Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Queen of Spades

Personal musical tastes are a mystery. They can be cultivated and acquired, but essentially everyone has their own preferences, including not liking music at all. For reasons I don't even begin to comprehend, Slavic opera stirs my soul. Moussorgsky's "Khovanschina," Prokofiev's "The Fiery Angel," Janacek's "Jenufa" and Smetana's "The Bartered Bride" are just a few of my favorite things, and so is Tchaikovsky's "The Queen of Spades" which is currently playing at the San Francisco Opera.

Even by the lunatic standards of opera narrative, "The Queen of Spades" has a pretty crazy plot, with a gambling-obsessed hero, completely neurotic heroine, and a nasty old Countess who literally haunts the nearly-four-hour piece. The music, however, is astonishing, a mix of Russian High Romantic, Folk Tunes and Mozartean Moments.

The San Francisco Opera has performed the opera a half-dozen times in the last 40 years and have always done themselves proud, with casts that have included Galina Vishnevskaya, Regina Resnick, and Maria Guleghina. In 1982, they premiered a new, home-built production by Robert O'Hearn that was one of the most beautiful productions I've ever seen, and which was still looking good at its revival in 1993. Why they didn't use it again is one of those Pamela Rosenberg mysteries that doesn't bear thinking about.

Unfortunately, this summer's production is a new Eurotrash production from the Welsh National Opera, and the staging, for lack of a better word, sucks. Scene one is set in a public park on the first warm day in St. Petersburg, and the music and libretto paints a brilliantly colored scene. In this production, everyone is dressed in gray, all the better to contrast them with the gray background and gray floor and three gray benches.

Scene two takes place in the heroine's sumptuous upper-class bedroom which has a large window onto the surrounding grounds where the tenor makes a surprise, romantic appearance. In this production, it's a dreary little room, with the heroine and her friends rolling around in ugly undergarments. When the Governess comes in (dressed ridiculously as a 20s vamp complete with cigarette holder) and tells them to stop singing folk tunes because they're upper-class girls, it makes absolutely no sense. As for the hero's entrance, instead of arriving through a French window, he has to crawl across the top of the proscenium and then appear from the wings which is absurd. Then, to fabulously romantic, tormented music, the production has the hero sit down on her bed and look morose while the heroine stands against the wall looking depressed.

The saddest thing about this stupid, gray production is that all the singers in the large cast are uniformly wonderful. The Opera Chorus is probably the best non-Russian ensemble in the world singing in Russian. Best of all, a young Ukranian tenor, Misha Didyk, makes a smashing San Francisco Opera debut as the anti-hero and it would be wonderful to see him in a production that allowed him to actually give a performance.

For an amusing take on this awful production, Tom Reed, a longtime chorister with the company, writes a very funny and very silly take from the inside. Check it out.

And do check out the production of Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" which is currently in repertory. It's a model of enlightened updating, from 18th century Vienna to just-before-WW1 Monte Carlo, and the singing is mostly heavenly.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Oh The Glory of It All

Upon finishing page 479 of Sean Wilsey's beautifully written memoir last week, I unexpectedly burst into tears. The book is an old-fashioned bildungsroman, the story of a young man's moral and psychological growth into adulthood, but instead of being written as a novel, he leaves in everybody's real names and all the specific details of the world he grew up in.

It was a good choice, though the number of hurdles he had to avoid (self-pity, whining, score-settling, navel-gazing) were considerable. The only book I can think of that's similar is the late Julia Phillips' grotesque "You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again," which just made one pity whoever had the misfortune to come into her life.

Part of the world Wilsey recreates is San Francisco Society in the 1980s. Like all "society," it's essentially a world of rich women who are enabled by an army of gay male decorators, caterers, florists and jewelers. It's also vicious as hell. Check out the gruesome "Paper City" if you need any confirmation. The rich husbands, in their tuxedos at the Opera opening, have always looked interchangeable and in fact they are, as the book demonstrates.

Wilsey's dad was a self-made real estate and butter king and his mother was Pat Montandan, a beauty and local media character. Sean was their only child and they lived in the outrageously extravagant two-story penthouse at the top of "The Summit" on Russian Hill. When he was ten years old, Mom's best friend at the time, Dede Wilsey, walked off with her husband. Here's the account from the book:

"This is what Dede did. She got to know Mom, found her greatest weakness (pride and vanity), stole her greatest asset (family), mocked Mom's presence in a world where she didn't belong (society), lit Mom's fuse, and watched her explode.

