Saturday, February 16, 2019

Community Party at New CPMC Hospital on Van Ness

There was a free grand opening celebration on February 2nd at the new, 11-story CPMC (California Pacific Medical Center) hospital that has been rising at Van Ness and Geary at the former location of the Jack Tar Hotel.

In the parking garage, there was surprisingly fancy finger food being offered to the hordes.

Entertainment was also provided by musicians on a couple of stages throughout the ground floor...

...including the raucous band above.

Sutter Health is a metastatic "non-profit" health organization that has swallowed various hospital chains into its consolidated system in Northern California, a monopolistic practice that has resulted in some of the highest medical rates in the country.

Their business practices have been so egregious that the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued Sutter Health last year "alleging the hospital giant engaged in anticompetitive conduct that drove up prices for patients and employers in the state," according to a USA Today article.

In other words, this community party, with all its freebies, was very much a public relations effort.

Tours of the upper floors of the hospital were being offered...

...but the crush of people waiting to get on the elevators was claustrophobia inducing... I wandered further and stumbled on the children's activity room...

...where temporary tattoos were being offered.

Also on the ground floor facing Van Ness with ceiling height glass walls is a huge, lovely cafeteria...

...where I snagged a perfect "happy health professionals" stock photography shot.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Two-Spirits Powwow at Fort Mason

The Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits organization held their eighth annual powwow at Fort Mason last Saturday the 2nd.

Two-Spirits refers to the feminine and masculine qualities everyone possesses, but which tend to be more interesting and pronounced in gay people.

Two-Spirits also refers to a status that existed within many American Indian tribes before they were colonized and slaughtered by Western civilization and its religions.

So this event was as much about decolonization, and going back to cultural roots, as it was a modern gay lib event.

The integration of those two cultures, though, certainly made for colorful dance outfits.

I felt serious costume envy, though, because they were not only beautiful but appeared super comfortable besides, but we're in a time where gringos putting on American Indian tribal wear is still cultural appropriation.

We watched the Grand Entry from bleachers, with drums blazing everywhere as the various groups marched in with their own contingents.

It was a moving event to witness.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

West Edge Opera's Snapshots of Death

West Edge Opera, the adventurous opera company in the East Bay, crossed the bridge to San Francisco a couple of Sundays ago for their annual Snapshot series, now in its third year. The company performs scenes from operatic works-in-progress which is such a good, valuable idea that I wonder why the San Francisco Opera does not try the same thing. By circumstance rather than programmatic design, all four opera excerpts focused on death, a subject I am a little too close to right now. "You could have warned me," I told my West Edge Opera Board VP friend James Parr, above left, at intermission.

First up was The Road to Xibalba by composer Cindy Cox and librettist John Campion. Each opera was prefaced by a short, arty, black-and-white film interview with the creators filmed in some of the harshest lighting imaginable, making everyone look weathered.

The opera was based on a Mayan death legend about twins and a goddess and a tree and so on, and it was wrong on all kinds of levels, starting with the dry, academic music attempting to be exotic with indigenous instruments (well played by cellist-cum-percussionist Emil Miland) and a libretto by Campion that was embarrassing in its mixture of cultural appropriation and attempts at hip vernacular. Even worse, much of the libretto was spoken dramatically without music which was a grievous mistake, because Cox is a real composer and Campion is a dull poet.

Next up was Medicus Mortem by composer Beth Ratay (second from left above) which was a mash-up of the Faust legend with a Kervorkian-style Dr. Death euthanizing his own daughter. The singing and acting by (from left to right) J. Raymond Meyers, Julia Hathaway, and especially Daniel Cilli was convincing and musically satisfying.

The libretto by Andrew Rechnitz was problematic with too many mixed metaphors, but the orchestration and the vocal writing was wonderful, and Mary Chung and her Earplay ensemble shined. It made me want to hear more from Ms. Ratay.

