Monday, March 31, 2014

The Bob Jones Trail in Avila Beach

Last week my younger twin sisters treated us to a midweek honeymoon trip to a cute B&B in Avila Beach called the Avila Village Inn.

Below our room was the Bob Jones Trail named after a local environmentalist (1917-1994). It's a serene, flat, 3-mile path that starts at Highway 101 and meanders along San Luis Obispo Creek until it empties into the ocean at Avila Beach.

I walked the trail three times and had a marvelous time. Unlike San Francisco, joggers, dog walkers, bicyclists and people out for a stroll seemed to coexist happily, with the single exception of a few impatient helmeted bikers insistently ringing their bells and yelling "On your left."

The trail also winds through a section of the Avila Beach Golf Resort, crossing an old trestle bridge on the San Luis Obispo Creek. We played the empty golf course during an afternoon torrential rainstorm, and had a blast.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Michael Nava and The City of Palaces

Between 1986 and 2000, Michael Nava wrote seven California crime novels featuring lawyer Henry Rios. The series earned a devoted, admiring group of fans who were saddened when the author went silent for the next fourteen years. Nava has finally returned, not with a continuation of the Rios tales, but with The City of Palaces, an extraordinarily ambitious historical novel set in Mexico during the final years of president Porfirio Diaz and the revolutionary upheavals that replaced him. It was worth the wait, because the book is a masterpiece.

I stumbled across the Henry Rios novels in the late 1990s, and at their best thought them equal to the other great California detective novelists Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald. Nava also brought some rare personal qualities to the genre, being born gay and Chicano in a Sacramento barrio, before receiving scholarships to study writing at Colorado College and the law at Stanford. Nava's vividly rendered characters range in economic class from high to low, and the gay and Latino characters are unusually three-dimensional, ranging from closet cases to gay libbers and hypocritical Latin politicians to sympathetic workers. They feel written from the inside.

I recently reread the whole series and was happy to find they sturdily stood the test of time. Among other things, they are an invaluable portrait of California during the AIDS plague years, in a world teeming with political, sexual, ethnic, and economic tensions. The series gets stronger as it goes along as Nava gains more confidence in his overlapping narratives and emotional effects. The Death of Friends and The Burning Plain are brilliant and savage, while the final Rag and Bone gives Rios something of a happy ending, on his way to a judicial appointment with a new lover in a new town.

in 1999, Nava above moved to San Francisco where he was hired by the California Supreme Court to write legal opinions. In 2009-2010, he ran for a San Francisco Superior Court Judge position on a campaign of ethnic inclusion, which was covered extensively on this blog. Nava eventually lost the runoff election by a small margin in a campaign that was an eye-opening, dispiriting closeup for both of us of San Francisco politics at its most craven.

The silver lining in the electoral defeat was that Nava went back to work in earnest at the novel on which he had been ruminating and researching and writing drafts over the last couple of decades. The scope of the tale, with its potent blend of family, political, religious, and artistic histories, kept growing in his mind until he realized the original plan for a single book had become gargantuan, and it would probably require a quartet of novels to do it justice. The first installment, The City of Palaces, has just been published by the University of Wisconsin Press (click here for the Amazon link), and it's great both as a stand-alone novel and the beginning of a grand saga.

At its heart, the book is a story of marriage between a seemingly mismatched pair in upper class Mexico City in the final years of the four-decade reign of President Porfirio Díaz (above). Miguel Sarmiento is a handsome, guilt-ridden young doctor, an atheist and believer in modern science. Alicia Gavilan is an aristocrat with a face scarred from smallpox, a mystical Catholic who takes the Christian concept of charity seriously. They could not be more dissimilar but their pairing makes perfect sense, particularly as the world around them ruptures. There are dozens of other characters, some of them so marvelous they threaten to become the center of the narrative. There is La Niña, Alicia's mother entombed in a decaying Mexico City palace, who is alternately an ogre and a shrewd fairy godmother to her grandson José, an artistic, sensitive boy who feels like an answer to her prayers.

Historical figures such as Francisco Madero above are also important characters, and the depiction of his part in the Mexican Revolution and subsequent assassination during La Decena Trágica (Ten Tragic Days) in 1913 is masterful on Nava's part. He makes a complex series of events lucid and gripping, bringing to light a part of history very few people know or understand. There are exquisite set pieces throughout the novel, including Luisa Tetrazzini singing Aida at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, marvels and terrors in the back of a coffin factory where early silent films are projected onto a sheet, the workings of the underground railroad saving Yaqui Indans from slavery, battle scenes in Ciudad Juarez, and slaughter in the streets of Mexico City. It is a very rich stew where each strand informs the others.

A California Chicano writing an historical novel set in Mexico is something of an audacious act, but Nava has pulled the challenge off. My hope and dream for the book is that it is translated well into Spanish, becomes a runaway bestseller in Mexico, and is then transformed into a big-budget, six-month telenovela which conquers the world. ¡Que viva México!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

2014 SFUSD Arts Festival: 3D Art

the San Francisco Unified School District's annual arts festival at the Asian Art Museum has come and gone with next to no publicity, but keep your eyes peeled for it next March because the event is enormously stirring. Sculpture this year came in every media imaginable, including Ruth Asawa/School of the Arts senior Lori Bato's Exo-tic Lifeforms above with teacher Scot Bishop.