Dede's was an extraordinary betrayal. Extraordinary in its boldness, its meanness, and its total unoriginality."

After that crucial break, Sean's childhood/pubescent stories are all about survival. How can he make Dad love him? How can he make Dede love him? How can he keep Mom from committing suicide off the balcony and taking him along? Then the evil stepmother makes sure he is shipped to one East Coast boarding school after another, where adolescent sadism reigns. It's a fairly harrowing tale.

But lord, the characters are great, and viewed with extraordinary wisdom thoughout. The book is also the best depiction of San Francisco and Northern California since Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City" tomes. Weirdly enough, they both share a major character, Mom in Sean's story and the lightly fictionalized Prue Giroux in Maupin's book. Both characters are depicted as completely over-the-top, delusional, and ridiculous, but by the end of both narratives, Mom and Prue become absurdly admirable characters. In fact, "Oh the Glory of It All" is dedicated to her.

Al Wilsey died recently, but not only is Pat Montandon still alive, living in Los Angeles, but Dede Wilsey is still the Queen of San Francisco Society. Her latest project has been the erection of the new deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, with its overbearing architecture and phallic tower housing a provincial art collection. She was probably expecting to be the Queen of All She Surveys by this fall for its opening, but this book is a great, classic act of revenge on her. It's reminiscent of the ending of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" when all of Paris Society have read the evil letters and shun the old heroine.

My only complaint with the book is that there are no photographs, so I've provided a few of the oversized Summit building and its penthouse where so much of the bizarre tale takes place. It is now occupied by George Schultz, the old war profiteer, and his wife, the Chief of Protocol for San Francisco and serial widow, Charlotte Maillard Schultz.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Berlin Wall Falls

If this blog accomplishes nothing else, at least I have managed to get an ugly chain-link fence torn down around a new public park and the magnificent pagoda/temple sculpture by David Best & His Volunteers is finally accessible again to the public for which it was designed.

There were lots of people involved in getting the Department of Public Works to stop being so inflexible and arrogant (originally, they were talking about keeping up the fence until September when the sculpture was slated to come down), but the really heroic characters who made sure it come down were District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and his aide Boris. Thanks, guys.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Of Thee I Sing

At the end of the long San Francisco Symphony season every year, Michael Tilson Thomas puts on a mini-festival around a theme. It has ranged from "American Mavericks" to "Russia" to "Beethoven and His Contemporaries" and there is usually a big centerpiece work, most often a concert version of an opera.

This year the festival is called "Of Thee I Sing: Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice" and the big show is a semi-staged concert version of two Gershwin musicals from the early 1930s, "Of Thee I Sing" and "Let 'Em Eat Cake."

They are political satires with many of the same characters overlapping in both, and though some of it's badly dated, most of the political stuff is startlingly fresh. (For instance, the president is being impeached "over a woman, can you believe it?")

I really expected to enjoy the evening more than I did. The casting was deluxe, including Mo Rocca, Marin Mazzie, Jason Danieley, and the great Kevin Chamberlin stealing the show as a French Ambassador. The simple set by Douglas Schmidt was beautiful, though I hated the "multimedia" projections above the stage.

The problem was that the musicals were designed for a Broadway theater, which are for the most part small places. Davies Symphony Hall is a huge barn that holds around 3,000 people. So in an effort to get around this, they used about 100 singers from the Symphony Chorus. They are one of the world's great ensembles, but their huge, massed sound was absurd in this music. I kept waiting for them to break into "Boris Godunov" or something. There was also a weird balance between them and the principals, who all had body microphones.

The amplification was done professionally, and it helped the audience understand the very witty Ira Gershwin lyrics, but the mixture was strange. And then there was the orchestra, playing exquisitely, but without any "swing," as my friend Richard Clarke put it. It needed to be much jazzier.

I left at intermission, though I might return for the second half on Friday or Saturday. Two musicals in one night is asking a bit much from an audience. If I wanted to spend three-and-a-half hours at a show, I'd cross the street to the opera house.

