Sunday, March 28, 2010

Earthbound Resurrection

The San Francisco Symphony's MahlerMania continued earlier this month with a quartet of performances of the monumental Second Symphony, nicknamed the "Resurrection." I grew up listening to the Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic recording as a teenager, usually with the stereo going full blast while smoking marijuana with neighborhood friends, but had somehow managed to make it through this lifetime without hearing a live performance.

It's a great piece of music for precocious, overemotional young people, with its wild mood swings, its trip into the dark, violent abyss near the end, followed by the huge chorus and two soprano soloists slowly making their way up to some kind of operatic, heavenly finale. The only music that's comparable is the huge choral setpiece in heaven at the opening of Boito's "Mefistofole" opera.

I was looking forward to the concert immensely, but the conducting by Michael Tilson Thomas sounded strangely inert to me. The orchestra, in all its many moments and sections, was superb, but as an organic whole the performance never really "lifted off the ground," as an audience member sitting behind us put it. Instead, it was rather as if a beautiful old watch had been taken apart, with every part shined and refurbished, but somehow never put back together again. The symphony was a string of parts, and the essential dramatic core, with all its overindulgent emotionalism, never really came through.

The Symphony has taken this performance on tour over the last two weeks, alternating with the Kissine premiere, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concertto with Tetzlaff, along with Ravel's "Valses..." and Lizst's "Tasso." The tour started in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the University Choir sang the finale in the Mahler, moved on to Philadelphia where the critic for the Philadelphia Enquirer loved the performance, though interestingly enough his description doesn't contradict mine.
"Every micro-phase in this massive, 90-minute work for large orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists was crystallized in sound, manner, and gesture. Every moment was, for lack of a better word, itself - a clear outgrowth of what came before, but unlike anything already heard or yet to come."

The two soloists, Katarina Karneus and Laura Claycomb, were wonderful though Claycomb's pefectly beautiful voice isn't what's really required for the over-the-top finale. You want a big, porno instrument that can sail over anything and everything. I wonder how the ensemble sounded in Carnegie Hall, the final stop on the tour. (Update: the New York Times critic, Anthony "Strapping" Tommasini, loved the concerts. I guess we're just snottier in San Francisco.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Carlos Santana in the Green Room

Last Thursday evening in the second-floor Green Room of the Veterans Building, there was a very jolly party in conjunction with the 2010 Mayor's Art Award ceremony honoring the local, legendary musician Carlos Santana (below right).

This was the third edition of the annual award, spearheaded by the San Francisco Art Commission, and the previous honorees were artist Ruth Asawa and choreographer Alonzo King. Santana is on a different level of celebrity than those two, and has received a ridiculous number of awards over his four-decade career, including being installed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so this felt more like the glory was being reflected on the local politicians such as Gavin Newsom rather than the other way around.

There was a good young band from the Mission District playing called Futuro Picante, along with free drinks...

...and free food, including my favorite from the venerable Castro District pizza parlor The Sausage Factory.

Luis Cancel (above right), San Francisco's "Director of Cultural Affairs," gave a nice introduction to Carlos, who in turn gave a gracious speech filled with sincere platitudes about music, humility, love and light. I checked out his website later (click here), and the happy news is that it's probably the best designed artist's website I've ever visited, easy to navigate and filled with fascinating content, including the names and photos of the hundreds of people he's played music with over the decades.

In fact, his career on further inspection is about ten times more interesting than I ever suspected. After worshiping Richie Valens as a kid in Tijuana, he joined his mother in San Francisco, went to Mission High School, and was a musical busker on the streets of San Francisco in the 1960s where he formed his first band. During that time, he connected up with the entire San Francisco music scene along with promoter Bill Graham, who got him a major slot at Woodstock, which led to a recording contract with Clive Davis, which led to three megaselling albums, and then everything fell apart. Much of his band wanted to go towards harder rock while Carlos was worshiping the jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Plus, there were drugs galore flying around, so Carlos ended up jettisoning most of the group and playing with new musicians for a live recording in Japan for CBS, "Lotus," which refused to release the three-disc set. (They are weird collectors' import items to this day.)

From that moment on, Santana balanced making commercial music for the suits, and ignoring them altogether to play what and with whom he wanted all across the globe, essentially creating "world music" before there was even such a category. He also went through a period with religious cult leader Sri Chimnoy in the 1970s but happily broke it off with the compromised guru in 1982. In 1999, he released the album "Supernatural" which was a collection of collaborations with younger musicians, and suddenly he was superstar successful all over again.

Though most of the speech was sweet and positive, Carlos did mention apropos of nothing that "Fox News is just the Klu Klux Klan without the sheets," and I wondered if he was making a sly dig at his biggest sponsor. When he's not touring the world (Spain and Morocco are up next), Santana plays for AEG Live at the Hard Rock Casino concert hall in Las Vegas. AEG Live is owned by Philip Anschutz, the right-wing Christian billionaire who also owns the Examiner chain of free dailies, which was the major sponsor of the evening's festivities at the Green Room. Their editorial policies, both local (Ken Garcia, etc.) and national (Hugh Hewitt, etc.) are certainly no different than Fox News. I hope Carlos appreciated the irony.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Corporate Piggy

On Wednesday the 17th, protestors assembled at noon in front of the California Public Utilities Commission building at the corner of Van Ness and McAllister.

