Sunday, August 07, 2022

SF Heaven and Hell

Across Franklin Street from my apartment, in Redwood Alley behind a senior housing complex, there have been a series of tent encampments over the last four years. They are periodically swept away by an army of Department of Public Works employees, only to have the residents trickle back later the same day. The San Francisco Police Department essentially does nothing, even though the encampments usually consist of a stolen bicycle chop shop operating in full view of the neighbors.
Before the last sweep earlier this week, there was an angry, insane young woman haunting the area, usually with a metal bar in hand which she would bang against fences and light poles while threatening poor, underpaid security guards at the SF Opera employee parking lot.
Walking down Market Street yesterday afternoon, we saw her being subdued by a ridiculous number of police officers while they waited for an ambulance to take her away to a mental health facility.
One block further we were confronted by about 200 young people on mini motorcycles speeding down Market Street as a mob while doing wheelies.
As far we could see, the police just ignored them, and since the department can no longer blame the recently recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin, they have gone back to their old standby, "we're understaffed."
There seemed to be something in the ether on Saturday because on our stroll to Yerba Buena Gardens there were more schizophrenics than usual, in full screaming mode, angrily talking back to the voices in their head while scaring the hordes of European tourists walking downtown.
The jazz singer Paula West was performing a free concert at the Yerba Buena Festival.
The expert music and the mellow crowd felt like an oasis.

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Handel's Belshazzar

Every year in late July and early August, the American Bach Soloists holds an early music festival that joins young professional students from around the world for classes and concerts with ABS musicians for a fortnight, which usually involves a performance of J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor. The Academy was canceled this summer on account of the continuing pandemic, and the above apology was on their website, "This has been a long road of logistical disappointments, all of which have been out of our own control."
ABS still offered a week's worth of concerts at Herbst Theater, highlighted by the major work of the festival, Belshazzar, an obscure 1744 Handel oratorio. In my experience, live performances of Handel operas and oratorios are either like the longest, dullest church service imaginable or they are emotionally, artistically sublime. It's delightful to report that Belshazzar was unexpectedly glorious, both the performance and the work itself. Mischa Bouvier as Gorybas, an Assyrian King looking for revenge, started the tale with a flexible, handsome baritone, and Jeffrey Thomas, ABS Artistic Director, conducted the two-and-a-half hour score with verve and refinement.
Countertenor Eric Jurenas as Cyrus, Prince of Persia, didn't act so much as he embodied a wise Buddha and his singing was pure, varied, and enchanting.
The gushing superlatives don't stop there, however. The main female character in the oratorio is Queen Nitocris, mother of the title character who sympathetically observes what a disastrous fool her son is as the King of Babylon. Her opening aria, The Leafy Honours Of The Field, is one of the longest, most fiendishly difficult opening arias in Handel's repertory, and soprano Maya Kherani absolutely nailed it.
Tenor Matthew Hill as Belshazzar wasn't quite at the elevated musical plane as the rest of the cast, but he was very good, and his characterization invoked an amusing echo of Silicon Valley billionaires like Elon Musk.
Mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit added to the vocal richness as the Jewish prophet Daniel who translates the Writing on the Wall for the drunken revelers at Belshazzar's Feast.
The pandemic Academy cancellation actually had a silver lining in that there was a pickup chorus of local professionals from the SF Symphony, the SF Opera and other performing organizations. They were awe-inspiring and even though there were a few potential train wrecks in the third act, everyone recovered and it made the performance that much more exciting. They reminded me why I prefer Handel's English oratorios to his Italian operas. The oratorios have arias generously interspersed with choral music while the operas do not.
The evening felt like a small miracle, because you could see the performers give each other energy that kept building ("you sang that so beautifully, well, listen to this") and the small audience, which started off dutiful and reverent, was clapping wildly after each aria by midway. The oratorio, which was a disaster on its debut at London's Haymarket Theater in 1745, has essentially disappeared, but it's a genuine discovery. The last three minutes of the finale, with soloists and chorus intertwining is one of the most beautiful pieces of music Handel ever wrote. If you don't believe me, click here for a YouTube recording and start at the end at 2:42:24.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Carlos Villa at the Asian and Elsewhere

