Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Fleeing The Stacks

Back in Palm Springs for a week...

...I went to the splendid main public library...

...which hosts the same kinds of crazies as the San Francisco Main Library but in a lesser ratio.

They also have one of the best pieces of signage ever on their library stacks...

...offering good advice for San Andreas fault country.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Central Cal Thanksgiving

We drove south on Highway 101 the day before Thanksgiving, and the November light was spectacular.

We stayed on top of a hillside at my sister Hilary's place in the Central California Coastal town of Arroyo Grande...

...where there was a beautiful front deck to read the latest teen literary sensation, The Hunger Games, which was oddly appropriate for Thanksgiving with all of its foraging for food scenes.

The threatened Thanksgiving rainstorm never happened so we spent Thanksgiving morning on Avila Beach walking dogs such as Lopie, the Pyranees goat herding dog below. Hilary's husband Steve rescued him at a nearby lake when he was a lost and abandoned puppy in a mud puddle.

Steve recently retired from The Ocean, where he was a professional abalone and sea urchin diver for decades. "The odds for survival were starting to get smaller," he explained.

Thanksgiving was at my hardworking sister Susan's house...

...where kitty dogs hung out on the furniture all afternoon before the waves of relatives hit the sliding glass doors.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Old First Concerts Sounds Like Fun!

On Sunday afternoon, November 20th, an annual fundraiser for Old First Concerts called "SOUNDS Like Fun!" was held at Old First Church on Van Ness and Sacramento with the jazz pianist Mike Greensill above acting as a lively, witty emcee. At one point he also pulled out a ukelele and sang, in an unexpectedly beautiful rendition, "I'm Through With Love."

Over a dozen musicians who regularly perform at Old First Church were asked to come up with something silly and fun, although about half of them played more serious offerings, including the opening Trio 180 with Ann Miller, violin, Sonia Leong, piano, and Nina Flyher, cello (above). They started the concert off with a pair of Trios on Irish Themes by the Swiss Frank Martin, whose music is always surprisingly enchanting, and followed it with "La Muerte del Angel" from Piazzolla.

The silliness came with Ann Miller above playing "Souvenir d'Amerique," an over-the-top Henri Vieuxtemps set of violin variations on "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

The Conservatory of Music's first guitar major graduate, Lawrence Ferrara, above, played minuets by Rameau and songs by Lennon-McCartney...

...and was followed by composer Elinor Armer (above left, with Caitlin Keen, viola, and Wendy Hillhouse, mezzo-soprano, on the right) performing Armer's "Eine Kleine Snailmusick," which was very funny.

After an intermission of wine and rich chocolates, there was a performance of the PDQ Bach Sonata Piccola with a rubberfaced Esther Landau above and a deadpan Sarah Cahill below, in an amusing parody of every Baroque concerto for a silly instrument that you have ever heard.

Cahill also paired up with cellist Victoria Ehrlich below for a too short excerpt from a Lou Harrison Suite for Cello and Piano. Sarah will be performing Harrison's piano concerto with the Berkeley Symphony on December 8th, so be there or be square.

Victoria echoed many of the other performers, who had all been asked by Greensill what the Old First Concerts meant to them. The consensus seemed to be, "Unless you're world-famous and have Management, there are sites to perform all over the Bay Area but not in San Francisco other than Old First Church. The place is irreplaceable."

The wonderful and ubiquitous Keisuke Nakagoshi, above right, played a Terry Riley four-handed piano piece, one of a set that Sarah Cahill recently commissioned, called "Cinco de Mayo" with Eva-Maria Zimmermann.

They were followed by violinist Victor Romasevich above, a San Francisco Symphony member who played some deliciously schmaltzy pieces by Tchaikovsky with his dear old mum, Lena Lubotsky, on piano.

The concert ended with a pair of songs by cabaret star Wesla Whitfield above, who is married to emcee Greensill. She sang "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf" and then a plaintive version of "It's Not Easy Being Green," which was fairly amusing.

For a schedule of Old First Concerts, which has been presenting music since 1969, click here. They are a low-cost, local treasure often taken for granted when they should not be. Some of the greatest performers and composers from the Bay Area and beyond use the venue as an incubator, its acoustics and intimacy are perfect for a wide range of music, and the ticket prices are under $20.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Thanksgiving Tree of Civic Center

On Sunday, a huge tree was installed in Civic Center Plaza, and since there is supposed to be a separation between church and state, this is in no way a Christmas tree.