After intermission, we were presented with Marnie Breckenridge singing a three-movement, 20-minute monodrama by composer Nathaniel Stookey called Ivonne, and it was a fully realized masterpiece. Stookey was one of five composers commissioned in 2014 to be part of a site-specific musical theater piece at an old Sears office building in downtown Memphis, where oral histories were turned into musical pieces meant to be performed in the actual abandoned building.

Except for a repeat performance within the year at Wolf Trap, Ivonne had not seen the light of day again until this performance, and it felt like a real discovery. The piece is written for a soprano, two strings and piano, with Ivonne the Head Secretary putting on her makeup armour in the womens' employee bathroom in the first scene, ruling imperiously over her office in the second, and dealing with an employee's miscarriage in that same womens' restroom in the finale.

The oral-history libretto by Jerry Dye, chopped and repeated for music, is absolutely brilliant, and it was the only opera that made me cry, possibly because it was all about survival and restraint around death. Everything I have ever heard by Stookey has impressed me over the years, but this was the first piece that made me think he needs to write a full-length opera. He has a special gift.

The soprano Marnie Breckinridge, icy and tense and finally empathetic, gave one of the greatest performances I have ever seen as Ivonne and she should use it as a calling card for the rest of her life. She was so good that I wished somebody would cast her in Nico Muhly's new opera, Marnie, just so we could see the poster, "Marnie Breckenridge IS...MARNIE!"

I really don't want to write about the set of excerpts from the final opera, Zheng, other than to commend the singers for doing their best in music by Shenji Eshima that was too high in pitch for all of them. The ghastly libretto by Tony Asaro is about the late mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao getting stage four cancer, going into remission, then falling in love with her oncolost who helps her survive, briefly. Instead of making me well up with tears, lines like, "Stage four lung cancer.../It's bad." made me want to laugh derisively. Zheng Cao was a downstairs neighbor of mine for quite a number of years while she was coupled up with the battered but clean and sober old movie star Troy Donahue, and I adored her, so watching her turned into a sentimental too young to die of cancer story was sort of offensive. Meeting a broken down old movie star while she was a young soprano on a cruise ship in 1990 as a Curtis Music student is the opera I want to see.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

The Autobiography of Esa-Pekka Salonen

The San Francisco Symphony recently pulled off a dramatic hiring coup, which it announced at a celebratory party at the SoundBox space in Davies Hall last December. They needed to find a new Music Director after Michael Tilson Thomas announced his retirement from the orchestra after leading it for the last 20+ years, and they managed to sign the very famous Finnish composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen who had already turned down that position with the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras around the world over the last decade. For some reason, he changed his mind and will be arriving in San Francisco as Music Director in 2020 for five years. SF Symphony President Sakuroko Fisher and Board member Matt Cohler above looked ecstatic as they were sharing the news to a packed crowd of about 600.

My introduction to the SF Symphony was as a precocious, 16-year-old hitchhiker seeking his fame and fortune in San Francisco, who managed to figure out how to buy a $3 standing room ticket for Seiji Ozawa's first concert as Music Director of the orchestra in 1970. Ozawa announced that he was going to be featuring a lot of music by Haydn and Berlioz, unusual choices, and if memory serves, that first concert featured Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, a Haydn symphony, and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. I returned completely thrilled to my tiny, grimy room at the Granada Hotel on Sutter and Hyde where I was being paid room and board for playing waiter to the senior citizens who were the paying guests.

San Francisco was too rough a place for a 16-year-old without money, but I encountered a few guardian angels, including a woman on Muni who comforted me when I burst into tears, and who told me there were jobs at ski resorts in Lake Tahoe who were always hiring young men. I managed to snag a job as a lift operator at Squaw Valley even though I had never been on skis in my life (and never, ever picked up the skill). An ancillary joy was a radio station out of Reno that broadcast Easy Listening music (think Mantovani and 1,001 Strings) every weekday, all day long, but at night and on the weekends they broadcast classical music in a format that was perfect for a young musical neophyte.

