Friday, July 31, 2009

City Hall Bakeoff

San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, above, has been demonized so thoroughly for so many years by journalistic hacks like C.W. Nevius at the San Francisco Chronicle and Ken Garcia at the San Francisco Examiner that seeing the young politico with a huge knife on Thursday afternoon in City Hall was rather startling.

The occasion was a "Bake-off" between Supervisors Daly and his ex-aide who is the current District 11 Supervisor John Avalos, below.

Avalos was the chair of the Budget Committee this year, which is always a nightmarish job, but in this particular year even more difficult. Part of his job was to negotiate with the Mayor's Office on proposed cuts and increases, with the final deal restoring $45 million in cuts to health and human services departments basically done on a handshake. During the full board debate on the final budget, Daly did everything but call Avalos a credulous idiot for believing a word coming out of Mayor Newsom's office, particularly in light of Newsom's history of never keeping his word on anything.

Avalos understandably took offense, and this "bake-off" was an Avalos staffer's inspired idea to let two macho guys have a contest that couldn't have been more feminine, and to publicly declare peace among friends.

Angela Cavalli, the Clerk of the Board, and Chuck Dugo, who's the executive pastry chef for Slanted Door, were the blind taste testers, and they took their jobs quite seriously.

The winner, after all, would win the priceless championship robe.

Best of all, everyone present got to stuff themselves with a couple of dozen different kinds of desserts after they had been officially judged.

The crowd was mostly staffers and a lot of media, including the fine online writers Paul Hogarth and Melissa Griffin above, who write for poverty pimp Randy Shaw and right-of-Fox Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz respectively.

Nicest for me was seeing old friends like Joe Lynn, above, the legendary Ethics Commission dude.

The winner, with two perfect 10s for a cake, was Chris Daly, and the rest of his team came out the winner too. Though it wasn't as starry as Obama's diplomatic beer quartet, the event was lovely, a place and time for government wonks to gossip, share information, and indulge in the pleasures of butter and sugar.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

L'Amico Fritz

The San Francisco Opera's summer training program for young professionals is performing two operas this summer at Fort Mason's Cowell Theatre, directly across from the bandshell made of recycled materials. The above sculpture was originally in the Golden Gate Park panhandle, disappeared, and now has reappeared magically in a Fort Mason parking lot.

The first opera played last weekend, and it was a rarity, "L'Amico Fritz," Pietro Mascagni's 1891 follow-up to his sensationally successful debut opera, "Cavalleria Rusticana." Just about everybody who was anybody who cares about opera in San Francisco was there, and they also wrote about it on the internet. Cedric thought it was like a box of chocolates, it made Mark long for a War Memorial season of verismo, Charlise was amused but had problems with the orchestra, Janos found himself relieved that "slumming in the ludicrously sentimental music was a happy occasion.", Georgia thought it was an unimitigated treat, Joshua thought it a superb production but wasn't sure if the characters were Jewish, and last but not least Patrick found it charming and very peculiar.

My reaction was a mixture of surprised delight at the extraordinary beauty of the score which I had never heard before, and flabbergasted amusement at the weird libretto which seemed to have no real dramatic conflicts except for a rabbi running through every scene telling everyone they need to stop being selfish people and get married and have babies.

Part of why the evening was so affecting were the performances by the Merola summer training singers. They threw themselves into their roles and the sincerity worked sympathetically with the young, romantic subject. Nathaniel Peake in the title role has a beautiful tenor that's extremely sweet and velvety. Even though his character didn't make a whole lot of sense, when he sang you could tell this person had a lot of soul.

My caveat was with the direction by Nic Muni. The simple unit set, split into one half raked stage with dining room table for upscale inside and flat stage for rustic outside, was perfectly serviceable. Unfortunately, the director broke the third wall repeatedly so you never knew when somebody was supposed to be inside or outside or where the hell they were supposed to be. During the "Cherry Duet" in Act 2, when the two romantic leads finally look at each other like ripe fruit for the first time, the director has Fritz on his Barcalounger inside and Suzel miming fruit picking outside. What's she doing, throwing the cherries at him through a window while they're singing the duet?

