Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Sculptures in the Mist

Construction in the Presidio of the newly redesigned Doyle Drive is changing the views and landscapes around Crissy Field dramatically.

In an unintentional mirroring, eight huge sculptures by Mark di Suvero have been installed for a year's time by SFMOMA in the park fronting the Golden Gate Bridge.

The sculptures look like Erector sets on steroids...

...through from the vantage point of the new Doyle Drive, they are charmingly shrunken and look like a boy's toy project, with miniature people walking underneath.

In another mirroring, the landscape looks like a Diebenkorn painting (who is having a major exhibit at the de Young Museum right now) with its saturated greens, desaturated surroundings and bright red accents.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Taxi Protest at City Hall

The sound of hundreds of honking horns rang through Civic Center at noon today as taxi cabs circled San Francisco City Hall for a couple of hours.

They were protesting the rise of ridesharing services, according to the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association website.

The SFCDA site announcing the protests states, "As we all know, our industry is under attack by illegally operating taxis like Lyft, Sidecar and UberX, who are undercutting our industry by avoiding regulations and insurance requirements. Let’s make our voices heard and show our strength in numbers. We will have speakers and news media present. There will be a rally on the steps of City Hall. Bring your cabs, come on foot to SHOW OUR NUMBERS. Picket signs will be provided to SHOW OUR STRENGTH AND UNITY. THESE CRIMINALS NEED TO BE STOPPED!"

Though the protestors' Mayor Lee signage with pink Lyft moustaches was amusing, it was difficult to feel much sympathy for San Francisco's cab industry. For decades, they have focused all their energies on a war between owners and drivers, and who could be squeezed the most. Meanwhile, any discussion of passenger customer service has been conspicuously absent, as fares became more expensive and service disintegrated.

In a Tech Chronicles post today at SFGate about the war on ridesharing services at the San Francisco Airport, a commenter named auntjenny left a familiar complaint:
"the taxi service in this town is abysmal. on a regular basis when hailing a cab, i will see four or five empty cabs go by me with their rooftop "taxi" light on (which signals they are available). and the driver looking at me tells me they see me. the drivers are more often than not discourteous and unsafe and are usually on their phones (although they all seem to use headsets). a good part of the time they do not even know how to get to the location i ask to be driven to. and then they expect a huge tip. i am 100% for the other companies picking up the ample slack in this service. they are more safe than the taxis, and are usually quicker and way more courteous."

I took my last San Francisco taxi about 15 years ago, after one trip too many with a discourteous, dangerously bad driver who didn't know where they were going. It actually seemed safer to take Muni than a cab, even on the bus lines' sketchiest routes. The personal boycott was also an excuse to embark on long walks instead, making sure to be be extra watchful for cabs making impatient turns in crosswalks, pedestrians be damned.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Preemptive Graffiti Building

A two-story building at the corner of 16th and Carolina Streets near Potrero Hill has recently been given a new paint job.

By decorating it with graffiti style shapes and colors, the building is now fairly impervious to neighborhood taggers whose work would just blend right in.

The result is remarkably beautiful.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Tiny Resistors and Bells Atlas in the Redwood Grove

A utopian summer music series has quietly started in the Redwood Grove of the UC Botanical Garden in Berkeley over the last couple of years.

The combination of beautiful site, low price, superior performers and a small, picknicking audience makes for a magical experience on early Thursday evenings from 5:30 to 7:30 as the waning light shifts through the forest.

The series is the brainchild of the Gardens' Education Coordinator/Program Manager Christine Manoux above, who loves music and thought the small Redwood Grove amphitheatre, which is usually rented out for weddings, would be a perfect place for concerts. She was right, and it would be difficult to imagine a more welcoming hostess. Entrance is via an online donation, usually $15, to the Botanical Garden. There's not even an online "ticket handling service charge," which deserves a Nobel Prize all of its own.

Thursday the 25th featured two bands, starting with Tiny Resistors above, an improvisational jazz group. (Click here for samples from the 2008 Tiny Resistors album.)

The constantly changing group, depending upon geography, is led by the bass player Todd Sickafoose above who decamped from the West Coast for Brooklyn close to a decade ago. According to his website:
"A Bay Area native, Sickafoose spent some years in Los Angeles studying bass with Charlie Haden and composition with the great, late Mel Powell. Since then, he's been recording and performing with a ton of innovative folks and genre benders including Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Nels Cline, Jenny Scheinman, Ron Miles, Trey Anastasio, Yoko Ono, Myra Melford, Tin Hat Trio, Adam Levy, Skerik, Allison Miller, Stanton Moore, Bobby Previte, Scott Amendola, Will Bernard, Stebmo, Jessica Lurie, Shane Endsley, Erin McKeown, Anaïs Mitchell, Gina Leishman, Carla Bozulich, Noe Venable, Etienne de Rocher, James Carney, Erik Deutsch, Tony Furtado, and Darol Anger."