There's a small company in San Francisco called 42nd Street Moon that specializes in semi-staged concert versions of "rare" musicals, usually just with piano accompaniment, and I found myself wishing I was watching their version instead. They are in a tiny theater in the Embarcadero and they don't use amplification. Check them out.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Budgetary Hell

The Budget and Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors has been holding endless hearings all week, going through the Mayor's proposed Budget department by department.

On Monday and Tuesday, they tackled the Public Health budget which has some major cuts in store, and in the public comments period the Supervisors were lectured at by very articulate health professionals and long lines of drug addicts who wanted to tell their sobriety stories.

Today the long lines were laid off workers from the dysfunctional and corrupt Department of Public Works who had replaced the workers with nephews and sons-in-law and such.

While this was going on, the political fixers were working the room.

The very smart, very slick and very untrustworthy Ben Rosenfeld from the Mayor's Office made quite a few trips to various department heads and fixers.

Supervisor Fiona Ma at one point came out to the audience to talk to one of them, which is not unusual and is part of the charm of these meetings. They are a weird mixture of the formal and informal.

At the end of the Department of Public Works public commentary, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi actually nailed Ed Lee, the acting director soon to be the City Administrator (god help us all!), to a date when the fence would come down around the pagoda temple on the Hayes Green. It's supposed to be next Tuesday, folks, and it was on SF Government TV.

The next group that was there to testify en masse was from Channel 29, the public access station that was having $96,000 possibly being taken out of their budget.

Michael, one of my favorite employees at the station, spent his time reading "How to Direct Video."

Josh Wolf, a producer at the station was running around with his cool little video camera. Check out his VBlog (something I'd never heard of before but it was inevitable).

Zane Blaney, the director of the non-profit that runs the station, knew enough about politics to have made a few backroom deals with Supervisor Ammiano and the Mayor's Office, so it looked like their funding would be restored.

Ammiano announced the good news, hoping that the huge number of people who had been told that their shows on public access were in danger because of these budget cuts, would just go home and the committee could get on with their business. No such luck. These were people who really wanted to hear their own voices (rather like the sober drug addicts).

My favorite bit, though, was a former producer and board member who calls himself the Sk8ter Godfather, who hates the way the non-profit sucks up resources while not adding anything to the actual production of content on the station. He had made buttons to counter the "Save Public Access" stickers that everyone was wearing.

I thought the buttons were brilliant, and agreed with the sentiment, but Zane is nothing if not politically smart. In fact, he should go work for the Department of Public Works. There's a lot more swag.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Fences and Gatekeepers

The chain-link fence is still up around the new "Hayes Green" which is housing the David Best pagoda/temple "temporary" sculpture, but somebody has opened up a small entrance off of Linden Alley.

I wrote about the official "opening" last Thursday here, where either Larry Harvey, the Burning Man festival founder, or David Best, the artist, mentioned that people had come to them with concerns that the piece would be vandalized. His response was "it can't be vandalized, the piece is interactive and people are free to do whatever they want, including writing on it."

That's already been happening, as people leave memorials for dead friends, family and lovers.

Next door to the Hayes Green sculpture is a weird non-profit called the Neighborhood Parks Council that is the brainchild of a woman named Isabel Wade.

Every office has gatekeepers, the low-level receptionists and junior level staff who are forced to deal with strangers.

How they behave says a lot about the actual organization they work for, and today I encountered a full range of good and bad behavior. At NPC, I was directed to an arrogant young jerk named Jeff.

I asked him if the organization was working towards liberating the sculpture from the chain-link fence, since they had been one of the sponsors of its "World Environment Week" unveiling all the way back on June 3rd. "No way," he replied. "The fence is going to stay up at least another month while the sod grows in." I asked him if he thought the sod was more important than the temporary sculpture, and he replied, "Definitely. The sod is a lot more important." Remember that remark next time this group asks for money.

The next stop was the San Francisco Art Commission on Van Ness where just about everyone was out to lunch (literally). Though she didn't know what her boss was doing on the project, Kristin Zaremba was charming, funny and free with information.

Then it was off to City Hall where Boris and Jeremy, two aides to Supervisor Mirkarimi, had taken on the removal of the fence as a personal project. As Boris said, "there are going to be thousands of people here for Gay Pride Weekend and it would be nice to be able to show off this neighborhood and its transformation."

The Department of Public Works, which has been responsible for the fence logjam, is on the third floor of City Hall, and whenever the department was mentioned by anyone, it was with a bit of a shudder.

