Monday, January 31, 2011

Patriot Hustler vs. PG&E

Last Tuesday, in front of the California Public Utilities Commission headquarters on Van Ness and McAllister, there was a day-long protest by air-conditioning and duct laborers whose contract had been abruptly canceled by Pacific Gas & Electric a couple of weeks ago.

Anthony Winkler (above) explained, "You know that 2% 'green and energy savings' fee you see on the bottom of your PG&E bill? That was for programs to increase energy efficiency, such as putting in new ducts and air-conditioning systems in the Fresno Unified School District. We just finished that job and it's going to increase energy efficiency by about 30%, and there's no way you can get that kind of savings in any other way. But PG&E has decided not to fund the program anymore, even though they are still going to be charging you that 2%."

I don't know the truth of that statement, but I'd be more willing to believe Mr. Winkler than any PG&E spokesperson, since lying seems to be their default setting these days, as witnessed by the recent fatal San Bruno explosion and its continuing cover-ups. The California PUC is probably not going to be any help either, since the regulators and the regulated are so incestuously intertwined, as witnessed by the grotesquely improper "appreciation" dinner last Thursday in San Francisco for a "Friends of CPUC" group that was shaking down utility companies for donations.

The really interesting thing about the protest was that it was part of a group led by Eddie Roche, a self-mythologizing former Marine who bought a house in Inglewood (South Central L.A.), and started an air-conditioning class for the gang-bangers in the neighborhood that's been an inspirational success. That's his Patriot Hustler bus above, and you can get to Eddie's extraordinarily entertaining website filled with fascinating videos by clicking here.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

More Noir at The Castro

The weather has been too lovely and balmy this week for the 9th Noir City Film Festival at the Castro Theater, but this weekend has returned to wintry gloom which is perfect for these dark films. On the final Sunday tomorrow, the festival will be showing "Angel Face," a 1952 Preminger film starring Jean Simmons as a sexy and creepy LA heiress. According to the program notes, Jean-Luc Godard called this movie "one of the ten best ever made in Hollywood," and if it's good enough for Jean-Luc, it's good enough for me.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Old Testament Kiddie Concert at the Symphony

This week's San Francisco Symphony concerts are bookended by a couple of pieces that often show up on classical concerts for kids, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," by Paul Dukas and Prokofiev's "Classical" First Symphony. They were conducted by Saint Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson (above left) and played quite beautifully.

After the 1897 "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," which was taken from a Goethe poem of all things and later used in Disney's "Fantasia" featuring Mickey Mouse, they played Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto with the Greek virtuoso Leonidas Kavakos (above) as soloist. The 1935 concerto is a bit of an odd duck, with the first two movements straining for conventional lyricism like the "Romeo and Juliet" ballet, while the last movement sounds like early, spikey, bad-boy Prokofiev. I like both sides of the composer, but in this performance nothing seemed to mesh very well, and I couldn't tell if it was the performers or the piece itself which I had never heard before.

After the intermission, there was a world premiere by Avner Dorman (above), a young Israeli-born, Los Angeles-based composer who is the flavor of the moment, receiving commissions from orchestras all over the world these days.

The piece was a short, continuous five-movement tone poem called "Uriah: The Man The King Wanted Dead" about King David's general who was left to die on the battlefield by his own troops on the orders of David, so the latter could marry Uriah's beautiful wife Bathsheba. I have a Catholic friend who refers to the god of the Old Testament as "that psychopathic serial killer," and this bible tale is yet another cautionary story of leaders behaving badly.

Unfortunately, the music sounded awfully generic, with "Andante Indignato" being a loud expression of An Angry God; "Lento in the Desert" a soft, disposable reverie; "Presto barbaro" an amusingly exciting war scene proving that the battles are usually the most interesting sections of anti-war pieces; "The Song of the Angels" which was over almost before it began; and an "Epilogue" which Dorman explained was his reaction to the story (it didn't seem to make him happy). As Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out this morning, this brand new piece of music was upstaged in every regard by "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" earlier in the evening.