The second band was an Oakland quartet called Bells Atlas, fronted by the Nigerian-American singer Sandra Lawson-Ndu above. (Percussionist Geneva Harrison is pictured in the background). The size of the Redwood Grove stage isn't much larger than a banquet table, so Sandra apologized for the lack of her usual movement while singing.

"I don't move much more than this anywhere else," Doug Stuart on bass above added. Their music was fun, surprising and rhythmic enough to get some of the crowd dancing. They just released their first CD, which you can listen to and download by clicking here, and if you want to see the group live, they are the opening act in San Francisco at The Independent this evening (8:30, Sunday the 28th).

The audience at the Redwood Grove was an interesting mix of young and old, with a surprising abundance of children, including many infants which seemed odd for a music concert. Happily, the babies and kids were all well behaved, and when they started getting noisy or antsy, their parents quickly whisked them off to cars or to run around trails in the redwood forest. The place really was utopian last Thursday.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Thousands of New Neighbors

It looks like I won't have to move to Manhattan after all, since Manhattan is moving to me. Via 40 Going on 28, there is a link to CurbedSF's tracking of 40 huge construction projects currently arising in San Francisco, and 90% of them seem to be within walking distance of my apartment.

The former California Automobile Association headquarters at 100 Van Ness is being deconstructed inside and out to create apartments instead of offices with new interiors and a glass sheath exterior. The tricky job site is an ongoing public entertainment, rather like sculptural performance art on a grand scale.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

El Gran Dia de Clamor a Dios 2013

The annual visitation of a Spanish language Christian fundamentalist group in front of San Francisco City Hall took place Saturday afternoon the 20th.

They call themselves El gran dia de clamor a Dios, which loosely translates as The Great Day of Noisy Praise for God. The group is linked to a pentecostal minister in Puerto Rico whose particular bugaboos are abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia.

There was a rocking Christian band onstage singing Spanish anthems whose lyrics everyone in the small crowd seemed to know by heart.

One of the ministers was exhorting people to come to the front of the stage and donate veinte dolares ($20).

Like many religious organizations, the group was aggressively peddling its message to young people...

...who on the surface looked less screwed up than their white teenage Christian fundamentalist counterparts.

There seemed to be an increase this year in the number of scary looking security guys defending the perimeter...

...but the security guy above was having such a good time throwing his considerable weight around while dancing on the sidewalk that the effect was more amusing than threatening.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Tchaikovsky Night at America's Cup

On Saturday evening, the San Francisco Symphony made their debut at the America's Cup Pavilion with an evening of Tchaikovsky favorites. These included music from Sleeping Beauty, the Violin Concerto, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, and the 1812 Overture.

Outdoor summer music festivals are a tradition for orchestras around the country, from Boston's Tanglewood Festival to the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Hollywood Bowl concerts, but San Francisco instead puts on a series of pops concerts in Davies Hall with a few outdoor excursions to the sunnier suburbs of Sonoma, Mountain View, and Concord. The chance to hear an outdoor symphonic concert on the San Francisco waterfront this year was enticing, but in reality the heavy amplification was annoying and the weather was bone chillingly cold. Also, unlike the Hollywood Bowl where people can bring in lavish picnics and booze if they so desire, the America's Cup Park will only allow an empty water bottle for provisions, perhaps as an enticement to purchase $11 cocktails and $9 beers from an army of vendors.

The performance of the Violin Concerto was lively and fun, with two 26-year-olds leading the way, Teddy Abrams as conductor and Nicola Benedetti as the soloist above. Although Benedetti is from Scotland and should be used to inclement summer weather, she looked like she was freezing to death when not sawing away on her instrument. There was also the odd detail of the America's Cup trophy perched at the front of the stage through the entire concert, blocking everyone's view of Abrams, who we secretly hoped would make a sweeping conducting gesture and knock the thing over.

The crowd was enjoyably unsophisticated, applauding not only between movements of the violin concerto but after every one of Benedetti's solos, as if she were an athlete or a ballet dancer. We didn't stay for the 1812 Overture because there was nothing we wanted after an hour at the concert more than a warm blanket and a hot brandy, which were unfortunately stashed at home.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

We Are Young...Musicians

Young musicians seem to be in training all over San Francisco this summer, including the San Francisco Opera's Merola program, where a couple of dozen aspiring opera singers are selected from around the world for an intense period of instruction and performance. They are housed at the homes of Merola donors around town and also given a small stipend to live on. At the end of the summer, a handful are chosen to be Adler Fellows, which involves a two or three year apprenticeship with the San Francisco Opera, singing smaller roles on the main stage and being coached by the staff there. Classical music is a competitive, grueling business and most will not make a living in professional performance, but their determination is fascinating to watch.

