Monday, April 30, 2012

Revolting Teachers

Just like the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano, every spring brings demonstrations by the San Francisco teachers' union to the school district headquarters at McAllister and Franklin.

They tend to be jolly affairs, with children involved in signmaking...

...and bright young things being interviewed by the local media.

This year, according to their handouts, "the Superinentent and the Board of Education are proposing to cut five school days from each of the next two years. They have also sent layoff notices to almost 500 pre-k and k-12 teachers and to over 140 teachers' aides. If allowed to stand, these cuts would have a disastrous impact on the quality of education delivered in our schools, to say nothing of the impact it will have on these hard working educators and their families."

These threatened firings seemingly happen every year, and after huge amounts of time and energy, most of them are rescinded. (Click here for the educators' website.)

There's got to be a better way to run this annual process.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Edwin Outwater to the Rescue at Berkeley Symphony

The Berkeley Symphony's final concert of their season at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall was billed as a "Hungarian Excursion," which meant playing two of that nation's greatest 20th century orchestral masterpieces, Kodaly's Dances of Galanta and Bartok's Music for String, Percussion and Celesta. There was also a very non-Hungarian world premiere by East Bay composer Gabriela Lena Frank, the first half of of a song cycle for soprano and girls' chorus called Holy Sisters.

It turned out that the Berkeley Symphony conductor Joana Carneiro had recently injured her shoulder in a fall that was bad enough to keep her from leading the orchestra, so a last-minute substitute in the person of Edwin Outwater (below) was flown in from Ontario, where he has been leading the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony for the last five years. (Click here for his website.)

Outwater was the Associate Conductor at the San Francisco Symphony under MTT from 2001-2006, and he was always a decent musician, but on the evidence of this concert he's turned into a very good conductor. The orchestra, which had slaughtered the Sibelius Fifth Symphony last fall, sounded like an entirely different band this evening. Their performances of the Kodaly and the Bartok, which are both very tricky pieces of music, were superb: rhythmic, lively and assured.

Special praise should go to Roman Fukshansky on clarinet in the Kodaly and the entire large string section in the Bartok. They were wonderful.

The originally scheduled program was rearranged so that Gabriela Lena Frank's (above) Holy Sisters followed after intermission. The composer started off at the microphone telling a long story of serendipity and chance occurrences between composer Frank, conductor Joann Carneiro and soprano Jessica Rivera (below), which you can read about in full on Jesse Hamlin's post at San Francisco Classical Voice. Listening to the story, you'd think the piece's creation was a chapter from The Celestine Prophecy.

Jessica Rivera sang beautifully, the San Francisco Girls' Chorus sang beautifully, and the orchestra meandered along beautifully, but the piece was dull and conservative, a variation on John Adams's El Nino without any of the genius. It also didn't help that the libretto read like a Twitter version of Women from The Holy Bible.

Still, it was great hearing the orchestra sound so good, and the BART ride home with an Internet Writer Gang, including Cedric Westphal above and Sidney Chen with Patrick Vaz below, was filled with laughter. It was our first experience sitting in the new, more sanitary seats that have been promised for some time, and we all wanted to spill something on them just to feel more comfortable.

A pretty young woman with a bicycle got on at one of the stops, and after a few minutes came over to me and asked if she could have my seat since it would be more comfortable for her next to the door and the wall than where she was currently seated. "You want me to give up my seat for you?" I asked. With a perfect sense of entitlement, she replied in the affirmative and I was so flabbergasted that I did so without a word.

Then, in a divine coincidence out of The Celestine Prophecy, a voice came over the intercom and demanded that all bicycles get off the first car of the train and go into other ones. I hadn't even realized we were in the first car, and the look of amusement on everyone's faces when our bicyclist was firmly ordered out by the Female Voice of God will stay with me forever.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mirkarimi at the Ethics Commission: Setting Up The Circus Tent

On Monday afternoon, April 23rd, the inquisition of sheriff-elect Ross Mirkarimi continued with a special hearing at the Ethics Commission on the fourth floor of City Hall. Newly elected District Attorney George Gascon had thrown the book at the sheriff on domestic violence charges stemming from a New Years Eve fight with his wife where he grabbed her arm and bruised her. The "City Family" that runs San Francisco had never much cared for Mirkarimi, and this was their chance to destroy him. The local media happily complied, with saturation coverage reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson trial, and daily character assassinations by approved newspaper attack dogs C.W. Nevius and Ken Garcia.