This was in anticipation of a public hearing that afternoon about Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation's sponsorship of Proposition 16 on California's ballot this June. The proposition aims to make it even more difficult for local governments to switch from the monopoly utility to non-profit utilities run by the community, in that the proposition calls for a new two-thirds majority vote of the public to do any such thing.

Most of PG&E's millions are being funneled through a series of phony "concerned citizens" committees via high-priced public relations firms, along with testimony by bought and paid political hucksters such as former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., (click here for a sick-making photo and article at SFGate by David R. Baker). In Marin County, it's politician Joe Nation who is trying to stop community choice aggregation from occurring, though he may be too late.

The bad corporate citizen behavior is so egregious that San Francisco County, along with a number of other small community utilities, filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court on Thursday the 18th to stop the proposition altogether because its language is so misleading (click here for an SFGate article by Bob Egelko). The corporation has been labeling the proposition as "The Voters' Right to Choose" rather than "The Voters' Right to Get Screwed by a Corporate Shell for Rich People." It would be instructive to know the names of PG&E's largest shareholders so we could determine exactly who is out to profit off their neighbors in such a criminal fashion. I'm sure Willie Brown, Jr. knows most of them personally.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Censeless Universe

The U.S. Census Bureau certainly has spent a lot of money getting the word about its once-a-decade operation this year, with promotional materials in just about every known language and a presence at all the ethnic festivals in San Francisco, including the St. Patrick's Day Parade last Saturday.

One of their national ad campaigns, however, is unintentionally ironic in the context of San Francisco. "If we don't know how many people we have, how do we know how many buses we need?" reads a huge billboard on the side of every other Muni bus these days.

This sounds as if the MTA (Municipal Transportation Agency) actually cares about its ridership and crowded buses, which as any Muni rider knows is a cruel fiction. In fact, the agency has just proposed yet another reduction in services along with another raise in fares after instituting the same counterintuitive policies just a few months ago. "How do we know how many buses we need?" seems to have less to do with actual ridership than how much money can be milked for six figure management salaries and multi-million "work orders" for other city departments such as the police. These ads are a perfect illustration of adding insult to injury.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

San Francisco St. Paddy's Day Parade

I was crossing Polk Street in front of City Hall around noon on Saturday, making a quick dash in between St. Patrick's Day parade contingents, when I realized I was shoulder to shoulder with somebody else doing the same thing.

Turning to my right, I realized the somebody else was Mayor Gavin Newsom, and he wasn't even accompanied by his usual crew of bodyguards and personal handlers.

Though he's of Irish American ancestry and is currently running for California Lieutenant Governor, he explained to somebody why he wasn't in the parade: "I'm working really hard on the budget right now, bro." Yes, he really said "bro."

Then he posed for a few pictures with babies and babes in the crowd.

According to the ever reliable Beth Spotswood, he was just stopping by to introduce Sheriff Hennessey to the crowd with "It's Hennessey Time!" before returning to his office to make yet another dreadful YouTube video. (Beth gives this latest effort a B-.)

Marching in the parade, however, were San Francisco Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi (above), walking by his car...

...and Supervisor Bevan Dufty who looked more like Pee Wee Herman than ever (hat tip to h. brown) in his phalanx of balloons.

It was Supervisor Sean Elsbernd who looked the most relaxed and comfortable. Maybe it was because he was finally amongst his own people instead of those "progressives" on the Board of Supervisors.

The most pleasant aspect of the annual event are the kids marching and watching.

They seem to enjoy themselves immensely.

I have always thought the best day possible to commit a major crime in San Francisco, particularly arson, would be during the Saint Patrick's Day Parade.

Seemingly every uniformed public safety official in the city marches in the event and many of them continue afterwards to the Temple Bar a couple of blocks up Polk Street.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Pearls Under Shanghai

The Asian Art Museum recently opened a new exhibit about Shanghai's history over the last 150 years, and the reviews have been unkind, with most of them calling the exhibit an unfocused mess. It was definitely misconceived.

Think of a curator attempting to encompass the last 150 years of history in New York City, for instance, in four small rooms containing a selection of sculptures, paintings, furniture, clothing and signage, and you'll appreciate the absurdity.

The most powerful, and disturbing, aspect of the exhibit consists of maps showing the "foreign settlements" in the heart of the city that were imposed upon the Chinese in the 1840s after the Opium Wars by the British. These autonomous French, American and English enclaves lasted until the the Japanese invasion of World War Two chased them out, and the Communists never allowed for their return.

As Nancy Ewart points out in a post on the exhibit, "By the time Shanghai became a treaty port, it was the brothel capital of the world. One in every 130 women in Shanghai were prostitutes, making Shanghai also the V.D. capital of the world."

"Pearls Over Shanghai," the Thrillpeddlers' outrageously successful revival of the Cockettes musical extravaganza, is closer to reality than I ever imagined.

