Monday, December 31, 2012

21 Cool, Cruel Civic Center Events in 2012

1. A Tale of Two Inaugurations

Cool: Ed Lee is the first Chinese mayor elected in San Francisco, a city with an historically large Chinese population that has been woefully treated and politically underrepresented for centuries. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wins a hard-fought electoral battle for San Francisco Sheriff with much of the old public safety establishment doing everything they can to support his two competitors.

Cruel: Interim mayor Ed Lee "changed his mind" and ran for mayor in the November election, winning with the dual assistance of appointed incumbency and documented fraud throughout Chinatown. His inauguration party in City Hall was roped off from the public and only invited VIPs such as Senator Dianne Feinstein (above left) were allowed into the rotunda.

Mirkarimi's open and public inauguration across the street at Herbst Theatre was overshadowed by accusations of domestic violence against his wife that had just been reported in the SF Chronicle by establishment attack dog Phil Matier, above center. He was at the Mirkarimi reception talking to Joanne Hayes-White, the SF Fire Department Chief who was once accused of bashing her husband's head with a pint glass while he was frantically calling 911.

2. The Chinese Lantern Festival

Cool: An illuminated, two-story, smoke-breathing dragon appeared in Civic Center for two weeks in January and was an unexpected treat, an offshoot of the "Global Winter Wonderland Festival" held in Santa Clara earlier in December.

Cruel: Falun Gong protesters were at the culminating performing event, decrying Chinese government propaganda.

3. America's Got Talent Auditions at Bill Graham

Cool: A surrealistic melange of entertainment wannabes were being herded around Civic Center for a photo shoot.

Cruel: It felt like wandering into a contemporary version of Day of the Locust.

4. The SAFE Campaign to Abolish the California Death Penalty

Cool: Instead of campaigning on moral grounds, the anti-death penalty Proposition 34 proponents stressed pragmatism and how financially wasteful and ineffective the California death penalty actually is in practice. The campaign attracted smart, idealistic people among its ranks of volunteers, and they had a serious chance to win.

Cruel: The proposition lost 52%-48% in the November election.

5. BooBoo Stewart at the Asian American Film Festival Party

Cool: Standing next to a Twilight star in your local neighborhood Asian Art Museum at a film festival party is fun.

Cruel: The post-film party offerings were desserts and sweet cocktails, not a good combination for most metabolisms.

6. St. Patrick's Day Parade

Cool: It's a charming parade with lots of cute white people and everyone else too, step dancing and marching and drinking on floats.

Cruel: In New York, the St. Patrick's Day Parade is still disallowing a gay contingent, in the year 2013.

7. The Unethical Mirkarimi Mess

Cool: Nobody came out of the public inquisition by Mayor Lee against the elected Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi looking good. The few exceptions were Ethics Commission President Benedict Hur who voted his conscience, and Mirkarimi's final duo of lawyers, Waggoner and Kopp, who were sometimes the only ones in the San Francisco Ethics hearing room who seemed remotely ethical.

Cruel: I wrote about this story a lot, but it's a sordid tale that is better buried. The drawn-out, expensive political theater was a disturbing look behind the curtain at the corruption and ineptitude of San Francisco city government, and how that can manifest itself in a poisonous vindictiveness that wouldn't be out of place in an organized crime family.

8. Falun Gong Adopts Civic Center

Cool: Elderly Chinese, performing regimented Tai Chi routines to cheesy music, in the big empty plaza in front of City Hall, is a lovely addition to the neighborhood.

Cruel: They are a religious cult, but so is the Catholic Church.

9. Breathing Flower on the Plaza

Cool: The Asian Art Museum installed a 24-foot fabric red lotus by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa as part of their Phantoms of Asia exhibit, and the piece waved around wildly in the Pacific Ocean wind tunnel plaza for the entire summer.

Cruel: The neighborhood was afraid it was going to fly away at some point.

10. Future's Past in Hayes Valley

Cool: Burning Man's Black Rock Arts Foundation continues to funnel beautiful and interesting sculptures into the Hayes/Octavia Patricia's Green, and the latest is a small temple by Kate Raudenbush.

Cruel: Graffiti monsters have semi-trashed the interior.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Clipper to Jack London

After too many days cooped up in an apartment, hiding from the rain with a cold, I took a ferry boat to Jack London Square in Oakland on a darkly foreboding Saturday... buy Matt Hubbard above a few beers on his birthday.

