Monday, September 30, 2013

Return of the Dew Tour

Just when you thought it was safe to use Civic Center Plaza again, the public square was fenced off today for two weeks of construction.

San Francisco Rec and Park has rented the place out on October 10th-13th for the City leg of the "Beach/City/Mountain" Dew Tour that focuses on "Skate, BMX and Snow" sports. The Beach portion took place in Maryland this June while the Snow portion will happen in Breckinridge, Colorado in December.

The San Francisco event was controversial last year because of its three-week monopoly on Civic Center Plaza. At least Mountain Dew is paying the city treasury for its use of public lands, unlike Larry Ellison's America's Cup extravaganza which has cost local taxpayers millions of dollars. Most of the events at the Dew Tour offer free admission, and if you want prime seating, you can buy tickets here for Friday the 11th and Saturday the 12th for only $25. The event last year was a kick.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Happy Hour with the A/B Duo

The Center for New Music, with Executive Director Adam Fong above, was the host for a 6 PM "Happy Hour" concert by the A/B Duo of flutist Meerenai Shim and percussionist Christopher G. Jones below. She lives in Campbell, CA, he's in Rochester, NY and they formed the duo in Chicago, IL last year, making for a truly American performance combo.

It was one of the most charming concerts imaginable, with three world premieres that were all musically absorbing, punctuated with intermissions between each piece where you could eat, drink good beer and wine, and chat with composers and fellow audience members while the musicians reconfigured the set up for the next number.

Echoloquacious was the title of the first piece by Oakland composer Matthew Joseph Payne above, which had Jones trading off between vibraphone and drum set, with Shim weaving a flute line around the musically amplified LSDJ Gameboy below. The music was bouncy, strange, interesting and fun.

It turns out that "chipmusic" has been around since the 1980s, mostly used in pop music, and has spawned an entire underground scene. Click here for a May 2013 New Yorker post by Ben Greenman.

The second piece, metalStaind, for piccolo and percussion was by Michigan/NYC composer Adam Cuthbert. The Center for New Music helpfully provided free earplugs which I used for protection against the shrieking of a piccolo, but the piece turned out to be lyrical and gentler than anticipated, with a Lou Harrison gamelan sound to it accompanied by a serious drumbeat.

The final world premiere, Things We Dream About, by Rochester composer Ivan Trevino was charmingly introduced by his friend Chris Jones, who explained that the four-movement work was a programmatic meditation on dreams. It starts with "Love," followed by the more energetic "Being a Rock Star," "Ghosts" and "Fun."

It called for Jones on the drum set and vibraphone while Meerenai switched between the flute and bass flute above. She also was asked to recite a sweet, short dream story of a dead grandfather onstage at a rock concert, and in the final, "fun" movement to play flute and drums simultaneously. She accomplished every role with perfect aplomb and Trevino's music was both lovely and rocking.

The A/B Duo is worth seeking out, and you might even win a lottery prize at the end of a concert that consists of one of the greatest pieces of vinyl packaging ever seen, complete with the original floppy disc. Even the printed program was imaginative and unusual, looking like a one-page menu for a fancy small plates restaurant. Well done.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The America's Cup Finale

Half of San Francisco's Financial District played hooky from work Wednesday afternoon and walked to the northern waterfront to watch the final race of the months-long America's Cup saga.

In an improbable, and downright suspicious, turn of events, the Oracle USA team crawled back from an 8-1 deficit over the last week and won the series 9-8 yesterday. As Cedric Westphal put it, where do you think Larry Ellison hid the extra weights on the boat this time around?

Still, the event was fun, and now we will see who's going to pick up the tab for all the bills. The races were grotesquely oversold by local politicians as a combination of the Olympics, Super Bowl and World Series, which was ridiculous on the face of it. For a smart, absorbing recap of the last three years of political and financial shenanigans surrounding the event, click here for a cover story by Joe Eskenazi at the SF Weekly called Sea Monsters. And for a very amusing poem recounting the entire saga, click here for 40 Going on 28's Chanson de Larry's Boat Thing.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Sweeter Music Recording

In a storefront on University Avenue in Berkeley Sunday afternoon, there was a CD release party for pianist Sarah Cahill above, and her A Sweeter Music suite of commissions.

The commissions for new piano music by Cahill from 18 composers dates from the Iraq War. Cahill grew up in Berkeley with a professor father, and remembered the protest music she heard as a child in the 1960s. During those awful years when we were invading and occupying Iraq, she realized there was no musical equivalent being created, even though thousands of people were marching through the streets in protest.

