry Ellison is a perfect example of the greedy gangster for whom there is never enough. He's the sixth richest person in the world, in fact, and could easily pay for all the infrastructure for this race out of his change pocket if he really wanted to, but he's using the America's Cup as another chance to grab even more from the world. Has nobody seen "The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao" where Arthur O'Connell (above) is buying up a whole town cheap so he can turn around and sell it to the railroad company?

Supervisor David Campos (above) was the only person in the Supervisors' chambers asking the tough questions about legal ramifications and financial ramifications. The rest of the committee, joined by Supervisors Dufty and Chiu, sounded more like cheerleaders than guardians of the public trust. When it turned out that Harvey Rose, the Budget Analyst, hadn't even been told about the last minute change to the Northern Alternative until the meeting, the Budget committee decided to adjourn until a special meeting this Monday where they will hear his hastily assembled numbers.

The robber barons of the 19th and early 20th century conducted this race in Newport, Rhode Island where their estates were situated. One of the more interesting details in the Wikipedia biography of Ellison (above) is the following:
"In early 2010 Ellison purchased the Astor's Beechwood Mansion in Newport, Rhode Island for $10.5 million. The property was the former summer home of the prominent Astor family."
Talk about a win-win situation. Either San Francisco gives the 66-year-old Ellison development rights for its waterfront to extend for decades after he's dead, or he'll take his race elsewhere, namely Rhode Island where he has just moved in with Serious Old Money.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Return of Elza van den Heever

The young South African soprano Elza van den Heever learned her craft at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, continued her studies through the Merola and Adler programs at the San Francisco Opera, and still has Merola's Sherri Greenawald as her voice coach. However, she no longer lives in San Francisco's Civic Center next door to me, but has moved her home base to Bordeaux, France which I'm sure was an extreme sacrifice on her part, but these are the things one has to do while Living For Art.

She has been busy learning the soprano repertory in The Old World, principally in Frankfurt and Bordeaux, but in truth all over the globe for the last year. This November she returned to San Francisco to sing Strauss' "Four Last Songs" with Michael Tilson Thomas at the San Francisco Symphony. Her voice was as thrilling as ever, taking the listener to some heavenly places, though the choice of repertory was a little strange, because Elza was way too young to be singing this. For sopranos, "The Four Last Songs" is a bit like "King Lear," in that it demands a certain maturity that comes from knowing loss, pain, and death to really do it justice.

Early in December, San Francisco Performances hosted an art song recital by Elza at the San Francisco Conservatory. I've never been a lieder, chanson, or European art song afficionado, so most of the concert was wasted on me, but again, Elza's voice is a thing of wonder and the afternoon was thoroughly enjoyable. (For more on the actual music, click here for Axel's account and the Last Chinese Unicorn's take.)

Elza is taking on an insane amount of work right now, and I worry a bit about her just surviving it all, but she's tough and smart and has been seriously gifted by god, so it's going to be interesting to hear what she does next.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Mr. Sanders Goes to Washington

Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is currently in the sixth ninth hour of his riveting filibuster in the U.S. Senate, speaking truth to power about Obama extending tax cuts to billionaires.

I am so unused to hearing a powerful politician, such as a U.S. senator, actually tell the truth, that Bernie Sanders' nine-hour let-me-spell-out-how-we're-all-being-screwed-by-the-pathologically-greedy speech was shocking. He's a genuine hero and will probably be crucified by the powers that be in short order.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Harmonielehre at the SF Symphony

Okay, I lied. A couple of posts ago I wrote, "I'm not going to say this twice, you need to go to this concert.", so let's say it again: Michael Tilson Thomas is conducting John Adams' virtual first symphony, "Harmonielehre," written for the orchestra in 1985, and is going hell for leather which is what this music demands, and if you're interested in music of your own time, you need to check it out. All the cool people were there at the Wednesday opening, including Cedric and Axel and Richard, and you've got Friday and Saturday to experience it.

The first half of the symphony concert started with a 1929 Henry Cowell dance piece called "Synchrony" that sounds like proto-John Adams, and it's a wonder, although how the monster orchestra(tion) was ever supposed to work for Martha Graham's dance company is a mystery. This was followed by Gil Shaham (above) playing with a reduced orchesra and MTT while performing as soloist in Mozart's Fifth Violin Concerto.

MTT isn't a particularly natural or inspired Mozart conductor, and was edging the performance towards decorous boredom, but Shaham was having none of it, and nudged the conductor and the orchestra into a livelier rendition. By the third movement, we were hearing the Turkish gypsy subtext to the music and it was wonderful and delightful, a perfect musical palate cleanser between the Cowell and Adams.

"Harmonielehre" is one of Adams' breakthrough works, and on his blog "Hell Mouth" he writes about the hell of delivering the music to the San Francisco Symphony back in 1985 after 18 months of writer's block (click here for "Launching the supertanker"). It was great hearing this mix of Sibelius, Mahler, Strauss, Wagner, Glass and Pure Rock & Roll again live. What I'm really looking forward to is this Sunday where Adams conducts a few San Francisco orchestra musicians in his chamber music: "Road Movies" for piano and violin, "Hallelujah Junction" for two pianos, "Shaker Loops" for seven strings, and his "String Quartet" from 2008. Click here if you're looking for tickets.

One Reason to Get a Clipper Card

San Francisco's new multi-transit money storage card, the Clipper, is fairly useless for Muni buses if you're planning to do a few errands around the city on one fare. Nice Muni bus drivers, and there are more of them than are commonly acknowledged, give out generous transfers as a general rule if you pay them $2 in cash, and that extra time versus the Clipper card's rigorous 90 minutes can often come in quite handy.

Where the Clipper card makes a wonderful economic difference is on the Golden Gate Transit ferries to Sausalito and Larkspur.

If you pay for a single passage, as a tourist would, the cost of an exquisitely beautiful boat ride one-way to Sausalito is $8.25, but if you scan your Clipper card, the fare is $4.40 because the system assumes you are a commuter.

This lovely deal is vanishing on January 1st of next year, when the Clipper fare will increase to $4.85, so I would highly recommend you take the sunset 4:00 PM trip some weekday evening in December. It is beyond beautiful.