Allan Mallach wrote the only English language biography of Mascagni in 2002 for Northwestern University Press, and it turns out the composer is a fascinating character who was a major cultural figure in Italy until his death in 1945. He also wrote another 15 operas, some of which according to Mallach are overlooked musical masterpieces, especially "Guglielmo Ratcliff" and "Iris."

"L'Amico Fritz" started out as an 1864 French novel called "L'Ami Fritz" written by Émile Erckmann (1822-1899) and Alexandre Chatrian (1826-1890), which was "a series of genre scenes depicting Bavarian country life and Jewish customs." When the authors turned it into a play in 1876, they reset the story in Alsace, which had been occupied for the last six years by the Germans. "The genre scenes are gone, and Rabbi David has become a spokesman for their new patriotic themes. The pursuit of love and marriage is a duty to the nation, and Fritz's aimless life of good fellowship is treated as a dereliction of his patriotic obligations. As the happy couple embrace at the end, Rabbi David turns to Fritz's bachelor friends, reminding them that the first duty of all Frenchmen is to produce more men to rebuild the homeland." Ah, now it's starting to make some sense.

Mallach continues: "In the libretto the patriotic theme, which would have fallen with indifference on Italian ears of the 1890s, was removed by the librettists, whose Rabbi David asserts that marriage and procreation are a moral, rather than a political, duty...Joseph the gypsy, an insignificant figure in the play, has been renamed Beppe. He has two arias, neither drawn from the play, and both all but redundant in the opera." Maya Lahyani from Israel sang the part of the only goyim in the opera, and she was quite splendid in the absurd role of "the worthless gypsy."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Smoking Manhole Covers at City Hall

The private utility company, Pacific Gas and Electric, was founded in 1905 from a conglomeration of gas, electric and water companies, and since then it has exercised monopoly control over energy sources and distribution in most of Northern California.

In its quest for ever greater profits, the corporation seems to be maintaining its aging infrastructure with the guiding philosophy, "If it hasn't blown up yet, why fix it?"

On Monday afternoon, smoke was noticed emerging from manhole covers in front of City Hall on Polk Street, so the area was closed for the next 8 hours with yellow tape and a big "CLSOED" typo on its signage.

As usual, nobody knew what was causing the problem, and whether or not it was related to the explosion last month about five blocks up the street at Polk and O'Farrell.

At 7PM, there were crowds of firemen, policemen, PG&E workers and management milling around.

The scene was reminiscent of a movie set where there are always lots of people waiting around for somebody to finish their job, and all the guys were even in costume.

According to Eve Batey at SF Appeal,
"Pacific Gas and Electric Co. spokesman David Eisenhauer said PG&E waited for the fire department to deem the situation safe before sending investigators underground. Crews managed to isolate a faulty cable that produced the smoke in an underground vault, Eisenhauer said."

The San Francisco Chronicle didn't even bother to mention the incident in today's newspaper. I guess columnist C.W. Nevius' attack on recycling scavengers was considered more important.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Adaptations 2: Patricia's Green

For over 30 years, a doubledecker freeway ran through the Hayes Valley neighborhood like a festering wound, but the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the structure sufficiently that it was torn down by Caltrans, and committed neighborhood activists managed to keep the monstrosity from being resurrected.

Of course, there is a new, surface roadway leading from Market Street and the 101 freeway known as Octavia Boulevard, which is a case of disastrous urban planning all of its own. However, at the end of that car-centric mess, a beautiful little park called Patricia's Green was installed just as this blog was starting up over four years ago.

The first post, in fact, was about David Best's temple, which was the first collaboration between the Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Hayes Valley Art Coaliation.

The popularity and the example set by that initial temple has been wonderful for San Francisco public art. The process used to involve a long, expensive, and elitist bureaucratic tangle that commissioned work from an established artist, usually outside of the Bay Area. This would take years to fund, negotiate, and install, and if the people living around the art hated it, they basically had to lump it.

With "temporary" neighborhood installations, however, if you don't like it, just wait for a bit and the thing will be gone and replaced by something else. This Burning Man, transitory aesthetic has essentially been a quiet revolution in San Francisco over the last four years. It has also probably led the San Francisco Art Commission into some interesting new ways of thinking, evidenced by its current Patrick Dougherty commission in Civic Center Plaza, and the other "temporary" installations they have sponsored, from Louise Bourgeois' waterfront spider to Manolo Valdes' Infanta sculptures.

