Sunday, May 30, 2010

Theatre Bay Area Conference

On a Monday earlier this month, people were walking in and out of the Veterans Building at Van Ness and McAllister with odd looking nametags around their necks. It turned out they were part of an all-day conference for theatre administrators put on by an umbrella group called Theatre Bay Area, with keynote speeches and breakout sessions all over the building.

This year's conference was entitled "LIGHTS UP: Sparking Conversations on Excellence." According to Executive Director Brad Erickson's program note, "...we've been wrestling with this word [excellence], which has surprised us with its obviousness and its novelty. It's a word that came up unexpectedly during the past few months and a word that elicits strong reactions -- personal, immediate and often emotional. Love it, revile it, the word is compelling."

About the only way for most artists to make a living in the arts in the Bay Area is to work on the admistrative and "development" side of things. Beth Spotswood, above, is a brilliant comic writer who should probably be in New York being nicely paid for her mad skills, but instead she works as Associate Producer & Development Director of the Mountain Play operation, an annual outdoor Broadway musical extravaganza on top of Marin County's Mount Tamalpais.

We snuck into the back of a room for a breakout session called "You've Seen Me Online: Advancing Your Career Through New Media," which struck us both as pretty lame, but Beth told me the whole point of the day was to meet up with old colleagues and friends which helps to recharge batteries. Beth introduced her boss, Mountain Play Executive Director Sara Pearson (above left), who was charming and feeling frazzled by the upcoming opening of "Guys and Dolls."

Another breakout session was called "Adapt or Die: Challenging Core Assumptions in the Field" with a panel that included Ron Ragin (above right) from the Hewlett Foundation and Adam Fong (above left), the Associate Director of Other Minds, a contemporary music group. Adam is a composer and one of the smartest people I've ever met, an attribute he demonstrated with his "core assumptions" remarks at the panel.

When asked for his take on the conference, he emailed:

"I realized just how difficult it must be to moderate a panel -- many of the ones I saw had great potential, but the moderators didn't seem to build the group towards anything in particular, ask insightful questions, or nimbly respond to something that was said. In one instance, Deborah Cullinan from Intersection for the Arts was on a panel with Jonathan Moscone from California Shakespeare Theater and they mostly talked about their collaborative program, even though the panel was supposed to be about "new models." So maybe the programmers of the day were very ambitious, and only parts of that rubbed off on the panelists and presenters.

About the "networking" though... I got more of a "re-uniting" vibe than a "dealmaking" vibe. By contrast, yesterday's SF Music Tech conference was full of entrepreneurs eager to do business and find leads. This might simply be reflective of the non-profit arts sector as a whole, though: there seems to be less ambition, less moving around between jobs, less "dealing" and "competition" so events like the conference at the War Memorial are more about bringing people together for their own sake, than for creating something new or inciting progress."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Petanque in Civic Center Plaza

The central section of Civic Center Plaza used to feature a long, rectangular fountain which was eventually replaced by a lawn. Since the Slow Food Nation extravaganza last summer when the lawn was torn out for a "victory garden," the area has been packed dirt which isn't very inviting to anyone.

The other day a quartet of young people finally figured out a brilliant use for the long, dirt strip which now ends with the monumental six arms, three heads Buddha statue.

They were playing "Petanque," a French version of bocce ball using metallic "boules."

As the Petanque America website relates,

"Whereas official 'bocce' rules call for a smooth, prepared court with markers and sideboards, petanque can be played on most outdoor surfaces, without any setup. No special skill is required, adults can play with children, and the equipment is inexpensive."

"The game of petanque is simple, relaxing, lots of fun, and a perfect way to make new friends. Last but not least, petanque can be - and usually is - played while enjoying a cool drink (the French will often go for pastis) and tasty snacks."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Stravinsky, Bernstein and Ravel at the SF Symphony

Last week's program at the San Francisco Symphony was to have included Stravinsky's rarely-heard 1958 "Threni: Lamentations of Jeremiah," a foray into forbidding twelve-tone music for six vocal soloists, chorus and orchestra. Thanks to Homeland Security's absurd new restrictions on foreigners, though, the visas for the British soloists didn't come through in time so there was a last-minute program replacement, a short funeral ode for Natalie Koussevitzky by Stravinsky and one of Leonard Bernstein's attempts at "serious" music, the 1965 "Chichester Psalms" for chorus, soloists, and orchestra.