So she took it upon herself to do something about it, and the results have been trickling in since 2007. (Click here for a series of posts about the music and ensuing performances around the Bay Area.)

The recording quality by Other Minds Records is superb, and features fascinating music by Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Kyle Gann, Carl Stone, Phil Kline, Yoko Ono, and The Residents. The recording is only Part 1 of A Sweeter Peace, and I hope Charles Amirkhanian (above right, with Homer Flynn from The Residents) and Sarah get around to Part 2 soon.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

From Brown to Blue on the Bay Bridge

The California legislature recently decided that the western span of the Bay Bridge, from San Francisco to Treasure Island, should be renamed for Willie Brown, Jr. The announcement of the honor has been mostly met with derision and horror by local residents who loathe the ancient powerbroker.

Driving east across the bridge today, the name change seemed apt. The western half of the span is dirty, rotting, and car-centric to an antiquarian degree, so naming it after the corrupt old politician Willie Brown, Jr. is a good unintentional joke.

Maybe the structure can be torn down soon and replaced with a new span like the eastern half. In a better world we would also sweep away the ossified local power structure headed by dinosaurs like Brown, Feinstein and Pelosi, who have done so much public harm over the years while personally enriching themselves.

The light, airy, new eastern span is a refreshing reminder that the world does change, sometimes for the better. Presently, we are at a stalling point, rather like the bike and pedestrian paths on the new bridge that don't connect to anywhere.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Daddy Go Into The Well: Dolores Claiborne at the SF Opera

The world premiere of Dolores Claiborne at the San Francisco Opera on Wednesday night was a thrilling, happy surprise. Composer Tobias Picker and librettist J.D. McClatchy took horrormeister Stephen King's 1992 novel about class differences, incestuous child abuse, and a homocidal housekeeper on a Maine island, and stripped it down to a very effective melodrama. Soprano Patricia Racette above somehow managed to learn the long, difficult, and punishing title role in three weeks after the originally scheduled Dolora Zajick bowed out suddenly. It was a complete triumph on her part, intelligently acted, beautifully sung, and with diction so good that you could hear the New England accent coming through. She deserved the standing ovation she received at the end of the evening. (Production photos by Cory Weaver.)

There were unusually good contributions from Set Designer Allen Moyer, Projection Designer Greg Emetaz and Director James Robinson. The production was well thought out as it shifted smoothly from many different locations and decades with the use of varying levels of the set. It was a striking combination of naturalism and stylization, reminiscent of a very good Broadway production, except more expensive.

Besides Racette, the cast was uniformly excellent, which is rare for an opera, and the collaborative ensemble acting elevated the entire production. Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as the abusive husband and daddy gave a great performance in a role that could be loathsome. He even made the character sexy, which gave the incest scenes with his teenage daughter, played by Soprano Susannah Biller, an extra layer of menace and complexity.

Biller above right gives a breakout performance in this opera. She's convincing both as a teenager whose heart and soul belong to daddy rather than her despised mother, and also as a hardened 40+-year-old Boston lawyer. My only criticism was not with her but the composer, who has a fondness for above-the-staff soprano writing that often sounds shrieky and painful for both performer and audience. When Picker wasn't giving Biller impossibly high lines to sing, her voice sounded exquisite. Other than that, the score sounded better on a second hearing, which is a very good sign, and Picker's mixture of expressionist scene painting and propulsive, quasi-minimalist musical episodes was consistently interesting.

Elizabeth Futral above as the rich old woman with a summer house where Dolores works also gave a sensationally committed performance, but again, the majority of her role was written painfully high. Her scenes reminded me of a visit to New England with my domestic partner's working class family. I suggested a ferry boat ride just for the sake of an excursion on the water, and found an inexpensive boat going from mainland Connecticut to Fisher Island. When I asked a woman on the ferry where we should go for lunch on disembarking, she looked horrified. "You're not supposed to be here. Fisher Island is only for those who own homes and their guests." After thinking for a second, she obviously felt bad. "There is an inn about a mile from the dock where the year-round natives have a pub with food. I'll give you a ride." Dolores Claiborne and her misbegotten family are the year-round natives.

When the opera commission was first announced, it sounded like a disaster in the making. A cheesy Stephen King novel, a composer more respected than liked, and a recent dismal track record of world premieres at the San Francisco Opera did not inspire confidence. The ensuing backstage drama and rumors didn't offer much hope either. So again, it's a very happy surprise to be able to announce that you should get yourself to the San Francisco Opera for one of the next three performances while Patricia Racette is still giving a master class in operatic acting and singing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

America's Cup Fiesta

There was a last-minute invitation last weekend for an America's Cup Party at my golfing buddy Mike Wallach's apartment in the Summit skyscraper above on Russian Hill on Sunday.