We walked to Lake Merritt and by the time we returned to the waterfront, the skies had cleared and the light was radiant.

If you use a Clipper Card, the usual $7.50 fare is only $4.75, which is a nice bargain for a beautiful boat ride...

...that takes you within throwing distance of huge container ships...

...which you can admire with an amusing assortment of characters.

There were about ten ships and thousands of containers in the small harbor...

...most of which looked empty after having dropped off Christmas stuff for American consumers.

Standing watch beyond the Bay Bridge were about a dozen ships awaiting their turn.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Twelve Great Musical Moments of 2012

1. Tetzlaff and the Ligeti Violin Concerto at SF Symphony

2012 got off to a sizzling start with Christian Tetzlaff above playing the bejesus out of Ligeti's fabulous and insanely difficult 1992 Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, including a cadenza he was improvising himself. It was one of those performances where it would have felt appropriate at the end to bow as an audience a la Wayne and Garth to indicate that we were not worthy.

2. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

In March, the four nine-hour performances of the Abel Gance silent film epic Napoleon at the Paramount in Oakland accompanied by a full symphony orchestra with Carl Davis conducting his own pastiche of Beethoven, etc. was one of the greatest live events imaginable, never to be repeated.

The Festival managed to top itself, however, during its four-day run in July, when it opened with a new, reconstructed print of Wings, accompanied by an entire family of Foley sound artists creating the World War One dogfight effects in conjunction with a local chamber orchestra. It was an amazing live performance at the Castro Theatre, and a nice preview for a whole host of other live performing groups who accompanied silent films both famous and obscure. The semi-improvised soundtracks by British pianist/accordionist Stephen Shore were also a highlight. Paradoxically, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become one of the more interesting live music venues around.

3. The American Mavericks Festival at the SF Symphony

As part of its centenary season, the San Francisco Symphony reprised their festival of American modernist composers from twelve years previous, and it surpassed all expectations. One of the many highlights were the three divas above: Jessye Norman, Joan LaBarbara and Meredith Monk performing together in a selection from John Cage's Song Books. Additionally, a selection of programs from the festival toured the country and conquered New York, making them wonder why their symphony didn't play such cool stuff.

4. Hot Greeks at The Hypnodrome

Also in March, there were performances by the Thrillpeddlers theatre troupe of an expanded version of the early 1970s Cockettes musical, Hot Greeks, with director Russell Blackwood performing as Mata Dildoes above. The composer of the musical, Scrumbly Koldewyn, is San Francisco's answer to Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin rolled into one. Plus, he hung out with every cool San Francisco hippie when there was such a thing. Koldewyn is still writing music and performing his work, and he's still something of an undiscovered national treasure.

5. Menahem Pressler at the San Francisco Conservatory

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music has started to invite famous old musicians who specialized in chamber music to engage in teaching residencies that culminate in a concert with faculty and students. Menahem Pressler, the 89-year-old pianist who performed with the Beaux Arts Trio for decades, gave a concert with Conservatory faculty of Brahms and Dvorak warhorses in April that made the music sound so fresh and poetic that it was another, unexpected "we are not worthy" moment.

6. Susanna Malkki and Horacio Gutierrez at the SF Symphony

Also in April, the Finnish female guest conductor Susanna Malkki above played French avant-garde spectral music, Modulations from Les Espaces acoustiques by Gérard Grisey, that was extraordinary. This was followed by Horacio Gutierrez playing Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto in a brilliant, eccentric performance. I wanted to hear both of them again, playing pretty much anything they wanted.

7. John Luther Adams' Inuksuit at UC Berkeley

The early June Ojai Music Festival has started to repeat much of its programming a week later at UC Berkeley through Cal Performances, and the opener this year was a free late afternoon performance of a percussion piece by John Luther Adams, Inuksuit. It was recently written for his friend Steven Schick's wedding, and is meant to be played outdoors by an indeterminate number of instrumentalists for an indeterminate amount of time, depending on the space. Schick himself was semi-conducting the piece, with players ranged around a large lawn surrounded by oak trees, and with audience roaming around at will. For an hour, the place was simply magical.

8. John Coolidge Adams's Nixon in China at SF Opera

The first John Adams opera, about President Richard Nixon's early 1970s trip to "open" China, waited 25 years before it debuted in San Francisco and happily it was a complete triumph. This was thanks to a great production from Vancouver, a brilliant Canadian director (Michael Cavanaugh), a fiendishly good Dutch conductor (Lawrence Renes), a skilled hometown chorus, and an international principal cast that was probably the best that has ever been assembled for this opera. Best of all, I was immersed in this production for a month of rehearsals and a month of performances as a supernumerary along with my buddies Charlie and Michael above.