It is certainly closer to some kind of truth than the sanitized display of party dresses and magazine cover girls at the Asian Art Museum.

"Pearls over Shanghai" has been extended at least three times since I wrote about the show last October, and is currently slated to run through April 24th. Don't miss it or you'll be having to hear about the production secondhand from friends for the rest of your life. After a hiatus to produce another Cockettes revival, the Thrillpeddlers also plan to bring the show back next summer.

If the Asian Art Museum is smart, they would offer free admission to "Pearls Over Shanghai" ticketholders, because the exhibit and the drag musical about Shanghai brothels, opium dens, and white slavery are strangely complementary. There is also some fascinating art in the museum exhibit, though "Pearls Over Shanghai" definitely trumps them in the costume department.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings at NCCO

The New Century Chamber Orchestra, under their energetic new music director, the violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, gave a wonderful concert called "Serenades and Dances" that toured to four different spots around the Bay Area last week. Lisa Hirsch published an alert on Friday at the "Iron Tongue of Midnight" that the performance of Benjamin Britten's "Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings" was "stunningly great" so I snagged a pair of press tickets for the Saturday evening performance at Herbst Theatre. Happily, Lisa was right.

The first half of the concert was highlighted by that beautiful perennial staple of classical radio stations, Dvorak's 1875 "Serenade for Strings," which sounded less bland and pasteurized than usual because you could actually hear the various parts working with and against each other in the 20-member chamber orchestra.

Of all the composers with whom I've shared the planet on a contemporary basis, Benjamin Britten is definitely my favorite. (He died in 1976 at the age of 63.) Britten was one of those freaks of nature who were born musically gifted on the order of a Mozart. He grew up in middle-class England, became a pacifist in his youth while hanging out with best friends novelist Christopher Isherwood and poet W.H. Auden, and eventually coupled up romantically with a tenor who nobody though would amount to much named Peter Pears (pronounced "peers"). Britten and Pears ended up forming a creative partnership which has probably never been equaled in musical history, and fortunately for all of us the two of them recorded everything upon which they collaborated. There's a major role for Pears in all of Britten's great operas, from "Peter Grimes" to old Aschenbach in "Death in Venice" thirty years later. The two even collaborated on the reduction of Shakespeare for the opera "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which is a wonder.

In 1939, friends and roommates but not yet lovers, the two got on a boat for North America with World War Two looming in Europe, and they spent the next three years roaming America. The two fell in love and "consummated" the relationship in Grand Rapids, Michigan of all places (click here for a funny post on the subject with photo by the concert pianist Stephen Hough). However, they became homesick and heartsick, and returned to England in 1942, a homosexual pacifist couple in the middle of WWII.

They not only survived but thrived, and Britten wrote a pastoral song cycle to six English poems that focus on hunting horns, twilight, and death, with William Blake's "Elegy" to a dying rose as the sinister centerpiece. It's one of the most perfect pieces of music ever written, and reminds me of a quote from a letter Britten wrote to a friend after listening to "Das Lied von Erde" by Mahler. "It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness & of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment & never-satisfied love."

There are still too few performances of Britten's music, though it is aging brilliantly and more people with each decade are realizing how great a musician the world was given. For instance, I've never heard the "Serenade" before live, and the performance on Saturday night was overwhelming, with me dissolved into a teary mess about thirty seconds into the solo horn prologue. The local Kevin Rivard (above), who plays in the San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestras was the soloist, and he gave one of the greatest, most sensitive renditions imaginable. There were even a few glitches in all the perfection which paradoxically made the performance even better. The tenor Brian Thorsett wasn't in quite the same league, but he crooned beautifully in the high regions and worked together beautifully with Rivard in what is essentially a duet for horn and tenor. The third voice, the strings, were astonishing, and the sum of the parts created serious magic.

As an apertif, the orchestra played a few Romanian Folk Dances by Bartok, who is another 20th century composer whose music is sounding better with each passing year. There was a funny moment after the Maruntel movement when the audience couldn't contain themselves and started applauding between movements, though tentatively, and Nadja turned around and said, "It's okay. The piece is over," so the audience roared happily.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Day of Action in San Francisco

At about 5PM yesterday afternoon, the 47 Muni bus ran into a huge march turning the corner from Market Street onto Van Ness as the protesters made their way to City Hall.

The march had started two hours earlier at 24th and Mission Streets as part of a larger series of protests across California about spending cuts in education at all levels.

I jumped off the bus and joined the marchers as they made their way up Van Ness.

The group of about 10,000 was a cheerful, charming crowd of all ages and races...

...with plenty of kids who looked excited and happy to be walking up the main streets of San Francisco carrying signs and chanting slogans.

As Jan Adams explains in her inside account of the march at "Happening-Here," it really is all about the money, and whether more affluent white folks in California want to pay for less affluent non-white folks' public education.

The signs aren't particularly encouraging.

There was a big rally in Civic Center Plaza in front of City Hall with a band and politicians and so on, but in truth the protest should have been directed at the California State Building on the other side of the street. City Hall, in fact, was filled with busy catering staff getting ready for an expensive corporate party in the rotunda that evening. Draw your own ironies.