Saturday, September 30, 2006

Berlioz, Foss and Brahms

After a Society Opening Night at the beginning of the month and a short tour to the Lucerne, Switzerland festival where they played Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony finally opened their season this week with a bizarre, unsatisfying program.

Though it's nice that Franklin Templeton was "sponsoring" the concerts, I'm wondering why the price of the inexpensive Center Terrace seats have been jacked up to $25 this year. Management should actually have made them cheaper, since the most fanatically devoted consumers of classical music tend to be the very old and fairly young, many of them with very limited budgets.

Michael Tilson Thomas has been a wonderful and exciting music director for the San Francisco Symphony, but like all conductors, there's certain music he's great with and other music where I'd much rather listen to somebody else. Unfortunately, two of the composers who belong in the latter category are Berlioz and Brahms, who were featured in the concert Friday evening. After hearing MTT conduct excerpts from Berlioz's "Romeo et Juliette" one time, my friend Jerry Morgan said, "He makes it sound smoothed-out and plush and creamy, which is all wrong. The fun thing about Berlioz is how weird his music really is, and you want to hear that." Friday evening's rendition of the "Benvenuto Cellini" overture only proved Jerry's point.

The second piece on the program was the 1960 "Time Cycle" by Lukas Foss, which started out interestingly but became duller as the four movements went on until the audience was nearly comatose.

MTT gave a long and impassioned lecture/defense of the music and its composer but it was for naught. (Note to Davies Hall sound engineers: you can barely make out what MTT is saying from Center Terrace because there is so much reverb.)

The "Time Cycle" consists of four songs for soprano and fairly spare orchestration, and the soloist was Dawn Upshaw who is a controversial figure in the opera world, as some people worship her and others can't stand her voice. I'm in the total worship category and could listen to her sing the phone book, which might have been more interesting than "Time Cycle."

In the early 1970s I attended a 12-hour Bach Marathon held at the Hollywood Bowl, where general admission was $1 for the entire event (these were hippie days when there was still a trace of egalitarianism in the air). The conductor was none other than Lukas Foss and he was one of the most charming hosts and conductors I've ever encountered live. He also sat down at one point to a grand piano, apologizing for it not being a harpsichord, and gave a wild, crackerjack performance of the Brandenberg Concerto No. 5 that I can still hear in my brain.

So please, MTT, play something else by Mr. Foss because you're not doing him any favors with "Time Cycle."

Many people repaired to the bar to get ready for the Brahms Fourth Symphony, which Joshua Kosman called "a little overstuffed" (click here for the full review) and which I would characterize as just plain vulgar. The performance wasn't boring and certainly had a lot of commitment but it sounded like Mahler on steroids, not Brahms.

I bought a stereo with the proceeds from my first job at age 13 bagging groceries at a proto-WalMart, and with a streak of perversity one of my first purchases was a monaural boxed set of the Brahms Four Symphonies conducted by Bruno Walter in Carnegie Hall. The reason I bought it was that the set was cheap and being remaindered (stereo was pushing out monaural) and also it had a great quote on the front of the box from "Esquire" magazine to the effect that "these performances are so perfect there is no reason to ever record these symphonies again," and as it turned out he was right. Even Bruno Walter's own later set in stereo of the same music wasn't quite as good. So check out these recordings, MTT, for a clue on what to do with this music, and according to the knowledgeable commenters at Amazon (click here), you need to get the FRENCH Sony recording and not the bad Italian Sony transfer or the CDs will sound like crap.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Stand With Us Against The War

As the Iraq War/Invasion drags on, and the United States Senate and Congress vote for institutionalized torture... of the few places that feels sane anymore is the weekly peace vigil... front of the Federal Building on Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco.

The loosely affiliated religious groups and peaceniks who attend regularly and irregularly every Thursday from noon to one have been silently standing for justice and truth to power for almost five straight years now.

They are holding a "5th Anniversary" commemoration two weeks from now on Thursday, October 12, at their usual noon to one in the afternoon... I joined Markley Morris, the organizer of the vigil, on a stroll through City Hall inviting the 11 City Supervisors and their staffs to the anniversary event.

Aaron Peskin's receptionist was lovely and friendly when we handed her the invitation and promised to pass it on to the supervisor, but she most definitely didn't want her picture taken.

The staff of the new political operator in Sacramento, Fiona Ma...

...didn't look particularly amused by our presence but was perfectly polite.

It was at District 11 Supervisor Sandoval's office that we received a royal reception.

While prowling around City Hall for this blog during the last year, I've met a lot of the volunteers and paid staff for the various politicians, and with the possible exception of Boris in Supervisor Mirkarimi's office, the smartest, most charming, and most helpful person there is Lupita Figueiredo, seen below to the right in a truly terrible photograph. (Please forgive me, Lupita, you look much better than represented.)

She gave Markley simple, accurate information about distribution to media outlets for his anniversary, and when she found out that he was a District 11 resident, proceeded to invite him to a special districtwide party for the "Chicanos" exhibit at the deYoung.