Though it's hideously overplayed on classical radio music stations, I don't think I've ever heard Prokofiev's First Symphony live before, and it was a treat. The elderly lady sitting in front of us was bobbing so energetically to its rhythms that I thought she might actually get up and dance.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pirate Radio: The Destruction of KUSF

A round of musical chairs among radio stations has just occurred in San Francisco, and the results are looking to be disastrous for the 30-year-old-plus public access station, KUSF 90.3 FM. The abrupt, unannounced closure of the station by University of San Francisco deputies on January 18th came as a complete shock to its announcers and listeners, and the outrage has been mushrooming ever since.

The story begins with the Pennsylvania-based Entercom Communications Corporation, the fifth largest radio conglomerate in the country, buying the commercial classical music station KDFC-FM 102.1 in 2007. They also own "Classic Rock" KFOX in San Jose, so now 102.1's strong signal is being used as a repeater for the San Jose station, creating a Bay Area Classic Rock superstation.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based KUSC, a classical radio "public" station on the NPR/KQED donations model, has been creating a larger network for their brand, and they have bought the call letters KDFC, along with the broadcasting transmission rights from FM signals KNDL 89.9 and USF's 90.3. The price for the latter, payable to the University of San Francisco, was $3.8 million. In terms of broadcasting power, KUSF 90.3 has always been a small community station, beloved by neighborhoods in the Inner Richmond, Sunset, Haight and wherever else the radio waves would stray.

Most Bay Area classical music fans I know aren't going to be shedding any tears for the demise of the current version of KDFC 102.1, with its years of timid musical selections that started to sound like Baroque Muzak Wallpaper. There are going to be plenty of people missing the broadcasting power of the station, though, particularly in Marin and the Peninsula where there's no classical music station anymore. (Update: Click here for a FAQ page from KDFC telling you how to tune in the station.) Thank goodness my dentist's office is just down the street from USF, since KDFC plays all day there on account of its "calming" properties during drilling.

The supporters of the old KUSF, meanwhile, are horrified and angry. Yesterday, protestors showed up at City Hall's Tuesday board meeting to speak in support of a "non-binding resolution" by Supervisors Mirkarimi and Mar asking for the Jesuit-run USF to change its mind, though there is probably a better chance that hell will freeze over. There was a meeting between the community and the USF administration last week, well recounted in a Bay Guardian article by Johnny Ray Huston and Carly Nairn, where Father Stephen A. Privett, the president of the university, basically dismissed them and their station, saying they weren't important to "our core mission to offer the highest-quality Jesuit education to our students."

In a tone-deaf op-ed he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, Privett continued:
"It is true that USF was unable to give prior notice of the sale. This was part of our legal agreement with the new owners. We did not intend to cause hard feelings with those who believe they had a right to be informed beforehand, but we were obliged to follow this part of the contract. On Tuesday, we closed the station for engineering and other changes necessary to make the transition. In doing so, we took a number of reasonable and timely security measures. We believe these were appropriate and regret if any individuals were inconvenienced in that process."
In other words, having deputies throw you out of a station in the middle of broadcasting a show while having the airwaves go dark for all its listeners is now an "inconvenience."

KUSF specialized in music that mainstream rock stations wouldn't play with a focus on local bands, and were a key node in a whole ecosystem of live music venues and musicians dependent upon the station for exposure. As the articulate DJ above put it, "When I was at the South by Southwest festival recently, somebody told me that KUSF was the most perfect microcosm of San Francisco that ever existed. It's a jewel and a symbol of who we are. You wouldn't let some individual decide to get rid of the cable cars on their own whim, so why should you let somebody destroy this treasure?"

Supervisor Mar brought up the fact that it's one of the few radio stations with Chinese-language programs, and indeed KUSF broadcasted in nine different languages, and played all kinds of music, including classical. In fact, KUSF picked up the live Metropolitan Opera broadcasts when KDFC management decided their audiences weren't sophisticated enough to listen to opera once a week.

Though this is probably a done deal, the fight to save this institution is worth joining. Here are a few websites with updates on the organizing efforts and attempts to sway the Federal Communications Commission to deny this sale.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bare Chest Judges Training

On 10th Street between Mission and Howard there is an old brick building...

