Friday, March 30, 2007

Modern Times at El Rio

Near the wonderful used bookstore "Dog Eared Books" at the corner of 20th & Valencia...

...stands one of the oldest left-wing bookshops in San Francisco, Modern Times, which dates from 1971.

Unfortunately, it looks like nobody's bothered to redecorate since 1971. With its ugly fluorescent lighting and slapdash attempt at retailing, the place has some seriously depressing vibes. On its website (click here), there are the following appeals on the Homepage: "We Now Carry Used Books! And we need your help! This fantabulous development is part of our greater plan to resuscitate the bookstore..." and "Help Us Keep Our Doors Open. As you may know, these are perilous times for independent bookstores..."

There is a small room in the back of the store where panels and author events are held. Thursday evening's panel was about the San Francisco Municipal Wi-Fi project, with an equal mixture of technical wizards and non-technical, low-income community activists trying to explain the world to each other.

According to my friend Kimo Crossman (pictured above on the right), "there was a lot of passion, which was good, but not a lot of reason, which was not so good." The panel was moderated by Annalee Newitz, the brilliant cultural analyst whose "Techsploitation" column is one of the major reasons to pick up the "San Francisco Bay Guardian." (Click here for her website.) However, she wasn't a very good moderator, allowing the non-technical activists to drone on endlessly about their various oppressions while ignoring the actual subject at hand.

We fled after only fifteen minutes for margaritas and enchiladas at the true ancient icon of the neighborhood, La Rondalla restaurant. This meant we missed the appearance of Ron Vinson, the dissembling chief of the strange little Department of Telecommunications and Information Services in City Hall (click here for their website). They are the crucial link in the wifi giveaway to Google and Earthlink, and though Mr. Vinson was attending the panel as a "private citizen in the audience," at some point he couldn't take it anymore and insisted on speaking. Since nobody else from the Mayor's Office or Google or Earthlink had shown up, that was fine with the panel. Unfortunately, he got caught in a number of fibs, and spilled the beans about "conditioned fiber," which means that there are a number of secretive deals his department has made concerning the extensive fiber optic network in San Francisco. It seems that the "conditioned fiber" cannot be used in competition with any private corporations. Ever. We've been sold down the river again.

We continued down Mission Street to the venerable dive bar El Rio for a party celebrating the launch of the new GavinWatch website, which has had more lives than a phoenix. It's a funny, well-written and critical look at San Francisco's mayor. (Click here to check it out.)

There was lots of signage hung up in the backyard patio...

...and in the disco dance room beside it.

It was an interesting mixture of the homespun and the sophisticated...

...and it was obvious that the GavinWatchers have definitely been paying attention.

A photography station was set up with a lifesize cutout of Newsom... that you could have a picture with the "photo-op mayor."

Except for the food bloggers, who are a whole continent to themselves, just about everybody who has a blog in San Francisco showed up to the party at some point, including Greg Dewar (above) of the N Judah Chronicles (click here).

Eve Batey (above) represented a small contingent from the "San Francisco Chronicle," and best of all h. brown (below) got to meet the fabulous Beth Spotswood. (Click here to get to his funny account of the evening with great photos by Luke Thomas.)

Beth was so taken by the ridiculously handsome TV newsman Dan Noyes, who was attending as a civilian, that she jettisoned all of her old best friends for her new one. (Read all about it by clicking here.) It was a fun evening.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Global Warming and Vivienne Westwood

In Golden Gate Park, the cherry blossom trees have undergone an early blooming this year.

Thanks to global warming, the all-important Cherry Blossom Festivals in Japan are arriving ten days earlier than usual, according to a number of news accounts.

Wandering through Golden Gate Park is always a joy...

...except when trying to cross the miles of four-lane highways that snake through the place like poisonous rivers.

There is currently a raging controversy over whether to close a 1.7 mile section of roadway on Saturdays in the east end of the park as is now done on Sundays, giving walkers, joggers, bicyclists, roller skaters, and wheelchair riders a break from the "car is king" culture we live in.

However, the sense of entitlement among those who use the park roads for their personal use is not to be denied, and the socialite Dede Wilsey, along with other colleagues on the Fine Arts Museums board, has decided the Saturday park closure will not happen.

The craven "San Francisco Chronicle" is even editioralizing against the Saturday road closure in this morning's paper. Though there is a huge, new underground parking lot underneath the museum complexes, they still insist on having a freeway next to their institutions, the public be damned.

This seems like a cut off your nose to spite your face kind of gesture, since attendance on Sundays when the roadway is closed nearby is actually higher than on Saturdays when the roadway is open, but let's not look for logic here.