Every evening three hours of prime time would be devoted to a single composer, and the playlist would be a surprisingly wide repertory, from chamber music to symphonies to solo piano to vocal music. And sometimes, just for the hell of it, there would be something like a Bach Week or a Tchaikovsky Week and then we would be offered true, weird and fabulous obscurities. On Saturday mornings, I would sit in a freezing, tiny, wooden hut at the top of a Sierra Nevada mountain ski run listening to Milton Cross give his fabulous narrative introductions before each act of the live Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The rest of that year I was a U.S. National Park gypsy, working in Yosemite as a dishwasher at the Ahwahnee Hotel, desk clerk at Grant's Grove in Sequoia, and General Store clerk at Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley. The only radio frequency that I could receive at all of those locations was this strange classical music station from Reno. Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like being a sensitive, romantic teenager listening to Mahler late at night in a corrugated tin hut in Death Valley.

After making my way literally around the world, I returned to San Francisco four years later, older and abler to survive. I immediately became a standing room regular for both the symphony and the opera, with the two organizations splitting the year into two seasons, opera in the fall, symphony in the winter. Part of the fun of attending the Thursday matinees at the SF Symphony was being one-third the age of most of the other patrons, who were all curious about this unusual young character, so I was invited to a lot of lovely seats and boxes and drinks at the bar, mostly with elderly women and a few gay men who wanted to dispense musical wisdom. Which they did, with real joy, and I gave them delighted energy in return. For the following four decades I have been hearing some of the greatest conductors, soloists, and singers in the world interacting with the hometown band, which itself has been sounding better with each passing year.

Ozawa left in 1977 for Boston even though he and the SF Symphony got along famously, and he was replaced by Edo de Waart (known colloquially as "Edo Divorce" because of his many marriages to female musical artists) who was good and inconsistent and who helped usher the orchestra into its modern incarnation as a full-year powerhouse with its own building, Davies Hall. Unfortunately, I didn't particularly care for the building, still don't, and especially hated that there was no more standing room for the casual and the young/poor. The Davies Hall equivalent is the punishingly hard benches of the Center Terrace, right behind the orchestra, which is a great place to watch a conductor and orchestra up-close, though it can get way unbalanced when the percussion and brass build a wall of sound in the back of the orchestra, and soloists at the front of the stage easily get lost altogether.

De Waart was replaced by Herbert Blomstedt in 1985 for a decade. Blomstedt turned the ensemble into an authentically world-class orchestra, but his musical taste was so deeply conservative and his tempos so langorous that I didn't find myself attending very many concerts he conducted. Oddly enough, both de Waart and Blomstedt have become two of my favorite guest conductors in their old age because you don't have to hear them all the time, and they have gotten deeper and better at their favorite music over the years. I am expecting to have the same feelings towards Michael Tilson Thomas once he leaves.

The most evocative statement Esa-Pekka Salonen made at the press briefing was how much he loved the San Francisco Symphony itself. "You click with certain groups and not with others, and with this orchestra, we felt it immediately," is my paraphrase. One of the interviewers at the press announcement was violinist Melissa Kleinbart who was an orchestra representative on the Music Director search committee, and she seemed deeply happy about the appointment. In a vote of who the musicians wanted as Music Director, the top, unattainable person they listed was Salonen.

Salonen conducted an inaugural concert in January when a guest conductor dropped out because of pregnancy. He kept some of the program, Sibelius' early tone poem, Four Legends from the Kalevela, and added Strauss's early tone poem, Also Sprach Zarathustra along with the West Coast premiere of METACOSMOS by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Though I like a lot of Sibelius and Strauss, I don't care for either of these pieces except for The Swan of Tuonela movement in the Sibelius and the 2001: A Space Odyssey opening in the Strauss. The Icelandic piece was fine and spectral, but not something I particularly want to hear again. The audience was ecstatic at the buzz of a new Music Director, which was fine, but I've heard him conduct twice and am still waiting for the euphoric moment of, "Oh, that's what it's supposed to sound like!"

Salonen's major legacy at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was Music Director for almost 20 years in the 1990s and Oughts, was his advocacy for the music of our time. Tilson Thomas did the same for quite a while, and then he mostly stopped. I'm looking forward to hearing what new musical energy Salonen brings into our lives. And finally, I must quote: "About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you."