Plus, its appearance was grotesquely early in the "Holiday Season," when people haven't even done their Thanksgiving shopping.

Maybe it's the beginning of a new tradition, The Thanksgiving Tree of Civic Center.

May you get through the holidays with minimal psychic damage and scary family dynamics, with love and joy as the mainstays.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Dog Killer and the SF Art Commission

The 59-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Tom Otterness above (click here for his website) has forged a very successful career as a maker of cartoonish bronze sculptures that often look like outtakes from a Ziggy comic strip. Governmental bureaucracies in charge of public arts funding love his work because it's whimsical, inoffensive, and he's a brand-name artist who has created work for the feds (a courthouse in Los Angeles, for instance), the state (in Sacramento, among other capitals) and cities (famously in Manhattan's 8th Avenue/14th Street subway station).

Otterness also occasionally puts in digs at capitalism in his cute sculptures, and this is one reason the right-wing New York Daily News calls him "depraved" (click here). The other reason is that a conceptual art piece Otterness created in 1977 when he was a 25-year-old immigrant to New York City from Wichita, Kansas consisted of adopting a shelter dog, tying the animal to a fence, and then shooting it for a looping film for a gallery. At the time, art critic Gary Indiana in the New York Village Voice wrote a condemning article about the stunt, but then somehow people forgot about it in the age before the internet, and Otterness reinvented himself as a successful public sculptor over the last three decades.

The news of the dog killing has been resurfacing in recent years with animal rights activists especially upset, such as the woman above who was at a special San Francisco Art Commission meeting last Wednesday afternoon urging the group to cancel their two contracts with the sculptor. It seems that on the Art Commission's recommendation, both the General Hospital rebuilding, and the proposed Chinatown Central Subway to Nowhere have $750,000 contracts for sculptures with Otterness for their new spaces.

The Brooklyn library, through a patron, commissioned bronze statues of two lions and their cubs from Otterness a couple of years ago for the same amount, but animal lovers caused an uproar when word spread about the artist's dog killing past, and the commission was eventually cancelled. In September, Joshua Sabatini at the San Francisco Examiner picked up the story and the tabloid paper produced a lurid front page to trumpet the tale (click here). Since that time, members of the San Francisco Art Commission have been in public relations spin overdrive trying to figure out what to do.

Finally, behind closed doors, a decision was made and offered up to the full commission by President PJ Johnston. He is pictured above left next to the similarly abbreviated JD Beltran, the interim Executive Director of Cultural Affairs who replaced Luis Cancel, the Brooklynite who was recently ousted from the high-profile post for absenteeism and the bullying of influential staff members.

PJ Johnston is a fourth-generation San Franciscan and son of a former California State Senator. He has a "communications" business that does public relations for outfits like Stellar, the New York developers of Parkmerced, which is in the process of evicting its elderly tenants from their 1940s garden apartments so they can build high-rise housing.

While doing research for this post, I stumbled across an online article in 7x7 (click here) by the society columnist Catherine Bigelow that chronicles PJ's 40th birthday two years ago at the Purple Onion nightclub which seemingly everyone who is currently in charge of San Francisco attended. The photo above is of PJ and Chinatown fixer Rose Pak, and the photo below features former mayor Willie Brown Jr., Tosca owner Jeanette Etheredge, PJ, and Richard and Eleanor Johns, who are recent controversial appointments by Ed Lee to the Historical Preservation Board and the Airport Commission.

Captain Greg Suhr, the newly appointed San Francisco Chief of Police, was there, and so was Steve Kawa, the Mayoral Chief of Staff under both Newsom and Lee. Seemingly the only person who wasn't there was Ed Lee, or maybe photographer Drew Altizer just didn't get his picture. In Bigelow's article, there is a quote from former Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., once again reveling in his own corruption.
“If you know PJ like I know PJ, then you’d agree that we are all amazed he arrived at this moment tonight,” teased Mayor Brown, referring to PJ’s active lifestyle. “We’ve actually long been celebrating his eventual demise because of all the secrets he has on us!”

PJ announced that he was offering a motion for the General Hospital contract to continue forward, but that he was recommending the cancelation of the MTA subway contract. There were a few timid demurs and questions from the commissioners, but this looked and sounded very much like a rubber-stamp commission, and they quickly passed the motion 11-1.

This didn't make the animal activists particularly happy, as the Solomon-like decision to cut the baby dog in half seemed rather grotesque, but the reasoning was as much economic as anything. San Francisco had already paid Otterness $375,000 for the General Hospital sculptures and wouldn't get anything back if they pulled out now, so the reasoning was, "let's not let our moral fervor get in the way of fiscal prudence."