Mirkarimi recently avoided a trial on four charges with a plea bargain admitting guilt to the misdemeanor charge of false imprisonment. That's when the City Family in the person of newly elected Mayor Ed Lee said in effect, "Just kidding. We're suspending you without pay anyway and demand you resign." Mirkarimi refused, so the next step in the process was sending the Mayor's charges on to the five-member Ethics Commission (click here for the full March 21st letter from Lee and City Attorney Herrera). The Commission is then supposed to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, who would then have to vote to remove Mirkarimi from his elected sheriff's office by a supermajority of 9 out of 11 votes.

There was a small line to enter the 4:30 Ethics Commission meeting, and we all looked at each other curiously, wondering which side of the issue everyone was on. As it turned out, the audience, by a ratio of about 10-1, consisted of individuals who were furious at the hypocrisy of a deeply unethical city government suddenly portraying itself as a repository of moral virtue. This was their first chance to publicly vent.

As a number of public commenters pointed out, Ed Lee was appointed to his mayoral incumbency in a sleazy coup d'etat by Mayor Gavin Newsom a year ago. This was the same Mayor Newsom who had earlier fucked his own appointments secretary in a substance abuse fueled affair. The fact that she was married to his friend and campaign manager was bad enough, but an executive having sex with a direct report subordinate is textbook on-the-job sexual harassment, an issue that was never addressed by the Ethics Commission or anyone else for that matter.

The hypocrisy becomes thicker when you consider that Mayor Ed Lee is the admitted puppet of former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., who is essentially still running the city's influence peddling rackets through his appointed allies. As Larry Bush writes at the deeply informed CitiReport (click here):
"The most important, of course, is Ed Lee, the mayor Brown shoehorned into office and who has done favors for Brown by retaining or naming Brown allies to key posts where they can continue to do favors for Brown clients and allies. Brown made sure that he had a virtual army of loyalists when he increased the number of mayoral “special assistants” – hired and fired at will outside civil service – from the 119 he inherited to 521 with a request in the 2000 budget for an additional 100 special assistants."
Even though all these activities should be under the purview of the Ethics Commission, there's never been a peep out of them concerning the unethical shenanigans under their noses. Last year's San Francisco Grand Jury report, as Patrick Monette-Shaw above pointed out, cited the Ethics Commission as "The Sleeping Watch Dog" (click here to read the whole thing) , a report which was then effectively ignored.

Two out of the five summary findings of the Grand Jury report were:

2. The excessive influence of the Executive Director
3. The Commissioners’ abdication of oversight responsibilities

In other words, longtime Executive Director John St. Croix above, looking more Jabba the Hutt with every passing year, has been in charge of dismissing and burying complaints in a mass of bureaucracy which he has accomplished with some mastery. In the Mirkarimi case, he proposed to the lawyers on both sides that they prepare written submissions on a variety of "Legal Questions and Factual Questions before any live testimony." (Click here to read the whole document.)

Imagine his surprise when the mayor's forces, headed by the unctuous Deputy District Attorney Peter J. Keith (above on the monitor) sent the Commission a memo an hour before the scheduled April 23rd meeting, stating in the first sentence, "We recommend that the Commission adopt procedures structured in direct contemplation of an evidentiary hearing, not a possible trial on the papers." In other words, they were requesting an immediate, full-fledged circus with everything but the Tijuana donkey show as a sideshow attraction. (Click here for the full memo.)

In a John Cote article in the San Francisco Chronicle from April 24th, he quotes the mayor:
"This is ... what we call uncharted territory," Lee said in an interview before the hearing started. "I want to make sure we're not creating a public circus, if you will. That's why the attorneys will establish the ground rules."
Either Mayor Lee is misinformed or he's a flat-out liar because what his lawyers were proposing was indeed "a public circus."

Keith also announced in the memo and at the hearing the startling assertion that Mirkarimi should not be able to defend himself and should cooperate fully with Mayor Lee's investigation through the City Attorney's office. Here's some of the wording from the memo:
"As described above, Sheriff Mirkarimi is not cooperating and assisting with this investigation and he appears to have no plans to do so. We intend to amend the official misconduct charges to add a charge that Sheriff Mirkarimi has breached his official duty to cooperate and assist in the investigation, unless Sheriff Mirkarimi immediately and fully cooperates."
This apparent violation of all basic due process, starting with the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, seemed to startle the newly appointed commissioner Paul Renne above. Renne is about as old San Francisco establishment as they come, married to former City Attorney Louise Renne, and appointed by DA George Gascon. He also admitted to having donated "$100 or thereabouts, I don't remember" to Mirkarimi's opponent Chris Cunnie last year, "even though I have never met him, so I'm sure I can be fair in this process." The interesting question is why somebody would donate to somebody's campaign that they've never met in a city as small as San Francisco.