Surrounding the second floor stairway at the museum were a number of collections, including a pair of Fish by Dylan Kelleman and Jake Saiz, students in the Buena Vista Horace Mann Elementary School class of Bob Armstrong.

Elementary school students of Sheila Ghedini at Cathedral School created Cool Creeper above, a set of robots with electrical eyes.

Lucy Montgomery, an eighth grader at Rooftop Mayeda with teacher C. Sugawara, created the touching diorama above, Day of the Dead: To My Grandfather.

One of the more startling displays was a collection of ceramic Babies by third graders from New Traditions Elementary in Meg Sandine's class.

There was nothing particularly cute about these babes, possibly because the young artists were still close enough to their own infancy. They seemed to capture the essence of babyhood from the inside, as in the piece above by Cassady Komater.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Exact Location of The Soul

Nicole Paiement above led one of the loveliest, most integrated, and sheerly enjoyable concerts last Sunday evening that I have ever experienced. It was held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the third and final installment of her BluePrint series dedicated to new music, and the composers were all connected to Northern California, including Lou Harrison, John Adams, Terry Riley, and Ryan Brown.

The Lou Harrison piece was a short, six-movement ballet score called The Perilous Chapel written for Jean Erdman, an essential 98-year-old American dancer/choreographer who collaborated with Martha Graham, was married for decades to Joseph Campbell, and whose most famous dance theater piece was The Coach with the Six Insides, a 1962 adaptation of Finnegans Wake. The music is scored for a flute, harp, cello and drums, sounding vaguely Asian and very Aptos proto-hippie. It was given a gorgeous performance by Jessie Nucho, Kilby Li, Esther Cynn, and Stephanie Webster, ending too soon and leaving us wanting more.

This was followed by Paiement leading her New Music Ensemble of Conservatory students in a crisp reading of John Adams' 2007 Son of Chamber Symphony. The piece is a sequel to the composer's own 1992 Chamber Symphony. The composer explained how the manic, fiendishly difficult piece came about: "One afternoon I was sitting in my studio, studying the score to Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony in preparation for a performance, when I became aware that my seven-year-old son, Sam, was in the adjacent room watching cartoons (good cartoons, old ones from the 1950s). The hyperactive, insistently aggressive, and acrobatic cartoon soundtrack mixed in my head with the Schoenberg music, itself hyperactive, acrobatic, and not a little aggressive. I realized suddenly how much these two traditions had in common."

Son of Chamber Symphony was originally written for the Alarm Will Sound chamber orchestra, and ended up being co-commissioned by Mark Morris and the San Francisco Ballet during their 75th Anniversary Festival for a ballet called Joyride. Hearing the complex piece again, with its rapid, constantly shifting time signatures, only increased my admiration for Morris and the SF Ballet dancers for simply being able to count out the wildly varying rhythms. The performance on Sunday was as good as any I've heard, by either Alarm Will Sound or the SF Ballet Orchestra.

After intermission, the palate cleanser was Y Bolanzero, a 2001 work by Terry Riley written for a guitar ensemble that was intricate and soothing in equal measures, with a fine performance under Conservatory guitar instructor David Tanenbaum above. Part of a set written by Riley for every letter of the alphabet, the pieces have become new standards in classical guitar departments at music conservatories across the country.

The performance was expert by (in no particular order) the student guitarists Eric Sandoval, Ryan Wallace, Katrina Gavelin, Patrick Smith, Matthew Lyons, Keith Barnhart, and Kevin Robinson. To hear Y Bolanzero on YouTube, click here.

The final piece was a world premiere by local composer Ryan Brown called The Exact Location of the Soul. It is a setting for three voices, percussion, and two keyboards of poetic excerpts from former Yale surgeon Richard Selzer's musings on the body, the soul, and dying in a hospital. It was a complete success on its own terms, in a theatrical presentation that was spooky, beautiful and strange.

The work was written for the three local singers above: (left to right) Sidney Chen, bass; Eric Tuan, tenor; and Justin Montigne, countertenor. They occasionally sang solos but the bulk of the music was concerted, bringing to mind the three countertenors from John Adams' El Nino and the soprano/countertenors/bass configuration of David Lang's The Little Match Girl. They were absolutely wonderful together, as they weaved in and out of the instrumentalists and each other's vocal lines. You can see and hear a video of this performance on YouTube by clicking here (it's well worthwhile).