The Asian Art Museum's new exhibit, Carlos Villa: Worlds in Collision, is being trumpeted as "the first major museum retrospective dedicated to the work of a Filipino American artist."
Carlos Villa was also a San Francisco homeboy, born in 1936 and raised in the Tenderloin. There is an utterly fascinating 1995 interview with the artist for the Smithsonian Institution by Paul Karlstrom that runs for 69 pages (click here). I ended up reading the whole thing because it captures a Bay Area art world that is literally disappearing with the closure of the San Francisco Art Institute and possible closure of Mills College in Oakland, the two art schools Villa attended at a wildly vibrant time in the late 50s/early 60s, with teachers like Diebenkorn and Bischoff and fellow students like Joan Brown and Robert Arneson. (Pictured above is Ritual, 1971.)
He lived in poverty with his family in a basement apartment and was restricted by race from most neighborhoods besides Chinatown and the Fillmore District, but he had good grades and was accepted to Lowell High before enlisting in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. With his GI Bill, he enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts on Russian Hill which was renamed the San Francisco Art Institute in 1961, just as he was graduating and going on to Mills College. He followed his beloved cousin and fellow artist Leo Valledor to New York City in 1963, where they both had successful runs in the Minimalist movement. Villa burnt out in Manhattan after six years, and a bad romantic breakup along with substance abuse spurred him into a return to San Francisco. (Pictured above is My Roots, 1971.)
He was offered a teaching post at his alma mater, the SF Art Institute, and dived into Bay Area ethnic social justice movements of the time, while his art veered from minimalism into artistic shamanism. (Pictured above is Maturing, 1980.)
The materials for Maturing, by the way, are acrylic, feathers, mirror fragments, Rhoplex acrylic binder, and blood on unstretched canvas. The blood, he mentions in the Smithsonian interview, was bought in Chinatown and mixed with acrylic.
From all accounts, Villa was an inspiring teacher, organizing legendary performance art happenings and gallery shows for other artists. In a small room, there are a few pieces inspired by him, starting with Chatsilog Revisited, 2010/2022, by the Mail Order Brides (Eliza O. Barrios, Reanne Estrada, Jennifer K. Wofford).
Across the way is the working Karaoke jeepney, TNT Traysickel, 2019-2022, by Michael Acega and Paulo Asuncion.
This exhibit originated earlier this year at the Newark (NJ) Museum of Art and it looks like a great installation (click here for their 360-degree tour). Newark's exhibit is a retrospective of Villa from his 1960s minimalist sculptures through his entire, eclectic career. San Francisco decided to break up this exhibit into three different installations at three different institutions and the result is scattershot. The Asian Art Museum features one confusing room of work from the 70s, and two blocks away the San Francisco Art Commission Main Gallery is displaying a confusing collection of work from the same period.
The SFAC Main Gallery is open for what I think of as Junior League society hours, which means it's open to the public from Wednesday through Saturday, noon to five. In my experience, there are never any visitors because very few people even know the gallery exists.
The final installation of the trio, dedicated to his early work, was scheduled to open at the San Francisco Art Institute in September, but that ancient institution bit the dust last week. Villa deserves better from his hometown.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The USS Potomac on the Fourth of July