The commissioners (chairman Benedict Hur and Beverly Hayon are pictured above) seemed confused and generally clueless throughout most of the proceedings since they are essentially making up the rules as they go along. By charter law, they are the ones who are supposed to be initiating this investigation of misconduct rather than dancing to the Mayor's tune, but their grasp on these issues doesn't seem to be very deep. For yet another brilliant and detailed report by Larry Bush about who the five commissioners are and how their careers are entangled with City Hall, click here.

This may all backfire on the mayor, though. The railroading of Mirkarimi has been so public and relentless that it stopped being sane a while ago, and many people who are not even particularly sympathetic towards Mirkarimi are appalled at the inquisition. As a number of commenters pointed out, "I have people murdered on my block every year and the police don't give a damn, but somehow you have all these resources and all this money to go after somebody who got into a fight with his wife. How much is this costing me and everyone else in San Francisco?"

Coming to the rescue are a pair of smart, honest lawyers: David Waggoner from San Francisco who has tangled with the Ethics Commission before and knows where a number of ethical bodies are buried, in conjunction with Los Angeles celebrity defense lawyer Shepard Kopp (above), who just happens to be the son of Quentin Kopp, the retired SF Supervisor, California State Senator, and San Mateo County Superior Court Judge. Quentin was always a bit conservative for San Francisco tastes (though he might have been mayor if Dianne Feinstein hadn't stabbed him in the back), but he's always been known for his honesty and ethics.

Shepard asked the commissioners to refer to the letter he had sent them that morning, which was attached with various threatening letters from Deputy City Attorney Keith. (Click here to read all of them. It's literally eye opening.) However, none of the commissioners had received the letter and didn't know what he was talking about because Executive Director St. Croix hadn't bothered to forward it to any of them. "He was traveling," one of the commissioners lamely explained, which was a reminder once again that they were in way over their heads.

"We're fighting with one hand tied behind our back. The City Attorney's office is handing out subpoenas to potential witnesses but we aren't being allowed the same rights. We also need to know what their witnesses and case might be so we can prepare to defend it." This seemed reasonable to the Commission and after much hemming and hawing, a schedule was worked out for initial briefs and lists of witnesses before the next hearing on May 29th.

So the live hearing circus has been somewhat delayed, but Kopp didn't seem overly concerned one way or the other about the prospect. The Ethics Commission is used to conducting their meetings in semi-secret obscurity, but recently they have been forced to meet in Room 400 where the meetings are televised, a move that they bitterly opposed. The possibility of seeing the City Family's creepy-crawlies having their rocks lifted from over them during public cross-examination should be giving Mayor Lee and City Attorney Herrera some pause, because as the single holier-than-thou domestic violence advocate put it during public comment, "the world is watching."

Thanks to the Sunshine Posse for pointing me towards all the linked documents. They are watching too.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Jaunt through SFMOMA

The contract job in Silicon Valley has finished after four months, so I was free to take a weekday jaunt last week through the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with Patrick Vaz, who has a membership. There was a new mural on the second floor atrium by PARRA, an Amsterdam "graphic designer, illustrator, artist, art director, and clothing company owner" (click here for an amusing studio visit and interview at Fecal Face Gallery).

We also checked out the newly purchased, multi-million-dollar Edward Hopper painting, Intermission, which we both found a little underwhelming, particularly since an earlier, uncharacteristic Hopper had been sold by the museum to help finance the purchase.

We also went to the Photography in Mexico exhibit, which is a mostly dreary imposition of New York style art photography on our neighbor to the south. Some of the present-day photos by actual Mexicans were interesting but the subject deserves a more fresh, insightful and provocative treatment, as the optimistic signage would have it.

The main reason to go to the museum right now is to see the Mark Bradford exhibit (not pictured), an extensive show of large paintings/collages by a gay, black, Central LA artist who is creating wonders.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Bay Guardian 420 Party at El Rio

El Rio has been one of the coolest bars in San Francisco since it opened in 1978, and it remains so to this day. Its rabbit warren layout consists of a long, dark, narrow bar serving cheap drinks, back rooms for gathering and playing games, and an open-air backyard patio with wrap-around balconies and stages.