...that hosts a large scooter store on the ground floor...

...and a trio of nonprofits on the top floors.

I am assuming that the hilarious bit of signage above refers to being trained how to judge bare male chests rather than female, but in San Francisco one should never assume anything until it's proven one way or another.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ensemble Parallèle's Orphée Preview

Baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, above, is singing the title role in Philip Glass' opera Orphée next month at Herbst Theatre, a role he's reprising a decade after starring in the 2001 European premiere in Salzburg. This operatic version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth is literally taken from the screenplay of the 1950 Jean Cocteau art film, which starred his lover Jean Marais (below).

Last week, Brancoveanu joined conductor Nicole Paiement and director Brian Staufenbiel, along with three other singers (John Duykers, Susannah Biller, and Brooke Muñoz) from an upcoming San Francisco production by Ensemble Parallèle for a musical and dramatic preview of the opera.

I watched the movie for the first time last week, and was happily surprised at how genuinely poetic the film is, and how well it's holding up to the test of time, even (or especially) with its primitive Surrealist special effects. What seems particularly audacious on Philip Glass' part is that the film already has an exquisite score by the great Georges Auric, one of "Les Six," who wrote movie music for four decades, from all of Cocteau's films to "Roman Holiday" and "Moulin Rouge." Glass' score is up to the challenge, though, and is one of his lovelier pieces, as a recent recording by the Portland Opera demonstrates. Unlike the Auric score, which is dark and moody when it's not going wild with bongo drums, Glass sounds like he's channeling Nino Rota in one of his jollier moods. This bodes well for Staufenbiel's vision of the Underworld as a Circus, whereas in the film the Underworld took place in recently bombed buildings from World War Two.

Ensemble Parallèle is an adventurous chamber opera group that has had two major successes at Yerba Buena Center recently with Lou Harrison's "Young Caesar" and a reduced-orchestra version of Berg's "Wozzeck." It should be interesting seeing what they come up with this time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Noir City Film Festival 2011

Among the many film festivals in San Francisco every year, the Noir City Film Festival is easily the best for a number of reasons. First, the admission is cheap, $10 for a double bill.

Plus, the 1922 Castro Theater has the perfect large screen in the proper aspect ratio for vintage films. This is one of the few places in the world that you can see old movie stars and films in their original glory, projected with 35 millimeter film, often with newly restored prints commissioned by the festival's Noir Foundation.

The festival also creates a community, with film noir fanatics from all points on the globe traveling to San Francisco every winter, buying a $100 Passport to all twelve double-bills, and camping out for a fortnight at the Castro Theater.

Eddie Muller (above right, with Miss Noir City 9), is the founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation and its festival. He opened the evening with a reminder that the sold-out house of 1,400+ had actually paid for the restoration of the 1947 "High Wall," the opening night movie. Set largely in a mental institution where World War Two vet Robert Taylor has been sent for observation after he may or may not have murdered his two-timing wife, the film is part of this year's theme, "Who's Crazy Now?" The 24 films in this edition are about "Noir City's most damaged and disturbed denizens. Here you’ll find all kinds of crazy––born crazy, driven crazy, and not as crazy as they seem," according to the program notes.

Eddie also told about going to a memorial service that afternoon in Marin County for Joe Gores, the recently deceased Bay Area crime writer who was an authority on Dashiell Hammett. "I was reminded why I left the Catholic church years ago," Muller explained. "Here was a priest talking for 45 minutes about Joe Gores, who died 50 years to the day after Dashiell Hammett, and in that entire 45 minutes he didn't once mention that Joe was a writer. That's insane. So let me dedicate this film festival to Joe's memory, because writing was his art, and this is our church where his art is worshiped and celebrated."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Silicon Valley Underworld

At 6:30 AM on Martin Luther King, Jr. Monday, there was an announcement over the speaker system on my southbound Caltrain, "There has been a fatality on the tracks and we'll be delayed anywhere from thirty to ninety minutes." The small, sleepy-eyed group on the train looked at each other, and then at the lonely, dark and foggy San Bruno rail stop outside. We all decided to wait it out.

