Thursday, May 30, 2013

Official Groundbreaking at SFMOMA

Wednesday morning, in a back alley downtown behind SFMOMA, there was an official groundbreaking ceremony for the huge new addition to the museum which will close down the current building for the next three years.

The ceremony was attended by press, a few politicians, architects and builders, along with museum trustees such as Doris Fisher above center and Cissy Swig posing in an SFMOMA hardhat below. The grande dames of San Francisco seemed to be having a marvelous time at the short ceremony, and even the weather cooperated.

It was also interesting seeing who was not there, namely the two powerbrokers Dede Wilsey and Willie Brown, Jr.

The museum sits in Supervisor Jane Kim's District 6, and she was looking particularly glamorous during her short speech praising the museum for its proposed new policy upon its reopening of free admission for youth under the age of 18. "I grew up in New York where going to museums frequently was a part of everyone's childhood."

There was a strange moment when the speeches started, and the VIPs sat down in about two dozen chairs at the front while everybody else remained standing. Kim had taken a seat that had been reserved for her, but Charlotte Schultz (above center with JD Beltran on the left) did not seem to be one of the official VIPs and did not have a seat. This was something I have never seen before, since Schultz usually seems to be running every detail at every event she attends. From what I could make out, it looked like she was there to babysit Mayor Ed Lee for the morning. Anyway, Supervisor Kim had set her purse down on the seat next to her, and Charlotte finally squeezed in as if she was a Muni passenger trying to get the last empty seat that somebody was hogging with their belongings. Kim eventually picked up the purse and they politely smiled at each other.

Charles Schwab, another San Francisco self-made Republican billionaire like the late Don Fisher whose collection is the impetus for this museum expansion, gave a self-deprecating speech that started with a joke about the half-destroyed fire station at the construction site being the latest modern art acquisition for the institution. He then went on to praise Mayor Ed Lee below for being a visionary "who can get things done."

It would have been more truthful, though slightly less politic, to say Mayor Lee is somebody who enables billionaires to "get things done," but it was not that kind of event. Lee gave his usual stumbling, bland mumblecore speech, and told us how excited he was about going to Lowell High School's graduation later that day where he was going to tell them all about the free admission for youth.

Craig Stryker above, the Norwegian architect from Snøhetta that is designing the new building, was smart and charming in person, but his public speech started with an unfortunate analogy. He told us that creating a large public building was like a birth, except there were many partners, so it was a polyamorous situation which could get a bit sticky. It was very funny watching everyone try not to show their discomfort as his analogy only got worse as it went along.

A small contingent of schoolchildren from Bessie Carmichael Elementary School nearby were brought to the groundbreaking site, and after a countdown, pushed the button that set off a spectacular confetti bomb.

Starting today, SFMOMA is free of charge to the public for the last four days of the old building's existence. There are performances, special displays, and a whole host of activities planned for this weekend, including an all-night party on Saturday night on the rooftop. Click here for a schedule. It should be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Herbst Theatre Diaspora: SF Performances and NCCO

Herbst Theatre closed its doors earlier this month for the next two years while the Veterans Building at Van Ness and McAllister undergoes a retrofitting and remodeling. This has sent a number of performing arts companies which used the theatre as their San Francisco home to wander elsewhere, and over the weekend I caught up with two of them.

Ruth Felt's San Francisco Performances has long presented touring artists in different venues around town from Davies Hall to Yerba Buena Center for dance programs. Next season (click here) they are adding the new SFJAZZ Center and the refurbished Nourse Auditorium on the corner of Hayes and Franklin to their roster, and it should be fascinating to hear how classical music sounds in both venues. Last week they presented the Philip Glass Ensemble playing the composer's live operatic replacement of the soundtrack to Cocteau's 1946 art film, La Belle et La Bete.

The music sounded strikingly similar to the same composer's other Cocteau movie turned into an opera, Orphee, which Opera Parallele presented a few years ago. I am not sure that the Glass music is an improvement on the original score by Georges Auric, but I was entranced by the dialogue being sung, especially with singers as good as Gregory Purnhagen, Hai-Ting Chinn, Marie Mascari, and Peter Stewart under Music Director Michael Riesman.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra above is also losing their San Francisco Herbst home for the next couple of seasons, and they performed their final concert of this season at the SF Conservatory. This will be one of their stops next year, along with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the SF Jewish Community Center (click here for a schedule).