On Friday, he figured that Sunday's races might be the finale for the Cup races because the Kiwis were so far ahead of defending Oracle USA. However, the Saturday races were postponed due to too much wind, yet another absurdity of this version of the Cup with its oversized catamarans.

Mike and his wife Sigrid above were perfect hosts, and the view from their 15th floor apartment was a sight to behold.

Everybody but me was rooting for the USA team, partly because many of the partygoers worked for Oracle, partly out of patriotism, and partly because everyone wanted the spectacle to continue with further races. The USA boat jumped to a big lead Sunday afternoon and lengthened it throughout the 40-minute race.

The second contest of the afternoon was actually something of a thriller, but the Kiwis prevailed again, and were left needing only two more wins to take the Cup back to Auckland. After this afternoon's single-race win by the New Zealanders, that finale may well be tomorrow (Thursday).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Brush Fire on McAllister Street

The smell of smoke overwhelmed my living room at about noon today, which is always disconcerting. The source turned out to be a small fire in a patch of dry leaves between the SF Opera parking lot and what was once John Swett Elementary School on McAllister Street between Franklin and Gough.

A small crowd stood by wondering what to do until the gentleman above brought over a fire extinguisher of some sort.

Unfortunately, it only seemed to make things worse.

After about fifteen minutes, a fire truck finally showed up and a fireman hosed down the area, looking almost as bored as the cyclist on the sidewalk playing with his mobile device.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Shine On, Autumn Moon Festival

San Francisco's Chinatown Merchants Association started the Autumn Moon Festival in 1991, two years after the 1989 earthquake destroyed the Embarcadero Freeway, which had funneled out-of-town tourists into Chinatown's Grant Avenue for decades.

Twenty-plus years later, the festival has taken on its own identity which is as distinct as the Haight Street Fair or the Folsom Street Fair, and what's charming is that it's targeted to Chinese locals rather than gringo tourists, though everyone is welcome.

The Mid-Autumn Festival has been China's harvest celebration for centuries. Every culture has its own version of fall harvest rituals. The United States has Thanksgiving, with its uneasy mixture of Puritan traditions and Epicurean excess. The Chinese version seems more sensible and matriarchal, with moon worship involving a good, immortal woman who flew away from danger to the moon. (Click here for an unusually good Wikipedia history of the Festival and its variations throughout Asia.) It's also a time for courting and sensuality and finding a partner to stay warm with for the winter. Lanterns have become one of the trademark symbols of the festival and so has the Mooncake (above, photo by James Parr) which has evolved into an expensive status dessert that one gives as gifts. The Asian versions of this festival are usually nocturnal celebrations, and many countries such as Hong Kong have an official holiday on the day following the appointed evening after everyone has stayed up all night.

On San Francisco's crowded, narrow Grant Street this weekend there were comics, emcees and entertainers spread out from California Street to Broadway, speaking almost exclusively in Chinese, either in Mandarin or Cantonese.

Since elderly Chinese women in lines for freebies are famously aggressive, there were emergency tape queues set up along the sidewalks leading to booths for casino giveaways and Chase Bank, who must have been giving out the best tschotskes because their line was the longest.

There were also plenty of cheesy sales booths, and the laughter rippling from the two guys above in their sample loungers was infectious.

Most of the booths were selling the same cheap, colorful junk that the tourist shops on Grant Street have been peddling for decades, but there were a few standouts like the bonsai booth above.

What was most interesting was the people watching. Second and third generation Chinese Americans are some of the most interesting characters in the world right now, brilliantly navigating their way through the traditional elder worshiping culture of their parents while also living in larger Asian and Western contemporary cultures. They feel like the future.

James Parr above was an incongruous looking booth worker at the corner of Jackson and Grant. James was raised in China and currently works in marketing for an Asian company that was selling mooncakes among other treats at the fair. I envied his inclusion in a traditionally insular culture.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

El Festival de San Francisco

A strange little festival popped up in the Civic Center today, and at first I thought it was a premature celebration of Mexico's Independence Day, which is two days from now on September 16th.

It was instead a Pan-American affair called El Festival de San Francisco, subtitled "LATIN AMERICAN FOOD, HEALTH, AND WELLNESS FESTIVAL."

At one booth, you could buy various national flags, including Israeli ones which seemed rather odd.

Raquel Rossman above was selling Nicaraguan arts and crafts as part of her Nicarito Art business.

It was the food booths that were most enticing, and you could take your lunch to a lightly attended beer garden on a perfectly sunny day.