The questions of how these commissions were approved and vetted never came up, and neither did the central question of why San Francisco government agencies who constantly preach "hire local and buy local" don't do the same thing with publicly funded art. PJ Johnston mentioned at one point that "hiring only San Francisco artists would be illegal because there are federal funds involved," missing the point completely.

Infusing and circulating money into the local economy through local grants should be mission statement number one for any San Francisco bureaucracy, particularly an arts commission, and it's not as if the Bay Area doesn't have enough great creative artists needing work. Johnston also mentioned that "San Francisco is an international tourist destination, and we should have world-class public art," implying that the local stuff was too provincial. In truth, there's nothing more provincial than requiring a New York imprimatur for something to be considered "world-class," and the idea that an international tourist would travel to San Francisco to see anything sponsored by the San Francisco Art Commission is seriously delusional.

To add to their problems, the Arts Commission has fallen under the eyes of open government activists Peter Warfield and Ray W Hartz Jr. (pictured above flanking an unknown lady). These are the people who take the time to sit through boring meetings and pore through self-serving, poorly written minutes in order to inform the clubby bureaucrats that what they are doing is illegal and completely against the spirit and intent of open government laws. The minutes of Wednesday's meeting were filled with notifications of expenditures but in some cases without any amounts or explanations for what the money was being spent upon. This did not amuse Mr. Warfield or Mr. Hartz, who politely expressed their displeasure at every moment that public comment was legally required, an activity that brought them nothing but disdain from the commissioners, even though their motives are ethical and, in a minor way, heroic.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Norman Fischer and Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 1

On a rainy Friday evening, with Turandot at the San Francisco Opera, a Brahms German Requiem at the San Francisco Symphony, and a famous Dutch recorder virtuoso at Herbst with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, I figured there would be about three people at the chamber music recital a couple of blocks away at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and that my friend Charlie and I would be two of them. Instead, the largest of the concert halls at the Conservatory was about three-quarters full.

(The photo above is of a San Francisco Opera logo that was tattooed into the arm of a pleasant middle-aged lady sitting in front of us.)

"Why are there so many people here?" I asked a Conservatory faculty member we keep bumping into at Conservatory concerts. "It's Norman Fischer!" he exclaimed, literally. "He's extended the whole role of cello playing in our time." I had never heard of the musician before (pictured above left with pianist Jannie Lo and violinist Noemy Gagnon-Lafrenais) but the exclamation turned out to be justified. He's an electric musician, who obviously thrills and excels at playing in small musical groups.

The San Francisco Conservatory started a Masters program in chamber music in 1985, building on a visionary program called Chamber Music West that started in the mid-1970s. (Click here for an unusually well-written press release from Joe Sargent about Norman Fischer and the history of the program.) One of the school's current programs involves inviting guest stars to come for a few weeks at a time to conduct master classes and play music with faculty and advanced students.

Both Lo and Gagnon-Lafrenais, pictured above in her beautiful concert gown, are students in the chamber music program, and they almost overpowered the Beethoven trio just trying to keep up with Fischer's deep, rich sound. It didn't matter as it was a lively performance and it was obvious that both performers were having the time of their lives playing with Fischer.

The second piece was a Duo for Violin and Cello from 1925 by the Jewish Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, a composer featured at a concert last month by Ensemble Parallele that also included a solo performance by Axel Strauss (above left). The music was dedicated to Leos Janacek, a gesture of respect from a minor modernist to a major genius who hadn't been widely discovered yet, and the four-movement piece was constantly interesting music with lots of folk elements.

Strauss held his own against the dynamic cellist and their interplay sounded almost improvisatory. It was in this performance that Fischer started stomping his foot down at certain moments as if he was at a fiddling hoe-down, and instead of being annoying the gesture was exciting.

The second half was the reason to choose this concert over all others this evening, a chance to hear a Schoenberg String Quartet played live. I read Thomas Pynchon's precocious genius first novel V. at an impressionable age in the 1960s and there was a detail from the first chapter that was memorable. The Whole Sick Crew, a group of wannabe artists in the 1950s in New York City, are described partying in this descriptive paragraph:
"The party itself, tonight, was divided in three parts. Fergus, and his date, and another couple had long retreated into the bedroom with a gallon of wine; locked the door; and let the Crew do what they could in the way of chaos to the rest of the place. The sink on which Stencil now sat would become Melvin's perch: he would play his guitar and there would be horahs and African fertility dances in the kitchen before midnight. The lights in the living room would go out one by one, Schoenberg's quartets (complete) would go on the record player/changer, and repeat, and repeat, while cigarette coals dotted the room like watchfires and the promiscuous Debby Sensay (e.g.) would be on the floor, caressed by Raoul, say, or Slab, while she ran her hand up the leg of another, sitting on the couch with her roommate--and on, in a kind of love feast or daisy chain; wine would spill, furniture would be broken; Fergus would awake briefly next morning, view the destruction and residual guests sprawled about the apartment; cuss them all out and go back to sleep."