The major excitement of Saturday's concert was the opening work, a world premiere by pianist, poet, and Composer of the Moment Lera Auerbach, a prolific young Russian woman (above, hugging Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg) based out of New York. She's written the scores for a number of full-length ballets (including The Little Mermaid at the SF Ballet), operas, string quartets, piano works, and now a string symphony for the NCCO. The music is spare, quiet, trancelike and deeply evocative until somewhere in the middle where it explodes into wildness and jagged rhythms before retreating into spareness again. It was very good music, and made me want to hear more.

For the rest of the concert, the string symphony beefed up slightly with a brass and woodwind contingent, including the wonderful SF Opera horn principal, Kevin Rivard above center. They played fellow birthday boy Richard Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, which he wrote in 1870 as a birthday present for his second wife, Cosima. This was followed by a jolly and impassioned performance of Haydn's Farewell Symphony.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Missy Mazzoli at (le) poisson rouge

(le) poisson rouge above is a basement music venue on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village on the site of what was once the Village Gate jazz club. (Photo above is by Sheryl Woodruff at the Off The Grid blog, which has an interesting history of the building.) The five-year old club was instantly famous from its opening, for presenting wildly eclectic, adventurous music programs that range from classical (old and contemporary), jazz, hip-hop and salsa, and even the occasional opera. (Click here for their schedule.)

Rather like Carnegie Hall the previous week, the place exceeded expectations, with its rock club musclebound bouncers at the door, a dark, red-lit stairway to the basement, and a surprisingly large room with a stage at one end and a bar at the other, sandwiching small dinner tables in the middle.

Last Wednesday evening, the young Brooklyn-based composer Missy Mazzoli above presented a program of her music performed by her own ensemble Victoire, which included the singers Mellissa Hughes and Caroline Shaw, Olivia De Prato on violin, Eileen Mack on clarinet, Lorna Krier on keyboards, Eleanore Oppenheim on bass, and Mazzoli herself pounding out the continuo on electronic keyboards.

They played I am coming for my things and Like a Miracle, along with selections from Mazzoli's recent opera, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, about the late 19th century Scandinavian explorer who became a Muslim and lived as a male in Algeria before marrying an Algerian man and dying young in a desert flash flood. The music was beautiful, sounding like a mix between Meredith Monk and John Adams but with its own voice, and the lead vocal performance by mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer above was peerless, possibly because it was written for her. (Click here for Mazzoli's webpage where you can listen to individual tracks and download the music from a recent recording by New Amsterdam Music.)

The only problem with the evening was that the program was in collaboration with Gotham Chamber Opera where a handful of singers would pop out and sing some of Missy's favorite arias from the operatic repertory, with surprisingly plodding piano accompaniment by Neil Goren, Gotham's founder, general director, and former professional accompanist. (Click here for an interview with him at Opera Today.) Unfortunately, the singers were either students or young professionals, and they were completely inadequate for the difficult music they were supposed to sing: a Verdi duet from Un Ballo in Maschera, a Purcell aria from King Arthur, and Now the Great Bear and Pleiades from Peter Grimes (Missy's favorite opera, according to her introduction). The only happy exception was Abigail Fischer in a song from Mahler's Ruckert-Lieder with Todd Palmer accompanying her exquisitely on clarinet from a music stand next to the kitchen door.

This New York visit has been filled with one moment after another reminding me that I live in a small, provincial burg in San Francisco. So in a way it was reassuring to have a small, snobbish musical moment. "Merola Opera would never have singers this unprepared. Neither would Opera Parallele (Gotham's West Coast counterpart). If these are the musical standards in New York, I'm better off in San Francisco." Like I said, it was a small moment, and we slipped out the backstage exit before the final Alerte, Alerte trio from Gounod's Faust, but I am looking forward to hearing Fischer and Mazzoli again anywhere they happen to be performing.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

New York City Workers Behaving Badly

We went to the gentrifying Brooklyn outpost of Williamsburg for lunch, and it looked like a mixture of San Francisco's Mission District and the industrial South of Market area, except with more interesting fashion on the young people and less skillful skateboarders. Horizontal stripes are in fashion, by the way, no matter what your shape might be.