Honorable mentions for the rest of the SF Opera season: Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Rigoletto and Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda; Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin, Nicole Cabell and Joyce DiDonato as Juliet & Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti, along with the entire cast and production designers of Moby Dick.

9. Shostakovich The Year 1905 at the SF Symphony

The originally scheduled program in early September was Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, which for some reason was changed suddenly to the same composer's Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905. The performance by the SF Symphony under Bychkov above, not usually one of my favorites, was extremely powerful and moving. Let's hear the Seventh next year, and all the rest of Shostakovich's symphonies while we're at it. This music is aging beautifully.

10. Mahler Fifth at the SF Symphony

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has stuffed us to the gills with Mahler over the last fifteen years, and his performances have ranged all the way from dull and deliberate to inspired and awesome, sometimes with the same piece within the same couple of years. Late September featured one of the Inspired/Awesome renditions, this time of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and it was very, very good.

11. Prokofiev's Ivan The Terrible at the SF Symphony

A newly discovered choral cantata by Prokofiev of his movie music for the Eisenstein Ivan The Terrible films is being debuted around the world by the conductor Vladimir Jurowski above. It's a sensationally successful work, and Jurowski is a superb, exciting conductor. Plus, the huge Symphony chorus and Russian soloists were just about perfection.

12. Pal Joey at 42nd Street Moon

42nd Street Moon, the semi-pro, semi-amateur theater troupe that specializes in obscure musicals pulled off a small miracle in December with their production of Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart/John O'Hara's musical from 1940, Pal Joey. There have been attempts over the decades to rewrite the problematic work, but this production reproduced the original. It was easy to see why the musical is both legendary and seldom produced, because it's dark as coal, about social class and human relations, a naturalistic Brecht/Weill. It also has tacky female chorus lines, crooks, a charming young con artist wannabe celebrity as its hero, and a rich, hardboiled Chicago society woman as its heroine. Johnny Orenberg and Deborah Del Mastro above (photo by David Allen) were exceptional in the lead roles, and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered with its unbowdlerized lyrics is the music I can't get out of my head as the year ends.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

New Year Fiscal Cliffhanger

The Kahn & Keville Goodyear Tire Center at Turk and Larkin Streets often uses their corner signpost for pertinent political messages, and their New Year's edition below is a case in point.

It is not exactly clear who "WE" is supposed to be and why WE don't "DESERVE A CLIFF HANGER." It is a good reminder, though, that the lunatic Republicans in the House of Representatives are insisting on an extension of Dubya's ruinous tax cuts for the very rich while holding the U.S. and world economy hostage. Let us hope WE ARE BETTER THAN THAT.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Tibetan Christmas Buddhist Birthday Card

Though it is doubtful whether Jesus was actually born on December 25th using either the Julian or Gregorian calendars, the date is indisputably the birth anniversary of Heidi Seward, a friend from Santa Barbara who became a Tibetan Buddhist last century. The buddha Amitayus above wishes her great longevity and much love.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas in the Castro

Christmas Eve on Church and Market, the young man above was rollerskating with portable speakers strapped to him playing Alvin and The Chipmunks singing Christmas carols.

Further up Market Street, two gentlemen with contrasting Santa hats and shaved pubic hair were enjoying the winter sun during a break in rainstorms.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cat-Shaped Water Bottle

Three years ago, we came down with swine flu for the holidays and the only silver lining was our new kitten, Tiger Woods, who helped keep us warm.

This season is being celebrated with a minor, common cold, which feels almost reassuring in the context of serious, life-threatening health travails that seem to be striking family and friends this year. We still have the cat-shaped water bottle at our feet, though, and it's only gotten larger and more comforting, perfect for a rainy Christmas. Happy holidays, everyone.

Friday, December 21, 2012

End of Humanity On Hold

A couple of years ago, the San Francisco based, internationally recognized artist Enrique Chagoya (below left) had an art show at the Electric Works gallery called Super-Bato Saves The World. Chagoya was playing with iconography involving the end of the current Mayan calendar during the Winter Solstice of 2012, and the hysterical portents of planetary doom it was supposedly prophesying.