In contrast, at Supervisor Ammiano's large northwest corner office, his two aides were busy on the phone and didn't even acknowledge us, and neither did the Supervisor himself as he came out to the front desk to find some paperwork.

Note to Ammiano: I like your politics, but your people skills suck.

Though the staffs of reliably reactionary Supervisors Dufty, Alioto-Pier and Elsbernd were not particularly welcoming... least they went through the motions and were polite.

At Supervisor Daly's office, we were greeted by a volunteer...

...who seemed to find everything hilarious.

Supervisor Maxwell's office was guarded by a receptionist...

...who couldn't have been more pleasant and who promised to make sure her boss get the invitation.

At Supervisor Mirkarimi's office, we ran into another lovely volunteer who was enthusiastic and helpful, and who said she would probably be showing up herself.

So, to everybody who reads this blog, you are also officially invited to this event, Thursday, October 12, noon to one pm. There will no stupid speeches or screaming or nonsense, simply people who are witnesses to institutional war and the evil it represents, and who are trying to change the world. Join us.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Vision and Art

One of the great art shows each year in San Francisco is held in the basement of City Hall.

It's presented annually by The Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired (click here for their website)...

...and the 35 artists are all either blind or visually impaired.

The handsome programs for "Insights 2006," as they're calling it, are printed in two editions, one in color and another in Braille.

Part of the interest of the show is also in the artist's statements that are printed next to the art, such as Dona Wilson from Richmond, CA who took the almost-abstract photo of a fishing boat at Malta above:
"Ten years ago I was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration. I now see much less but what I do see means a great deal to me."

Velma Stiers, "And Then Begin Again," oil on canvas above:
"I touch the surface of my work more now, whether they be in oils or pastels. I see the world in soft focus and have difficulties seeing in the distance, so my landscape paintings are from my memory long ago when I had perfect vision."

Annie Hesse, Bellevue, WA, above:
"The camera's lens enables me to "freeze" time and focus on the details that I wouldn't ordinarily see or which are otherwise invisible. In other cases, I am inspired by the play of light and shadows. My intention is to show the viewer not only what I see, but how I see it."

The pieces are fascinating not just because of the inherent pathos...

...but because they are all charged with the energy of people who are literally and intensely thinking about Seeing.

Kristi Dean, Richmond, CA has a couple of extraordinary sculptures made of Tinker Toys and toothpicks.
"I use my sense of touch instead of sight. I "see" by feeling the sunshine on my face of the textures of my art materials."

Some of the art seems to take the viewer straight into the world of diminished sight, such as this landscape by Ida Berkowitz from Tiburon.

Tara Arlene Innmon, Minneapolis, MN was one of the three major award winners of the exhibition, and it was easy to see why. Her series of paintings of bus interiors with people were wonderful.

Another award winner, Kurt Weston from Huntington Beach, CA had a series of large photographs with the major foreground figures crudely sketched out.

He writes:
"In 1996, I became legally blind due to AIDS-related CMV retinitis. I see the world very differently than a sighted person, very blurred with speckles of light, like an impressionist painting."

All of the art in this exhibit is for sale, and it's priced at amazingly low prices, with everything under $1,000 and most of it under $400.

However, these two colored pencil landscapes by Lois Ann Barnett from Oakland are no longer available because I bought them this morning.

Thanks above all go to Sarah Millett, the Exhibition Coordinator, who is pictured above by one of her favorite paintings, Velma Stiers' "Road with No End." She took a check from me and made sure it would get to Lois Ann.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Falafel and Fries

On one of the most miserable stretches of Grove Street in Civic Center...

...across from the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library...

...and just up the block from the vile Burger King on 8th and Market...

...there is a Middle Eastern restaurant called Gyro King that is a wonder.

It's not only inexpensive and crowded with happy diners all day...

...but it has a burrito-sized falafel that is one of my favorites in all of San Francisco.

Plus, there's a big photo of The Homeland on the wall, in this case Turkey...

...and the patriarch of the joint looks a bit like Akim Tamiroff in "Topkapki."

There are even the occasional celebrity diners such as District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly along with his son and his political staff.

If you cross Civic Center Plaza, passing the World Can't Wait people in front of City Hall, who are having another big rally on October 5th (click here)...

...there's another charming cheap eatery on Hayes Street called Frjtz.

It's a young hipster joint specializing in crepes, salads...

...and their specialty...

...big servings of "Belgian fries."

For years, the place was called Mad Magda's Tea Room, complete with tarot readings by Real Gypsies.

The best part of the joint is still the beautiful little garden in the back...

...surrounded by faded Victorians.

Beautiful young people hang out here...

...whiling away the hours...

...and talking with friends.

There's even the odd celebrity spotting here, too, such as Eve Batey from SFist, above, who is one of the serious Queens of the Blogosphere in San Francisco.