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas took to the microphone and expressed how disappointed he was in not being able to perform "Threni," but said he was performing Stravinsky's "Ode" instead which had never been played in San Francisco before. He gave a graceful speech about Natalie, Serge Koussevitzy's extremely wealthy second wife, "who took a humble Russian Jewish bass player and enabled him to not only become an orchestra conductor but who urged him to commission contemporary composers." This resulted in everything from Ravel's Piano Concerto to Britten's "Peter Grimes" to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

The performance was lovely as was Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," which sounded almost a bit too sweet after the astringency of Stravinsky. There's an interesting essay by composer John Adams about Bernstein where he expresses his distaste for "Chichester," but I enjoyed it immensely even though it doesn't get close to the mastery of Benjamin Britten's similar church music from the same period.

The real highlight of the performance was the boy soprano, Zachary Weisberg (above left), who has sung a number of bit parts at the San Francisco Opera over the last couple of years. Davies Hall is a huge barn for any vocal soloist to project in, so I expected Weisberg's voice to be small and sweet but instead he filled the entire place. It's a good (or bad) thing that Weisberg didn't live in earlier centuries, because a boy soprano voice like that would have been at risk for being made permanent.

The second half of the concert was "Daphnis et Chloe," Ravel's 1912 score for Diaghalev's Ballets Russes. There are a pair of famous suites taken from the whole ballet, but this concert was the entire hour-long event.

The composer ended up furious with Diaghelev because he omitted the wordless chorus while on tour in London, and Ravel's anger is undertandable because the choral music is so great. However, there's also a reason this ballet about shepherds and shepherdesses and pirates has been relegated to the concert hall, which is the insane expense for a ballet company to mount it with the huge orchestra and chorus intact.

There were moments during the performance last week when I wished for a few beautiful ballet bodies to be hurtling themselves through the air onstage, but the performance by the orchestra and chorus was wonderful. (Click here for a gallic review by Cedric, above, at SFist.)

Friday, May 21, 2010

The San Francisco Botanical Garden Controversy

Next door to the Hall of Flowers building in Golden Gate Park, near 9th Avenue and Lincoln, is the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum, a place I had never visited in my 35 years in San Francisco.

The 55-acre garden has been much in the news lately because the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department are facing a 12 million dollar budget deficit this year and are looking for any way they can to raise funds.

They proposed an entrance fee for the garden last year, but the attempt was beaten back by a dedicated consortium of neighbors and lovers of the garden, so this year they have tried to wedge in an admission fee of $7 for adults if they live outside of San Francisco.

The department is being supported in this new fee increase by a combination of union organizers who want to keep revenue coming in to pay their members and the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society, a "Friends of" group that acts as if they own the public space and would rather the peasants not come in unless they pay or are invited.

Recently, the Society has been paying $10,000 a month for a political lobbyist while pleading poverty when it comes to helping out with operating funds.

The Inner Sunset neighborhood is again up in arms about the proposal, as are quite a few other San Franciscans who are horrified by the creeping privatization of public facilities that we see all around us.

It wasn't that long ago that the Golden Gate Park's Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Garden were also free of charge to the public, but those days feel like ancient history.

The passions on both sides have been raised to fever pitch as the issue seems to resonate far beyond the simple fate of the Botanical Garden.

On Wednesday afternoon, there was a hearing at the Budget and Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors, where an uptick in the Coit Tower elevator fee was also proposed, and for hours citizens from the Society and those on the other side spoke quite eloquently about their vision of the garden and its place in the public commons.

Phil Ginsburg (above), The Rec & Park General Manager, testified for hours and kept pulling figures out of his ass about projected revenue from the proposed fee which were convincingly disputed by opposition commenters who had completed their own surveys. Rather like the Muni fare inspectors whose salaries are higher than the actual revenue they take in, the new fee will probably be eaten up by the overhead required to collect and audit it, and the visitor numbers will probably go down dramatically.

Supervisors Elsbernd, Avalos and Mirkarimi came up with a couple of amendments before voting to pass the measure on to the full Board of Supervisors next Tuesday. Those amendments asked for a sunset clause for the fee after a year if other revenue magically pops up, and another sunset clause if the $250,000 annual revenue figure that Rec & Park is claiming they will collect turns out to be so much hot air.