Recently, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco mailed me a membership renewal request, and though I'd like to rejoin, there is no way that I am going to do so if they insist as an institution on being such backward, ugly citizens. In fact, if I do return, it will be with a protest sign.

My artist friend David Barnard, who is chatting up one of the museum installers in the photo above, came up with a perfect compromise since it really is the rich bitches like socialite Dede Wilsey who are keeping this very modest gesture at car curtailment from coming to fruition.

"How about if they close it to all traffic except for limos and licensed town cars? That way Dede and her friends can have their cake and eat it too."

Currently at the deYoung is an exhibit of the British designer Vivienne Westwood's "36 Years in Fashion," a touring show that has been around the world, most recently in Bangkok.

Though I have next to no interest in fashion, the exhibit of outrageous costumes ranging from her 1980s punk rock days to her couture for rich ladies in Paris period is stunning, and one of the most artfully installed shows I've seen in the museum. My only criticism is that the first half of the show is so dark that the place feels a bit like a haunted house display, and I was waiting for someone to trip and go flying through the spiked leather mannequins.

It was a relief to flee the place and hang out at the nine-hole golf course on the western edge of the park, where you can play a silly game, drink beer and eat barbequed pork sandwiches, and above all be away from the frigging cars that seem to define our civilization.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Steve Reich at the Ballet

The San Francisco Ballet just finished a two-week run of a pair of "mixed repertory" programs this weekend, and I caught the final performance of Program 4 on Saturday night, which was highlighted by "Eden/Eden," an astonishing ballet by the newly appointed director of the Royal Ballet Company in London, Wayne McGregor.

The music is by Steve Reich, taken from the the last piece in a trilogy of "video operas" he created with his wife Beryl Korot that was finished in 2001 and called "Three Tales." The pieces are about iconic moments in Technology in the Twentieth Century, namely the Crash of the Hindenberg, the Diaspora of the Bikini Islanders before the Atom Bomb, and the Cloning of Dolly The Sheep.

It is written to be performed by an ensemble of ten instrumentalists, five singers, and tape loops of speakers being interviewed, along with Ms. Kortot's "video art" on a big screen. I saw the first Hindenberg section performed by the San Francisco Symphony close to a decade ago during their American Mavericks Festival, and loved the music but found the "video art" a rather uninteresting and pretentious use of Adobe After Effects.

The British choreographer McGregor divorced the "Dolly" score from the "video opera," coming up with a few inspired visual projections of his own, and has created one of the wildest dances I've ever seen on the San Francisco Opera House stage. It was so good that many of the dancers who were finished after the first two pieces on the program (Paul Taylor's "Spring Rounds" and Tomasson's "Chi-Lin") snuck into the back row of the orchestra section so they could watch the piece for themselves, a gesture of respect I've never seen before.

The ballet will undoubtedly be repeated next year, and I can't recommend it highly enough. For the record, the great dancers Saturday evening were Jaime Garcia Castilla, Hayley Farr, Dana Genshaft, Gonzalo Garcia, Rory Hohenstein, Muriel Maffre, Moises Martin, Pascal Molat, and Katita Waldo, all of whom looked like they were enjoying themselves immensely with the fiendish choreography. The live vocalists were Christa Pfeiffer, Heather Gardner, Thomas Busse, Keith Perry, and Dale Tracy, with Gary Sheldon as the conductor. If I knew the names of the ten instrumentalists, they'd be in here too, because the performance was a corker.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Mendelssohn's Elijah

Three performances of Mendelssohn's grand oratorio from 1846, "Elijah," complete with a huge chorus and a half-dozen soloists, are being held this weekend at Davies Symphony Hall.

I had never heard the piece before, so upon finding out there were rush tickets available at the box office for $20, I decided at the last minute to attend the Friday performance. There are rush tickets available for this evening, Saturday, by the way, though not for Sunday afternoon's matinee, and I'd encourage you to run to the box office because it's hard to imagine a better performance of this music.

Though the two-and-a-half-hour oratorio was originally written in German, the premiere was for a music festival in Birmingham, England so that "Elijah" first appeared in English and some of its numbers have remained as religious choral and solo favorites in Britain and America to this day. As usual, George Bernard Shaw wrote the best commentary, while reviewing a performance in Albert Hall:
"There is no falling off in the great popularity of Elijah. This need not be regretted so long as it is understood that our pet oratorio, as a work of religious art, stands together with...the poems of Longfellow and Tennyson, sensuously beautiful in the most refined and fastidiously decorous way, but thoughtless. That is to say, it is not really religious music at all."