When it opened at Mission near Cesar Chavez (then Army Street), I remember the vibe being mostly Hipster Mission District Lesbian, but everyone was welcome and the mixture of races and sexual orientations was and seemingly continues to be refreshingly mixed.

The place also continues to cater to the young, scruffy and beautiful.

On Friday, April 20th, a late afternoon party was hosted by the San Francisco Bay Guardian in honor of "420" which has become an increasingly universal code for marijuana. The slang dates from the early 1970s when a half-dozen stoners at San Rafael High School met at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 after school and athletic practice before going on goofball adventures, usually involving pot. (Click here for an amusing article, "Sparking a Tradition," from the Boulder Weekly.)

April 20th is also Adolph Hitler's birthday and the 1999 Columbine massacre, but fostering a new tradition of celebrating the date as an annual Marijuana Appreciation Day celebration seems healthier than obsessing about those darker anniversaries.

I had come to the El Rio party partly to find out about the rumors that the 40-year-old-plus San Francisco Bay Guardian was in talks about being sold to the San Francisco Examiner, which in a historical sense makes no sense. Entertainment Commissioner Glendon Hyde above hadn't even heard the rumors, so it seems the party's hosts were being fairly tight-lipped.

The story had broken the day before in the East Bay Express, but the woman above was telling me not to believe everything I read, and that the Bay Guardian was going on strong as ever.

This was clearly delusional, as anyone who has watched the incredible shrinking free weekly over the years knows that their only ad revenue anymore is live concerts and medical marijuana dispensaries. Craigslist siphoned off the lucrative sex and relationship ads, along with every other kind of personal ad, because they are now free.

The reported $1 million dollar selling price seems strange, and presumably it's for the real estate on Potrero Hill. Founding publisher Bruce Brugmann bought the large headquarters building after successfully suing the SF Examiner and SF Chronicle in the mid-1970s because the two nominal daily competitors combined their Sunday advertising operations. At the time, the free weekly was filled with people working at below minimum wage as interns of some sort, and when the settlement came through, they presumed there would be some improvement in pay. They were wrong, and when they tried to unionize, Brugmann fought and broke their unionizing attempts.

His hypocrisy in urging everyone else in the world to respect union labor except for himself has been the largest blot on a paper that has often featured very good journalists, most of whom have leaped at the chance to go elsewhere to jobs where they were paid a living wage. One of the longest holdouts of the present era is editor Tim Redmond (above right) whose prose invokes some mild-mannered, Old Uncle Tim who pontificates with on-the-one-hand this, but on-the-other-hand that arguments which are an invitation to narcolepsy.

Another relative old-timer is Burning Man alpha male Steve Jones above right, whose reporting and insights tend to be unilluminating at best. It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Masterful Menahem Pressler at the SF Conservatory of Music

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music hosts a series called "Chamber Music Masters," where a famous musician is invited for master classes at the school, and then joins faculty members and a few special students for a concert. On Thursday, it was the turn of 89-year-old pianist Menahem Pressler above right, who accompanied professor Axel Strauss in Brahm's first Violin Sonata.

Afterwards, Pressler played Debussy's Estampes for solo piano. They are three short pieces of exotic tone painting that Pressler played with an exquisite grace, reminding everyone in the fairly full house why he is so special. There are certain musicians, such as the late violinist Josef Suk or cellist Pablo Casals or pianist Rudolf Serkin, who played the chamber music repertory with an unusual delicacy and sense of poetry, and we're fortunate they were around during a period when recording devices and home playback flourished.

With the Beaux Arts Trio for 50 years, Menahem Pressler recorded virtually every piano trio in the repertory, and the recordings will probably always be "the gold standard," as the Washington Post put it. The trio finally disbanded four years ago, but Pressler chugs on, giving off energy like a magical munchkin.

There was a program change announced from the stage, where the second half Faure Piano Quartet #1 would be replaced by the Dvorak Piano Quintet #2 with a different roster of players. However, after the solo Debussy, we were asked to stay in our seats for an amuse bouche, which turned out to be the third movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet in C Minor with students Noemy Gagnon-Lafrenais on violin (above left to right), Pressler on piano, Jean-Michel Fonteneau on cello, and Hannah Nicholas on viola.