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Needing a place to pee while at the Inner Sunset Street Fair on Saturday, I walked to the nearby Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park which was hosting a free Antique Paper Show.

This set off visions of ancient papyrus and Elizabethan folio paper, but in truth it was mostly a chance for people to buy and sell vintage postcards, sheet music, posters, and magazines.

My dead friend Steven Greengard ran the California Book Auction house for the grotesquely rich Bernard Osher for a year when that plutocrat owned Butterfield and Butterfield, and Steven mentioned one day that their next auction was going to be of "Western ephemera."

When asked what the hell "ephemera" was, he explained that there were avid collectors for just about everything that was paper-based in the world, from 19th century railway tickets to Wanted posters to personal correspondence. This provoked frightening visions of hoarders with precious pieces of scrap paper everywhere in their lives, but to each their own passion.

By the way, the Hall of Flowers bathrooms are quite nice by Golden Gate Park standards.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The First Inner Sunset Street Fair

I left sunny Civic Center Saturday afternoon for the freezing fog of the Inner Sunset District to campaign for Michael Nava who is running for Superior Court Judge this June. Of course, the first person I encountered was the sitting judge who Nava is attempting to unseat, Richard Ulmer (above right).

District 5 Supervisor Mirkarimi, at the microphone above, was cheering on the neighbors whose biggest cause right now seems to be keeping the nearby Botanical Garden free from a proposed admission fee by San Francisco's larcenous, mismanaged Recreation & Park Department in conjunction with the private San Francisco Botanical Garden Society.

The First Annual Inner Sunset Street Fair was a modest, lightly attended, two-block affair on Irving and 10th Avenues, and besides the miserable weather, there were plenty of charms...

...including musical acts...

...lots of massage tables offering services like free "Brain Clearing"...

...and a booth devoted to "Local Authors"...

...such as writer, historian and interpreter Frederik Schodt (above), an authority on Japanese manga who translated some of the Astro Boy series for the legendary Tezuka Osamu.

Next to him was Steven Winn, the longtime San Francisco Chronicle arts writer, who left the paper in 2008 but continues to freelance for them.

He was hawking a book about the dog his family adopted who hated him, which actually sounds interesting.

Also holding court was N-Judah Chronicles publisher Greg Dewar (above)...

...and our group repaired to his local pub, the Blackthorn Tavern, to "warm up."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Muni's Unreliable Oracle

The underground Muni Metro station at Civic Center is newly equipped with large flat screens that helpfully display maps and arrival times for inbound and outbound trains from various lines. However, they also feature a prominent warning, "Predictions may not be valid." On Saturday afternoon, that turned out to be a blessing, as it said the next N-Judah Outbound would be arriving in 16 minutes.

One minute later, the N-Judah Outbound display changed to 5 minutes, and the train actually showed up about three minutes later. Is this the deeply dysfunctional transportation agency's way of reminding us all that fate works in mysterious ways, and can never truly be predicted?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Asian Heritage Street Celebration 1: From Adobo to Anna Conda

The 6th Annual Asian Heritage Street Celebration took place on Larkin Street Saturday afternoon, stretching from the Asian Art Museum at Civic Center to Ellis Street four blocks north in Little Saigon.

The street fair was started by the Fang family, which published AsianWeek before that free rag folded recently. The original idea was to hold the event at a different location in San Francisco each year during May, which was named Asian Pacific Heritage Month back in 1990 during the first Bush presidency.

This was the first time that the festival stayed put at the same location "to build upon the same footprint from the prior year to improve the fair," as the program put it, and the strategy obviously worked because the turnout was lively, and the range of entertainment amusing.

The street food was also great, including the Philippine pork adobo with rice we had for lunch.

There were lots of health booths set up, offering everything from free AIDS tests to Hepatitis B screening, which is statistically off the charts in urban Asian American communities. There was also a colon cancer interactive display you could walk through, above and below, that may have been the most graphically disgusting street fair prop ever encountered.

I was passing out literature for Michael Nava's Superior Court Judge election and ran into another candidate, Glendon "Anna Conda" Hyde (below left, with his partner), the brilliant, leftist drag queen who is running for Supervisor in District 6.

Along with Jim Meko and Debra Walker, Anna Conda is definitely one of my three ranked-choice votes this June.