Patricia's Green has hosted a few sculptural clunkers over the last four years, but most of the exhibits have been magical, such as the Best Temple, the Wowhaus miniature golf course, and Koilos from Burning Man. Mark Baugh-Sasaki's "Adaptations" is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, where it will reside until the end of the year. As Matthew Hubbard commented, "twigs are the new marble."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Adaptations 1: Foggy Sculpture Fiesta

A new sculpture has gone up at Patricia's Green in the Hayes Valley.

It was created by Mark Baugh-Sasaki (above)...

...using fallen and trimmed limbs from trees in Golden Gate Park.

The sculpture was mostly paid for by a neighborhood group, the Hayes Valley Art Coalition, with some additional funding from
the Burning Man offshoot, the Black Rock Arts Foundation.

The opening party was very jolly, with free food, wine and music, but the evening fog and howling winds quickly drove me away.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Invasion of the Google Experts

In front of the Veterans Building at Van Ness and McAllister, a new piece of signage has sprouted on the sidewalk, which has the feel of advertising but the presentation of public art.

It turned out to be the former, a placemarker designating that celebrity Berkeley food guru Alice Waters, owner of the extremely expensive Chez Panisse restaurant, has officially designated Herbst Theatre one of her "favorite places."

It seems that Google Maps has added a feature where you can see what passes for local celebrities, complete with their own identifying logos, map out their favorite places in San Francisco.

I don't mean to be rude, especially, but I really don't give a flying fig that Alice Waters likes Herbst Theatre in the Veterans Building, and don't particularly care to be reminded of that trivial fact every day as I walk past Google's sculptural ad. It will require extraordinary restraint, in fact, not to vandalize the thing.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jamie Vasta's Glittering Art Opening

The San Francisco Arts Commission has a gallery in the front of the Veterans Building on the corner of McAllister and Van Ness where there was an opening party on Thursday evening. It was the fifth in a series of high-concept "conversations featuring a local artist alongside an artist from another point on the globe."

The auslanders were the Canadian husband and wife team of Sheila and Nicholas Pye, who are offering a boring piece of video art in a back room, and who didn't manage to make it to the opening.

This didn't matter in the least because there were the usual crowds of beautiful young people at the party...

...and the front rooms were displaying the large-scale glitter paintings of Jamie Vasta, which are spectacular.

I asked the artist (above right) whether she was using a mixture of paint and glitter, and whether she was working from photographs.

"Glitter and glue are the only materials I used, and yes, I work from photographs," the young artist replied.

The effect is endlessly fascinating, with each of the works looking completely different depending on the light and your angle of viewing. Their meaning(s) also change moment to moment, from ecstatic to sinister and back again.

The subject matter at this show is fairly benign, in fact. According to a post by Alanna Risse at Bay Area ArtQuake, Vasta's last show at the Patricia Sweetow gallery in downtown San Francisco were of rural girls with animals they had just killed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Jeff Adachi, Public Defender

San Francisco's bloated payroll and $7 billion annual budget could probably be cut in half without any diminishment of services to the public at large, but that's not to say all municipal workers are equal.

For every lazy municipal employee, be they a six-figure management figure or a low-paid Park & Rec slacker, there are others who attack their jobs with energy and passion.

Chief among that latter group in San Francisco is the Public Defender's Office led by Jeff Adachi (above), whose staff works long hours for relatively little compensation. Of course, they were the department that was slated for major cuts by Mayor Newsom in collaboration with City Supervisor Elsbernd. The overcompensated and bloated fire and police departments, meanwhile, have suffered very little in the latest budget struggle.

So Jeff Adachi went on the offensive, and explained to anyone who would listen how forcing the department to send public defender cases to private counsel would be a financial disaster, penny wise and pound foolish. He made his case well, with humor and drama, and at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday afternoon, much of his funding was restored before the final annual budget was approved. He's my favorite local politician, and I wish he'd run for mayor.