The offices looked fairly empty except for a woman who answered all my questions with contempt and who really couldn't have been nastier.

I started by explaining about the fence and she said she knew nothing about it, but that since I'd come to the office she was required to refer me to someone. She made a phone call and asked, "who would somebody talk to who has a question about a fence around a sculpture?" She was given a name and a number, there was no response, and she gave me the phone number of Nick Elsner. "You really haven't seen the pagoda temple?" I asked her. "It's only a couple of blocks away." Her reply was "I don't live in San Francisco," and she made it sound as if she was glad of the fact. "How did you get this job then?" I asked, which got her even grumpier. "You don't have to live in San Francisco to work here."

My final stop was back at the Mayor's Office, where I was greeted by Armina Brown, the Mayors Office Manager, who has been consistently sweet, helpful and delightful as I've repeatedly barged into her office over the last week about this issue.

The Mayor, it seems, has finally been made aware of the DPW problem and had a meeting with somebody from the department, which is a good thing since the artists and the Black Rock Art Foundation had been working on the mayor's deadline, getting the sculpture ready for the June 3rd World Environmental Week photo-op. To have it surrounded by a fence for the next month has just been grotesque.

Breaking News: Leslie Pritchett, the director of the Black Rock Arts Foundation, called and said the official word from the Mayor's Office was that the fence would be down "in nine days." We'll keep you posted.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Civic Center Hotel

The Civic Center Hotel is an old SRO (Single Room Occupancy) joint for poor people that rents daily, weekly and monthly. It stands at the corner of 12th and Market Street next door to a large, stupid parking lot.

On the other side is a brutal building that is the headquarters for Local 38, the plumbers' and pipefitters' union.

When they get graffiti on the building, it usually takes them forever to clean it off. In fact, from the outside the place looks like a ghost building.

The union is rich, old-fashioned and very powerful. Take a look at their Officers page on their website.

They have also have had a few problems with government lately. Here's a story from last year:
WASHINGTON, Nov. 22, 2004 - The U. S. Department of Labor sued current and former trustees, the plan administrator, and Local 38 of the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Journeymen for diverting more than $36 million in assets of five employee benefit plans to renovate and operate the Konocti Harbor Resort and Spa facilities on Clear Lake in Kelseyville, Calif. "The Plumbers plan officials mismanaged the investments and placed the benefits of thousands of union workers at risk," said U. S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao.
Unfortunately, the union also owns the Civic Center Hotel.

J.K. Dineen in the Examiner wrote about another scandal in March of last year:

The City will likely take legal action against the plumbers and steamfitters union, United Association Local 38, after the powerful organization repeatedly refused to install sprinklers in a residential hotel it owns on 12th and Market streets.

After months and months of trying to get the union to comply with The City's residential-hotel sprinkler ordinance, the Department of Building Inspection's litigation committee referred the matter to the City Attorney's Office on Monday.

"They have got to comply with the law," said Building Commissioner Roy Guinnane. "They have so much money, they think they are above the law."

The Local 38 Pension Fund, headed by the union's business manager, Larry Mazzola, owns the 156-unit Civic Center Hotel, which is separated from the union's headquarters by a parking lot.

The union has argued that it does not have to install sprinklers because it has filed plans to demolish the building, but it has yet to file plans for the replacement condo project.

Documents show that on Jan. 28, 2003, the union was notified that it had to install sprinklers in order to comply with an ordinance then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom passed after a string of deadly hotel fires. On May 7, 2003, the union then received a complaint for failing to submit plans for the installation of sprinklers.

Last summer, on Aug. 7, the building's landlord was given 15 days to comply with the ordinance, and still the Department of Building Inspection heard nothing. Another warning was issued, and again the department did not receive a reply from the union, according to Guinnane.

"We are mandated to follow the law," said Guinnane. "This is a building that is fully occupied. It would be different if it were empty."

While many owners of The City's 357 residential hotels have stalled and procrastinated on installing sprinkler systems since the law went into effect 18 months ago, the owners of the Civic Center Hotel are the only ones who has unapologetically refused to even submit plans, according to Guinnane.

"They maintain they have demolition on file and are going to tear it down," he said. "They are no different than anyone else. They just don't want to comply. They have even refused to submit a drawing."