At a sidewalk table at an inexpensive Thai restaurant on the main drag, Bedford Street, we watched the owner drop off groceries to his chefs from an idling luxury SUV. After parking the car elsewhere, he went to work scraping off stickers on the fire hydrant in front of his business. Soon after, an official MTA vehicle parked in the space and the driver went off to eat his lunch at a neighboring restaurant. On the Urban Dictionary, MTA is defined as the following:
1. Metropolitan Transportation Authority 2. Acronym for a corrupt, inefficient, wasteful and dirty organization that runs NYC public transportation and makes tax payer money disappear magically. 3. Antonym for efficient

When I started taking photos of the van, the angry owner charged onto the sidewalk, demanding to know in a threatening manner why I was taking photos of his vehicle. "Because you're parked illegally in front of a fire hydrant," my friend told him. He sputtered, "You know it's illegal for you to take a photo of a city vehicle license plate," which was met with the laughing response, "No, it's not," and he marched angrily away.

There were two parking officers walking on opposite sides of the street issuing tickets and telling people to move their vehicles, but when we told the gentleman above that he should ticket the MTA van, his response was a smile and a shrug. "I wish I could, but..." and he left it at that.

Since the weather was becoming warmer and muggier with each passing minute, we found ourselves at another outdoor seating area in the early evening at the GMT Tavern above on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The problem this time was a truck from the Department of Environmental Protection, which was idling while spewing diesel fumes into all the diners' faces while one of the employees sat in the shotgun seat and filled out a series of forms. They seemed to be somewhat clueless about the meaning of Environmental Protection, so I went stalking the van with my camera again, which finally prodded them into moving on. An older woman sitting next to us thanked me profusely. "They've been sitting there gassing us for the last 30 minutes. I thought they'd never leave."

Friday, May 24, 2013

Fire Island's Belvedere Resurrected

On Monday, there was a window of sunshine between spring rains on Long Island so we jumped on the Sayville Ferry...

...for a 30-minute trip to Fire Island.

We reserved a room at the Belvedere Guest House for Men, the fanciful wooden palace above in the village of Cherry Grove. (Click here for a history of the place.)

The place is like a gay, clothing optional Madonna Inn...

...and the "Garden Room" even has a subterranean bathroom covered with trompe l'oeil paintings.

Hurricane Sandy trashed and flooded the Belvedere last October, but the owners along with a small crew have been working seven-day weeks since last February replacing floors, wiring new electricity, painting and rebuilding.

It's a remarkable job of restoration.

Unfortunately, the forecast is for thundershowers and cold this Memorial Day Weekend, bad news for Manhattan refugees. They don't have the luck of Joe from Brooklyn above, who stays at the Belvedere before and after the major summer three-day weekends. "It's cheaper and quieter and nicer."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Religious Fag Bashing in New York

The island of Manhattan in New York City has become so gentrified in recent years that poor people only seem to pass through the place on trains and subways, while working lower level jobs and then returning to where they are from.

On Sunday, we went to the Frick Museum on the upper East Side during its two hours of "pay what you want" admission between 11AM and 1PM, but I wasn't the only one with the same idea, and the line crawled around the block. It was drizzling, so we decided to walk through Central Park toward a subway station instead, and promptly ran into the annual AIDS Walk. The drizzle turned into serious rain and we dived into a subway to breakfast at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village.

Two nights earlier there had been an unusually egregious murder in the West Village of a gay man by a stranger who was seemingly out to murder a fag, if published reports can be believed. When I first heard about the story, my fear was that this was another case of a white middle-class gay being bashed/killed on the street by a "person of color" with sexuality issues. Instead, the victim turned out to be black, raised in Harlem, living in Brooklyn, and working in Manhattan. The killer was recently released from prison, Latino, crashing with friends and/or family in the East Village, and filled with god knows what kind of rage. In other words, the horribly violent moment was probably more complicated than we will ever know.

The photo above, by the way, is of a recently installed plaque at 31 Cornelia Street of Joe Cino, a gay Italian American coffee shop owner of the 1950s-1960s who had the coolest Off-Off-Broadway Theatre in the world for a slice of time before he committed hara kiri in 1968. (Click here for more.)