I asked the artist at the party if he was one of the Apocalyptic Believers, and his reply has lingered:
"No, I'm not one of the believers. I have a niece in Mexico, though, who recently went on a journey with a Mayan shaman where she had a Eureka moment in the middle of their jungle trip. She told me the shaman had explained that all the environmental stuff we're doing is helping a little, so that the end is actually going to be a little later. Not a whole lot later, but not 2012 either."
Unfortunately, that sounds about right. There have been plenty of Cassandras warning of Doom for Mankind over the last five decades, but certain voices have resonated with me.

As a teenager in 1969, I heard the Stanford scientist Paul Ehrlich give one of his doomsday population growth speeches at a school board convention at Bill Graham auditorium in San Francisco's Civic Center. Though most of his specific apocalyptic scenarios were as off-base as the Mayan calendar prophecies, his basic point about algorithmic overpopulation and the problems it would cause remain as potent as ever. In a 2011 interview in the LA Times, Ehrlich notes: "When we wrote it, there were about 3.5 billion people on the planet; about half a billion of them were hungry. Today there are 7 billion people on the planet and about a billion of them are hungry. We've lost something on the order of 200 million to 400 million to starvation and diseases related to starvation since the book was written. How "wrong" [were] we?"

Artists have always been the world's most powerful prognosticators, and the apocalyptic visions of novelists John Wyndham, Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood have for some reason hit me with an almost mystical intensity over the years. It was especially disturbing to read an except from an article by Atwood written seven years ago for the British magazine Granta which was featured in Kit Stolz's environmental reporting site, A Change in the Wind.

The Canadian Atwood notes one of the more disturbing scenarios we are looking at in the near future:
"The Arctic is an unbelievable region of the earth: strikingly beautiful if you like gigantic skies, enormous landforms, tiny flowers, amazing colors, strange light effects. It's also a region that allows scant margins of error. Fall into the ocean and wait a few minutes, and you're dead. Make a mistake with a walrus or a bear, same result. Make the wrong wardrobe choice, same result again. Melt the Arctic ice, and what follows? No second chances for some time.

You could write a science fiction novel about it, except that it wouldn't be science fiction. You could call it Icemelt. Suddenly there are no more small organisms, thus no fish up there, thus no seals. That wouldn't affect the average urban condo dweller much. The rising water levels from--say--the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps would get attention--no more Long Island or Florida, no more Bangladesh, and quite a few islands would disappear--but people could just migrate, couldn't they? Still no huge cause for alarm unless you own a lot of shore-front real estate."

"But wait: there's ice under the earth, as well as on top of the sea. It's the permafrost, under the tundra. There's a lot of it, and a lot of tundra as well. Once the permafrost starts to melt, the peat on the tundra--thousands of years of stockpiled organic matter-- will start to break down, releasing huge quantities of methane gas. Up goes the air temperature, down goes the oxygen ratio. How long will it take before we all choke and boil to death?

It's hard to write fiction around such scenarios. Fiction is always about people, and to some extent the form determines the outcome of the plot. We always imagine--perhaps we're hard-wired to imagine--a survivor of any possible catastrophe, someone who lives to tell the tale, and also someone to whom the tale can be told. What kind of story would it be with the entire human race gasping to death like beached fish?"

Insistent voices hinting that humanity as we know it is not going to be around much longer was one of the reasons for starting this blog, with its focus on documenting a small corner of the world on a near daily basis. Creating records for a radically altered future feels like a calling.

And with that cheery thought, Happy Winter Solstice 2012, everyone. And thanks to the Asian Art Museum for all the Buddhas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Hoarders: The Street Person Edition

On the McAllister Street sidewalk between Franklin and Gough, a homeless man has constantly assembled, torn down, and reassembled a cluttered, makeshift home for himself during the last three months.

He spends hours each day redecorating and recomposing his accumulated trash, with the result that it is starting to resemble the Winchester Mystery House of sidewalk shelters. San Francisco Police, of course, could care less, probably because they are too busy shaking down marijuana smokers in the Haight.

This afternoon the McAllister Sidewalk Hoarder was upstaged by a young man sitting in a lawn chair in Civic Center Plaza surrounded by a huge stack of stuff.

He was peacefully sleeping as office workers, tourists, and farmers market shoppers walked by in stupefied amazement.

If the A&E television series, Hoarders, ever wants to branch out, the streets of San Francisco would seem a natural place to film. The young man even had a Bogie Board stuffed in the middle of this pile, ready for a quick ride in the Pacific Ocean.