Shaw continues:
"The best of it is seraphic music, like the best of Gounod's; but you have only to think of Parsifal, of the Ninth Symphony, of The Magic Flute, of the inspired moments of Handel and Bach, to see the great gulf that lies between the true religious sentiment and our delight in Mendelssohn's exquisite prettiness. The British public is convinced in its middle age that Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun is divine, on grounds no better and no worse than those on which, in its callow youth, it adores beautiful girls as angels. Far from desiring to belittle such innocent enthusiasm, I rather echo Mr. Weller's plea that 'Arter all, gen'lmen, it's an amiable weakness.' "

The oratorio is a strange mixture of revolting Old Testament revenge tale (where "He had Jezebel thrown from a window, trampled by horses, and he fed her remains to the dogs" is a good thing) and Mendelssohn's music at its most beautiful. Or as Shaw puts it:
"A vigorous protest should be entered whenever an attempt is made to scrape a layer off the praise due to the seraphs in order to spread it over the prophet in evening dress...who informs the audience, with a vicious exultation, that "God is angry with the wicked every day." That is the worst of your thoughtlessly seraphic composer: he is a wonder whilst he is flying; but when his wings fail him, he walks like a parrot."

The huge chorus was extraordinary all evening, and though the soloists were never particularly thrilling, they were all better than competent.

The real hero of the performance was the 80-year-old vegetarian Jehovah's Witness conductor, Herbert Blomstedt, who was the San Francisco Symphony's music director from 1985 until 1995. Though Blomstedt's tenure here at the time mostly bored the hell out of me, there's no denying that "Elijah" is his kind of music, and I can't imagine another conductor in the world right now who I'd rather hear leading it. The orchestra all night had an energy and sureness of purpose that never let the large piece lag, and the audience walked out enthralled. Plus, Blomstedt is doing something right, because he looks better at 80 than he did at age 60.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Plain and Fancy

The Eureka Theatre is a small playhouse in the back of the Embarcadero Center complex on Jackson Street.

Its main tenant is an interesting local troupe called 42nd Street Moon that specializes in "concert versions" of obscure Broadway musicals spanning the entire 20th century (click here to get to their website and see about tickets).

This week and next they are presenting "Plain and Fancy," a successful-but-then-forgotten 1955 musical that the program essay calls "the best Rodgers and Hammerstein musical not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein."

It deals with a romantic couple of sophisticates from Manhattan who go to sell some family land in Pennsylvania Amish country, and get involved in some serious romantic melodrama with mismatched lovers, not to mention the usual cultural clashes.

It's an unusually gentle musical that doesn't stray into the sentimental. The production, as is usual with this troupe, plays the piece straight and it's well worth a visit.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Slide into Scandal

There is an expensive "speakeasy" lounge called Slide on Mason Street, behind the St. Francis Hotel and under the Ruby Skye dance club (click here to get to their website).

On Sunday evening, it was the setting for a "New Issue Launch Party" for Benefit magazine, the glossy rag which details all the good works and fancy parties in which the rich of San Francisco indulge.

If you were feeling adventurous, you could even enter via the titular slide from the ground floor to the basement club.

The party was also a $20 suggested donation benefit for something called the San Francisco International Arts Festival (click here to get to their website).

Tim Gaskin, the founder/publisher of Benefit magazine, has been in the news quite a bit lately since he's close friends with Ruby Rippey-Tourk, the woman at the center of the Mayor Newsom adultery scandal. He also just appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle after giving a series of private emails from ABC-TV's Dan Noyes to Andrew Ross in some attempt to embarrass Noyes that backfired (click here for the I-team website with all the emails here).

Gaskin is a publicist and a gay pop artist with his finger in a lot of local celebrity pies, so to speak. His contribution to the "Hearts of San Francisco" project, for instance, is called ""Women for Justice," which depicts Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom as Frida Kahlo on one side and Kamala Harris as Billie Holiday on the other (click here to get to his website).

State Assemblyman Mark Leno was the only politician to make a brief appearance as he apologized for having to go to a Chinatown dinner which didn't seem to amuse him.

There were a meager selection of hors d'oeuvres passed around...

...along with the overpriced cocktails...

...but it all became worthwhile when Linda Tillery and members of her Cultural Heritage Choir assembled on the small stage for a musical set (click here for her website).

The San Francisco International Arts Festival was founded by the Englishman Andrew Wood (above) four years ago with the Edinburgh Festival as a model...

...but this year's edition, entitled "The Truth in Knowing/Now: A conversation across the African Diaspora" is being sponsored through a fiscal nonprofit headed by Krissy Keefer, who was last seen as the Green candidate for Congress against Nancy Pelosi.

As the befurred Mumba above put it, Ms. Tillery is a legend on the order of Nina Simone and hearing her live tends to be a special occasion, so if she does appear at the festival make sure to check it out.

The artistic director this year is Rhodessa Jones, above, who was beaming with such good energy that my friend Katja insisted on a photo.