Brown (above left) won this year's SF Conservatory Hoefer Prize which is annually given to an alumnus for a musical commission to be performed at the school, and the prize could not have been more deserving. Brown also co-founded the annual Switchboard Music Festival in the Mission District, which has been growing more ambitious and successful with each iteration. To be held this year on Saturday, April 12th at the Brava Theatre on 24th Street, it's a marathon of new music and brilliant performers that lasts from 2-10 PM (click here for a link). Meanwhile, the consistently genius conductor Nicole Paiement (above right) will be leading a high concept mashup of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Singspiel and Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias with her Opera Parallele ensemble at the Yerba Buena Center April 25th through the 27th. If you want to hang out with the cool kids, both events are required listening.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

2014 SFUSD Arts Festival: 2D Art

For the second year in a row, the San Francisco Unified School District is holding a nine-day arts festival at the Asian Art Museum, with drawings, sculpture, and musical performances scattered throughout the building. The first floor is where the 2D art has been installed, including Horse in a Forest, made with tempera above by Elena Berenstein, Grade 6, studying with teacher Anna Pevzner at Kruzhok Visual Arts.

The bulk of the paintings and drawings are in the "education room" off the main lobby, and though Gertrude Stein and The Louvre liked to cram art onto their walls all the way to the ceiling, the arrangement here is not doing the young artists any favors.

Thankfully, a selection of works has been installed more gracefully in the lobby near the Yoga special exhibit, and some of the pieces are precociously amazing, such as the Hockney Style Landscape, an acrylic by Aidan Dowling, Grade 4, studying with Gloria Carillo at Claire Lilienthal School.

10th grader Brittny Farmer-Burkett used moveable cut paper to create Temptrests of Hearts at Mission High School with teacher Shannon Larson.

Molly Garrett, Grade 7 at Buena Vista/Horace Mann under teacher Megan McMahon created the exquisite chalk pastel above of Ramon the Pelican.

There were a number of remarkable self-portraits, including 12th grader Ada Chen above from the Asawa School of the Arts under Pyllis Ciment.

Charles Alston painted the Self Portrait above in oil as an 11th grader at Asawa School of the Arts with teacher Tom Mogensen.

A startlingly perfect watercolor, Trees at Dark, was created by 3rd grader Vitesse Disney from Argonne Elementary with Ms. Cox as the teacher.

Be sure not to miss the Book Arts display case at the north end of the lobby where Lowell High 12th grader Qing Qing Su has created a brilliantly political piece called Whitewash under teacher Patricia Copeland.

Admission is free at the museum all this week, with musical performances every morning in the large Samsung Hall on the second floor. There is also an awards party involving a number of performances this evening (Thusday) starting at 4:45 PM to 8:30. Check it out.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Joan La Barbara in Berkeley

The Berkeley Art Museum has an eclectic weekly Friday evening concert series called L@TE, which is actually held early at 7:30 PM and is free with museum membership or $7 a la carte.

Last Friday, the legendary New York experimental music diva and composer Joan La Barbara performed a solo show of her own music at the museum after an earlier collaboration with the sfSoundGroup on Tuesday (click here) and a duet performance with Pamela Z on Thursday. In her program notes, she writes that she performed a solo concert in the building in 1976 when it was called the University Art Museum and released her first vinyl LP of the live recording, Voice is the Original Instrument, which became a classic of extended vocal techniques. "When I learned that the museum was going to move because of seismic issues in the existing structure, I asked if I could do a concert here before the building closed."

The concert started with Space Testing Re: Berkeley Art Museum (1976/2014), where Joan wandered down ramps, stopped at walls and corners at various sections of the large, open room, all the while singing/testing the acoustics while a recording she had made in the same space a couple of days earlier provided an echoing counterpart over large speakers. The piece was a marvelous starter, opening the audience's ears to the performance space itself.

She continued with Circular Song (1974-75), where she sang while both inhaling and exhaling, which seemed impossible but was completely hypnotic. She cut the piece short when a cough started to develop, and explained with a laugh to the audience, "This piece tends to determine its own length in each performance."

The 2011 Solitary Journeys of the Mind was a short, virtuosic semi-improvisation that displayed at least a dozen of her extended vocal techniques which sounded variously like crackling, death rattles, ululation, breathing, whispering, and a pure, glorious soprano. The final piece, Windows... (2013) is a new opera for amplified voice and "sonic atmosphere" that reminded me of her Angels, Demons, and Other Muses from the Tuesday concert.

It is difficult to explain why these pieces were so compelling and moving, with La Barbara's music hitting somewhere deep in the solar plexus with the simplest of means. Let's just call her a Deity and a Teacher, and if there is a bit of Demon in there, all the better.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day Parade 2014

There was a larger than usual turnout at Saturday's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in San Francisco which marches up Market Street to Civic Center Plaza.

Maybe it was on account of the day's uncharacteristic blazing sunshine.

As usual, seemingly 90% of the fire and police departments of the Bay Area were present for the occasion...

...although there wasn't much order to keep since the Civic Center Plaza festival and its accompanying beer gardens had vanished this year.

This seemed to confuse any number of revelers on the Larkin Street side of the plaza...

...but a large contingent of young people...

...looked perfectly ready to manufacture their own fun...

...possibly enhanced by mind-altering substances...

...and enough romantic and sexual energy to fuel a new Ireland.