Under the sprinkler ordinance, hotels that refuse to comply are assessed a $1,000 per day fine, he added.

Ironically, Local 38 was a big supporter of the sprinkler ordinance, a piece of legislation that benefits those who work in the plumbing trades.

"This is their work, it's their members who are doing it," said Sam Dodge of the Central City SRO Collaborative.

Over the past six months, there have been two fires at the Civic Center Hotel, including one just two weeks ago.

They finally installed the sprinklers recently, according to the very pleasant manager of the hotel.

The latest wrinkle is that the union has been ordered to retrofit the building, which is not that expensive and not that big a deal. It's been done in just about every old building in the neighborhood, including where I live. The union's response was that they couldn't afford it and they were going to demolish the hotel and put up high-priced condos.

This hasn't amused a lot of people, so today there was a left-wing gay protest in front of the plumber's headquarters. (There's always an angle, and theirs was that people with AIDS along with transgenders lived in the hotel.)

It was a very jolly protest and the chants weren't as silly as they sometimes can be.

To read more about the background to all this, check out BeyondChron.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Korean Art

I basically know nothing about Korea, other than a lot of people from there are named Kim and that the country is on a peninsula between two powerful places, Japan and China, yet has somehow retained its own culture and language over countless centuries. I also know, without any detail, that their political situation has been horrible since at least World War II and that the United States has been a big part of the problem.

A couple of weeks ago I was at a party and I got up the courage to ask a young Korean man named Joon-ho Bong if he was indeed a world famous movie director and if any of his movies had English subtitles. He told me to check out the the special edition 2-disc DVD of his 2003 movie, "Memories of Murder."

In preparation for watching the movie with a couple of guests in the evening (from Ireland and the East Bay respectively, but that's another story), I went to the Asian Art Museum to look at Korean art. The repurposed old Main Library building is named after Chong-Moon Lee, who from all accounts sounds like a wonderful person. Even the security guards had nice things to say about him.

An employee found a one-page printout about him with the following info: "Mr. Lee is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made his fortune in high tech. He was born in Korea, the son of an herbalist. As a young man he worked as a businessman and librarian. Forced to flee his country in 1970 for political reasons, he came to the U.S. He founded Diamond Multimedia in the 1980s and later sold three-fourths of his shares in the company for 92 million dollars. Much of that money has been used for philanthropic purposes...including the lead gift of $15 million which he donated to build the new museum. This was the single largest gift ever given by anyone to a San Francisco arts organization. He believes art promotes peace and understanding between people. Mr. Lee is a relatively private individual and serves as a Trustee for the museum."

The museum itself, with the rapacious Avery Brundage's amazing collection of Asian art at its core, is easily the best art museum on the West Coast. It's also a bit overwhelming in that the collection is so rich that by the 200th Buddha, your eyes start to glaze over. It's best experienced in smaller doses.

One of the most interesting things about the Korean wing is that the ancient is mixed with the contemporary.

The screen above is from the 21st century, and so are the "wrapping rags," based on centuries-long traditions.

They stand right next to vases that date from 1400 AD...

...and 400 AD.

A special exhibit had just opened of Tibetan royalty artifacts which did not amuse various Tibetans.

It seems that the pieces had all been provided by the Chinese government, and the Tibetans were pissed that the museum "has censored all historical context of these objects, the methods that were used to acquire them, the lives that were taken in the process, and the countless other equally precious artefacts that were destroyed in Tibet under the Chinese occupation."

Of course, the signage could equally apply to most of the great museums of the world (Elgin Marbles, anyone?), but the Tibetans are organized.

They were also quite sweet. This guy, after having his photo taken, invited me to have lunch with the group, but I declined as we got ready for the Korean movie, "Memories of Murder."

The movie is a police procedural based on a real incident in 1986, with a big city cop from Seoul coming to the country to help catch a serial murderer/rapist. The local police are bumpkins who plant evidence, beat up suspects, coerce confessions and are hated by the local population who are not amused by the fascist police state that is South Korea in 1986.

We've seen the Hollywood version of this tale (CSI tells it weekly on a multiple basis), but this film is so much better than most of that crap, it's staggering. In fact, it's one of the most visually beautiful movies I've seen in years, the character development is superb, and without being too gory the movie is genuinely disturbing. All hail Joon-ho Bong and Korean cinema.