In most of the United States, Fourth of July is as much a pagan celebration of midsummer as it is a patriotic festival. In San Francisco it's usually a nothingburger, possibly because it marks the midfog season. Over the years I visited Midwestern and Eastern cities on the 4th and loved the heat and communal barbeques and fireworks (Chicago's Lake Michigan and Boston's Charles River tied for lights-and-music extravagance). This year I impulsively booked a 4th of July Cruise on the USS Potomac around San Francisco Bay, and the experience was a happy surprise. (Photo above is of a recently retired Chicago dad who was visiting his East Bay daughter.)
The USS Potomac was designed as a Prohibition-era patrol boat for the U.S. Coast Guard. Christened Electra in 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had it transferred to the U.S. Navy and remodeled as his presidential yacht for relaxation, discreet political business, and entertaining. "How did this boat end up in Jack London Square in Oakland?" I asked the new Executive Director of the nonprofit in charge. "It's sort of a crazy story. Let me give you the short version..." he began.
There are a number of histories on the internet of what happened to the USS Potomac after FDR's death, but the best account is by Sam Gnerr in a 2020 article for the Redondo Beach Daily Breeze: "After FDR’s death in 1945, the Potomac was returned to the Coast Guard, which then decommissioned it in May 1946. For the next 14 years, the state of Maryland used the boat as a fisheries industry enforcement vessel along its coastal areas. In 1960, the state of Maryland sold the Potomac to a private owner. The buyer moved it to the Caribbean, where it was used as a ship ferrying passengers between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.The deteriorating Potomac’s next owner, the Hydro-Capital Co., acquired the ship in 1962. Its plan included renovating the ship at a cost of $500,000, then mounting it in the newly constructed King Harbor in Redondo Beach as a tourist attraction."
There were weather problems, harbor problems, insurance problems, lack of maintenance problems, and somehow Elvis Presley's mother got involved and called her son telling him he needed to buy the USS Potomac. He did so and then donated it to Danny Thomas and the St. Jude's Hospital for Children charity, which auctioned it off. After a number of different owners, it was purchased by sleazy Stockton bailbondsman Aubrey Phillips in 1971, who parked it at San Francisco's Pier 26 as a tourist attraction that nobody visited. I vaguely remember seeing it on the waterfront during that decade and it always looked dodgy.
Sam Gnerr continues: "In 1980, the Potomac, adorned with a banner for a phony, nonexistent children’s charity — was raided by U.S. Customs agents, who had seized it after determining it had been acting as a headquarters for a marijuana dealing ring. The ship reached its lowest point when the feds towed the boat to Treasure Island, in San Francisco Bay, where it sank unceremoniously six months later, probably due to a leaky hull."
A 2017 SF Chronicle article by Bill Van Niekerken continues the story: “It looks like she died of old age,” said Lt. Cmdr. G. Ray Olsen. “Her hull is corroded and very rusty.” “I’d scrap her — the whole bottom’s rotten,” added Tim Hinkster, a Pacific DryDock employee. The Coast Guard wouldn’t be deterred, and raised the ship out of San Francisco Bay and again put it up for auction. No luck. Another try, and a drop in price, produced a taker, Walter Abernathy, a Port of Oakland executive. He was also the only suitor, and he bought the Potomac with a minimum bid of $15,000. Abernathy took some razzing, with his purchase called Wally’s Folly, but he remained optimistic. “I figured anything that attracted that much attention had to be valuable,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The article ends with: "According to Chronicle reporter Sandy Zane, the restoration of the presidential yacht cost $5 million. Half the money came from a federal matching grant, and the rest was raised through private channels, in large part due to Roosevelt’s son James and his grandson Michael, who lived in Berkeley.."
I looked at the Executive Director's nametag closer after his history recitation and it read Ford Roosevelt. "Any relation?" I asked. "Grandson," he replied. "I used to run an educational non-profit for underprivileged youth in Los Angeles for a few decades and they ran out of money. So I then saw the posting for Non-Profit Executive Director for the USS Potomac last fall, and I moved here with my wife to Alameda last November. And it costs fifty cents with a Senior Clipper Card to get to work."
Hanging out with an honest to goodness Roosevelt link while cruising on this presidential yacht was wonderful enough, but the ship itself was magical. You could feel all of the vessel's history from the highest to lowest, and also the love that has gone into its restoration.
USS Potomac cruises have a 120 passenger maximum which meant the evening was not crowded and fellow passengers were an odd, delightful mixture.
The $125 price included "snacks and beverages," which consisted of water and good wine and a snack pack that sent one into instant 6th grade field trip nostalgia.
There are two-hour cruises four times a month, on Thursday and Saturday mornings, which are a bit pricey at $75, but it is worth every penny (click here for the schedule). I was afraid we would be subjected to a loudspeaker historical narration, but instead the volunteer docents will give personal tours or just allow you to sip wine and absorb the vessel's atmosphere while looking at incredible views. This may be the best tourist activity in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Going around the Golden Gate Bridge on the Fourth during a fog storm was exciting and spooky, but the fireworks on the bay were absurd, explosions followed by colored fog. The Gay Pride Parade recently projected rainbow lasers up Market Street over a long weekend and its refractions in the ever-present fog was beautiful. My advice to whoever is sponsoring the San Francisco Fourth of July celebrations is to commission a laser light artist to create a piece specifically designed to create impressionistic laser shows in the fog. It could be a double play of ecologically forward-thinking (no explosions and animals harmed) plus extraordinary artistry.
My advice for the USS Potomac is to consider ditching San Francisco and having a Fourth of July cruise next year to the South Bay where Oakland, Fremont, Foster City and other Bay Area cities have local fireworks shows that can actually be seen. It would also be a specific acknowledgement of the East Bay where the USS Potomac has found a loving home.