The Schwabacher Summer Concert last Thursday at Everett Middle School in the Castro featured eight Merola singers performing long scenes from famous operas. The performers were mostly confined to a tiny strip downstage in front of a full-sized orchestra conducted by Kevin Murphy. Half of them were good enough that they sounded ready to move on to the next professional level, including mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede above left and baritone Alex DeSocio above right. Not only did they have gorgeous voices, but both transcended schtick-filled staging in scenes from L'Italiana in Algeri and Don Carlo. (Schwabacher photos by Kristen Loken.)

Part of the appeal of these concerts for the predominantly elderly audience is watching stars being born, and this year there were two standouts, with Issachah Savage above right singing the title role in the fourth act of Verdi's Otello creditably. Pene Pati above left sang Edgardo's big tenor aria in Lucia di Lammermoor with a voice so huge and pretty that he will soon be singing lead roles in opera houses around the world. I just hope that the two of them take care and don't wreck their voices with too much oversinging in difficult roles, like Otello for instance.

The local American Bach Soloists organization, led by conductor and music director Jeffrey Thomas, held their fourth annual Festival & Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music over the last ten days. It is an interesting mix of professional Baroque music specialists and paying students, performing and coaching side by side. The schedule is filled with master classes, lectures, chamber concerts, two performances of Bach's Mass in B Minor, along with another major early music vocal work, which in this year's case was Handel's first English oratorio, Esther. The festival seems to be growing in stature and popularity quickly, with most of the weekend concerts this year selling out.

The half professional, half student original instruments orchestral playing Friday evening in Esther was superb and seamless. The dozen student singers were more variable but overall quite good. There are five tenor roles in Esther, and all five of them were excellent, so let's call this the Summer of the Tenors. I particularly liked Jon Lee Keenan as Ahasuerus (not pictured) and Jason Rylander above right as Mordecai. Kyle Stegall above left was particularly entrancing as the 1st Israelite, with a light, fluid, flexible tenor perfect for Handel. May his career prosper and San Francisco see him again soon.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Our City, Our Job: IBEW Local 6 Protests

Thursday afternoon, at the beginning of San Francisco's evening rush hour, a huge protest by the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local 6 surrounded City Hall and then marched around the Civic Center neighborhood for the next 90 minutes.

They were protesting the use by the construction behemoth Pankow of a non-union subcontractor, Helix Electric, based out of San Diego, for work on the three-year retrofit at the Veterans Building on the corner of McAllister and Franklin.

The handmade signs all seemed to have been created by the same handful of people since the lettering and the messaging were virtually identical. The slogan "Our City, Our Job" felt somewhat presumptious since most of these marchers looked like construction worker suburbanites who do not live in San Francisco at all. Their parents and grandparents probably did so, but it's doubtful if the majority of this generation lives here.

Though there were a few token women and minorities holding large signage, 95% of the crowd consisted of white guys, which is not exactly San Francisco's current demographic.

The institutionalized racism and blatant nepotism in San Francisco trade unions over the decades has been an ongoing, abysmal story and all the local hiring ordinances out of City Hall have changed little to nothing in that regard.

The crowd was very good at protesting, however, attacking the Pankow construction trailer with placards and finally stopping traffic in all directions for an hour at the intersection of Van Ness and McAllister.

One couple driving the black car above went mad with frustration and just about ran over some of the marchers and a Muni bus driver as they made a right turn onto McAllister against all odds.

Another group marched up Franklin Street between Grove and McAllister, effectively shutting off that street at rush hour too.

The few police who were present did nothing to prevent any of this behavior, possibly because they are mostly white suburbanite union guys themselves. As a security guard at the Veterans Building told me this afternoon, in an impassioned defense of traditional labor organizing, "San Francisco is a union town, and Pankow is trying to break the unions here. It's not right, and if we don't stop it here, this may be the end of an era."

My response to him was that it might help the unions' public relations efforts if they did not put their weight towards building anything, anywhere, in San Francisco, no matter how egregious. At the IBEW website, there is an advisory to pack a city hearing in support of the 8 Washington condos on the waterfront, though most San Franciscans believe it a terrible project for a multitude of reasons, from height to exclusivity to the removal of public space for the super-rich. As a native San Franciscan friend once told me, "If there were a proposal to build 100,000 condominiums in Golden Gate Park, you know every trade union in the city would be supporting it."