New York City has a long history of Catholic leaders demonizing homosexuality while engaging in systematic pedophile sexual abuse. This is no longer supposition so much as modern history, and I am still wondering why we aren't putting the entire institution out of business, so to speak. They deserve it. New York Bishop Fulton Sheen, the TV star, was a major homophobe who crusaded against gay marriage until his death, and in my experience that's usually the dead giveaway of a closet case. The rabidly right-wing New York Cardinal Spellman (1939 to his death in 1967) was known as "Franny" by the Broadway chorus boys he had picked up from stage doors by church limousines. His best friend in crusading morality, by the way, was fellow right-wing powerbroker and closet case Roy Cohn, of Angels in America infamy.

On Wednesday, taking the subway from Manhattan Midtown to Brooklyn Williamsburg, a young, large man preaching the Word of God came on to the train and loudly, obnoxiously preached to the entire subway car in the most aggressive, angry way imaginable right into my ear.

Like everyone else, I tried to pretend he did not exist and was not yelling offensive religious crap, but at a certain point I made it very clear to him by my stare and my stance that I was not amused, so he started in on an analogy about God and HIV just to get a reaction from me. And he got one. Not only was it Harvey Milk's birthday on Wednesday, May 22nd, but it was mine too, and thinking about the poor young man who was shot in the face for being a fag in public on the previous Friday evening set me off. I pulled out my camera and started stalking the preacher which made him very nervous.

"Go ahead. Put my picture on the internet. I don't care," he yelled at me across the car. My shouted response, and here I need to apologize to all the fellow passengers in the above photo was, "I will be sure to do exactly that, you fucking asshole. You should be ashamed." And so should every religious institution that is still enabling this kind of behavior.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Return to Fire Island

On the Saturday before Memorial Day Weekend, when the East Coast Summer Resort Season officialy starts, we took a ferryboat to Fire Island.

The barrier island south of Long Island was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy, and there were remnants of the storm still lying about at scattered beach houses in Cherry Grove...

...and in The Pines nearby...

...but my Long Island host was surprised to see there had not been greater damage.

We sat on a sunny beach before the weather turned grey....

...and went exploring on the wooden boardwalks of the upscale Pines community...

...before walking into a magic forest.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

My first trip to Carnegie Hall last night surpassed every expectation. The hall is both elegant and surprisingly simple, the sound as warm and resonant as legend suggests, and the performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra under conductor Simon Rattle as good as any concert I have ever heard. It may be hard to come back and listen to music in San Francisco's Davies Hall after this.

The program was a strange one, with Webern's Opus One, Passacaglia, a beautifully played, knotty curtain raiser before three fragments from Berg's atonal opera, Wozzeck. The fragments actually premiered a year before the opera in the 1920s as sort of a preview of coming attractions, and consisted of two arias for the soprano sung by Barbara Hannigan above, followed by the massive final orchestral interlude where the antihero Wozzeck is drowning himself. I have always found this music assaultive, but here the playing was gorgeous and compelling, building organically into an overwhelming climax before Hannigan chirped "hip hop" as the surviving orphan child. Richard, my 77-year-old concert companion had heard Wozzeck played by the Chicago Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and he declared this version "sounded the best."

After intermission, Hannigan changed out of her long, formal concert gown and into the dominatrix outfit above to sing the part of a paranoid Secret Police Chief in an excerpt from Ligeti's 1970s opera Le Grand Macabre. Hannigan was beyond virtuosic, dancing spastically in her stiletto heels, at one point pushing Rattle off the podium and conducting the orchestra, all while singing fiendishly difficult music perfectly. It sounded like Zerbinetta's aria from Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos updated for the 21st century.

This was followed by Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the one used in Disney's Fantasia where the satyrs and nymphs are bounding about in the rain. The performance was so good that the overplayed music sounded freshly written. Instead of the usual meat-and-potatoes, plodding Beethoven, we were treated to orchestral sections passing the music around to each other with a seamlessness and mysterious rightness that I have never heard in a live Beethoven performance in my life. As my companion said on the subway home, "I'd like to hear Simon Rattle conduct something every day of the week." And in Carnegie Hall, I would add, with an orchestra as skillful as the Philadelphia Orchestra.