The Dvorak quintet performance is something of an overplayed warhorse, but this enchanting performance made it sound as if the piece were being played for the first time, which happens so rarely it felt a bit miraculous. There were a few missed and wrong notes but they didn't matter in the hands of these musicians, and listening to Pressler help guide his fellow performers through softer and gentler playing was a wonder. From left to right above, the artists were Jean-Michel Fonteneau on cello, Paul Hersh on viola, Axel Strauss and Ian Swenson on violin, and Pressler at the piano.

The standing ovation even brought a sweet Chopin encore from Pressler, and the audience walked out happy and a little stunned by how great the evening had been.

As the Conservatory school year winds down to an end, the place is hopping, with the three concert halls packed all day long with graduate recitals this weekend and next, and the public is invited to attend them for free. Click here for the Conservatory schedule.

I can particularly recommend two recitals, having heard both performers before. First up is soprano Maya Kherani this Sunday the 22nd at 5PM in the Recital Hall. The following Sunday has Sydne Sullivan on oboe playing Ibert, a Poulenc Trio for piano, oboe & bassoon, and a Strauss concerto for oboe and small orchestra. Both of these young performers are seriously good.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Mercedes vs. Traffic Signal Light Pole

At approximately 6:30 this evening, somebody ran a red light at the intersection of Franklin and Grove Streets, crashing into the Mercedes above which then plowed into the traffic signal light pole next to the Opera House.

Surprisingly, the Mercedes won and the traffic signal light went down.

It was fortunate that the San Francisco Ballet finished Program 7 the evening before, or there would have certainly been pedestrians injured or killed by the flying traffic signal.

Say what one will about planet-destroying, gas-guzzling Mercedes cars, they are extraordinary feats of engineering.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Cleveland Symphony On Tour

The parade of major American orchestras touring through Davies Hall in honor of the San Francisco Symphony's centennial continued this week, with a two-night stand by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under their controversial music director, the 51-year-old Austrian, Franz Welser-Möst above.

His biography, according to Wikipedia, includes this detail: "In 1985, Möst assumed the stage name Welser-Möst on suggestion of his mentor, Baron Andreas von Bennigsen of Liechtenstein, thus paying homage to the city of Wels where he grew up. In 1986, he was adopted by von Bennigsen. In 1992, Welser-Möst married von Bennigsen's former wife, Angelika." This all sounds perilously close to a parody of a Luchino Visconti film.

When Franz Welser-Möst became the conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1990s, the British press anointed him "Frankly, Worse Than Most," which has to be the unkindest classical music nickname since Monsterfat Cowbelly. In Cleveland over the last ten years, there has been further controversy, including the removal of Cleveland Plain-Dealer music critic Donald Rosenberg from the symphony beat in 2008 after one too many swipes in the newspaper at Welser-Möst.

Sunday evening's concert in Davies Hall turned out to be quite wonderful, though it started dully with Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 3, The Scottish. The sound of the orchestra, in particular its strings, was amazingly beautiful, but the interpretation was way too Germanic and unvarying for my tastes. "Ponderous" is not a word I associate with Mendelssohn, but it's the best description of the performance I can come up with, which lacked both humor and poetry.

One of the incidental pleasures of the concert was running into everybody at intermission, including the Westphal brothers, Janos Gereben, Charlise the Opera Tattler above, and composer Luiciano Chessa. Most of us were there for the newer music, starting with Orion by the 58-year-old Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho. She wrote it for the Cleveland Symphony ten years ago, before embarking on an ambitious trio of operas over the last decade. It's a weird, gorgeous, three-movement piece that often sounds like outer space music, with extreme dynamic contrasts, from the quietest to the loudest and the busiest to the sparest, co-existing comfortably side by side. The battery of percussionists running around the back of the stage were amusing to watch and sensationally good to hear, as was the entire orchestra.

The final piece was a Shostakovich symphony I had never heard before, the Sixth. The symphony is a strange duck, with a slow, contemplative first movement that lasts about twenty minutes, followed by two, short, rambunctious movements that showed off Shostakovich at his funniest and wildest. The performance of the first movement by Welser-Möst and the orchestra was beyond compare, with principal flute Joshua Smith sounding so lyrical it was hard to believe it was the flute he was playing. The final two movements were skillful and virtuosic, but they missed Shostakovich's sarcastic humor altogether.

The San Francisco Symphony is playing the same piece next month with guest conductor Osmo Vänskä, and it should be fascinating to hear what they do with the Shostakovich.