The detail that got me excited at age 16 was not the intimation of orgiastic sex, though that was titillating, but the fact that they were having sex with background music supplied by the scary Austrian serial composer Schoenberg, via his severe string quartets (repeatedly). Now this sounded beyond cool.

Schoenberg's 1907 String Quartet #1 was one of his most ambitious works, stretching for about fifty minutes without pause in total concentrated frenzy. It's tonal, before he invented/codified twelve-tone music, but just barely. I own a recording that I've probably listened to twice in twenty years and probably turned off before the piece was through because it required too much concentration and sounded depressing.

With (left to right) Conservatory teacher Ian Swensen, violin, his student Joseph Maile, also on violin, and Pei-Ling Lin on viola, Norman Fischer led a performance that was one of the most extraordinary things I have ever heard. The quartet is dense, ambitious, successful, and bizarrely contemporary, and at least in this performance the fifty minutes stood outside of time. The entire ensemble was extraordinary, with a special shout-out to student Pei-Ling Lin on viola who sounded like a musical master on the order of Fischer himself.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gay Marriage, Narcissism, and Twinklelights at SFMOMA

Hidden in an alcove on the second floor landing at SFMOMA is Country Dog Gentlemen above, a 1972 painting by Roy De Forest which is the favorite of Patrick Vaz's godson, and one of mine too. Patrick and I went for a quick lunchtime stroll through the museum, and had repaired to the De Forest after laughing our way through a couple of other shows nearby.

First and worst was The Air We Breathe, an ugly, amateurish wall installation on the second floor landing purporting to address in poetry and images the thorny issues of gay marriage.

The banality of the pieces was almost breathtaking...

...and as a same-sexer, as Gore Vidal would put it, I felt a twinge of Gay Shame.

San Francisco's weekly gay free newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter, has a surprisingly good arts section under the editorship of Roberto Friedman, and his art writer Sura Wood bends over backwards trying to be kind to the pathetic exhibit but even she finally gives up (click here).

On the third floor, there is a large exhibit devoted to the photography of Francesca Woodman, a defiantly neurotic narcissist, expensive art school division, who killed herself via defenestration, jumping out of a Manhattan loft window at the tender age of 22 in 1981. According to Wikipedia, her artist father "has suggested that Woodman's suicide was related to an unsuccessful application for funding from the National Endowment for the Arts."

The photographs are mostly small black-and-white nudes of herself looking alienated in grubby surroundings, and if Sylvia Plath and Diane Arbus are your cup of tea, this exhibit might be deeply affecting. The phrase that came to my mind, however, was the evil Oscar Wilde quote, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing."

Above the entrance to SFMOMA, there are a collection of twinkly LED lights which Patrick first assumed were installed for the Christmas holidays.

They turned out to be a 3D light sculpture installation by Jim Campbell called Exploded Views.

You have to station yourself on the second floor landing just in front of the dreary gay marriage exhibit and the wonders of Exploded Views come into focus. It turns out to be a looped film of dancers from Alonzo King's LINES Ballet moving through air and light represented by the twinkling LEDs.

It's very cool, but be sure you find the right place to view it because otherwise they really do just look like holiday lights.

On the fourth floor, there is a huge exhibit of black paintstick drawings by the sculptor Richard Serra, which just about define monochromatic. They gave this Philistine the giggles, but Patrick Vaz, with his usual rarified discernment, was appreciative:
"The spareness, the ambiguous black shapes (both graceful and massive), the sense of space, and of space being emptied out and carefully but subtly arranged, and of high-minded if obscure philosophical purposes, all reminded me of the ink drawings of Zen monks. Given the reputation for brutality and sheer mass that Serra’s sculptures have, it’s sort of surprising to find in the drawing exhibit the peace-inducing atmosphere of a Japanese garden."
Click here for the whole essay, and here for a laugh-inducing interview between SF Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker and the artist.