It seems that every time I have worked on a project-based temp job in Silicon Valley over the last 10 years, somebody decides to jump in front of a Caltrain locomotive and end their life. You would think that the Caltrain transportation organization would have a Plan B for that eventuality, since it seems to happen so often, but no. Chaos and "SamTrans bus bridges" and trains going backwards slowly to a nearby station all seem to be part of the mix, and for two hours, it feels like a third-world country in the 19th century.

This state of affairs is particularly bizarre since Caltrain is the main public transportation hub of the suburban Peninsula region, which makes up Silicon Valley, one of the most futuristic hives of mind and capital the world has ever seen. It's a very strange place, though, where most of the people appear oddly denatured in a "Childhood's End" kind of way.

The real joy of this latest job was walking from the Belmont Caltrain station at sunrise to work, usually being the only pedestrian for miles. I would walk through a small commercial district, over the 101 freeway overpass, and then along the sidewalk that abuts the Oracle campus lagoon, with the trees above framing the walkway.

On foggy mornings like last Monday and Tuesday, particularly after the public suicide drama, it felt like one was walking through the underworld, nearer to the land of death than life.

Howard from 10 to 5

For the first time in years, we walked on Howard Street downtown South of Market from 10th Street to 5th Street, and ran across a number of architectural beauties and horrors...

...including the new loft complex at 1234 Howard, with its stylish metal facade masking a parking garage on the ground floor.

Next door at 1230 Howard is the headquarters for Conscious Youth Media Crew, a nonprofit name that practically screams San Francisco Bay Area.

Further down Howard, there's an enchanting mural...

...not far from a beautiful old factory building...

...and the empty Hugo Hotel with its defenestration sculptures at Sixth and Howard.

Looming over the entire walk was the new Intercontinental Hotel at Fifth, which from the outside reminds one of an Indian casino in the desert somewhere.

Though the interior looks rather more like a W hotel lobby, it still wouldn't have been surprising to hear the ka-ching sounds of slot machines somewhere in the distance.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Support for The Tiger

Thank you to all those readers and friends who voted online for Tiger (above) in his recent foray as a television reality star on "Golf's Most Amazing Videos," a grotesquely cheesy show on the Golf Channel. Special thanks go to Matthew Hubbard in Oakland for urging his readers to join the madness. The eventual winner of the $5,000 grand prize was essentially the Bristol Palin of the four finalists, and probably stuffed the electronic ballot box, but it doesn't matter. Tiger is a true star, and above such petty concerns.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Live To Give Graffiti

A strange, convoluted graffiti has suddenly appeared on light poles throughout the Civic Center.

The hasty scrawl features "LIVE To GIVE" on the left and "GIVE TO LIVE" on the right bracketing "1 = WHAT YOU DO [divided by] TIME." This is followed by a list of "1=you, 1=me, 1=us, 1=All, 1=GOD Any Time All The Time."

Checking around the internet, there seem to be quite a few organizations using some variation of "Live To Give/Give to Live" in their marketing slogans, from a Dearborn, Michigan internet charity, to a fundraising bike ride from Vancouver, BC to Austin Texas... New Age hucksters Dr. Rick Barrett and Dr. Joe Vitale with their book "Give to Live: The Real Secret to Manifesting Life's Rewards."

My bet, though, is on a Christian cult founded in Boston in the 1960s called the International Churches of Christ, which focuses on evangelizing in college campuses and among youth groups. (Click here for a "Cult Alert!" about the organization.)

The logo for their third annual International Conference for Youth & Family Ministry, to be held in Los Angeles this April, can be seen above. Muslim extremists in America are not particularly worrying. It is the strange, splintered Christian sects all over this nation that have always struck me as toxic, with their paranoid, apocalyptic theologies uneasily allied to a deeply repressive Old Testament morality.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Friday at the Symphony con Amigos

I went to the first San Francisco Symphony concert of the year last week and was a dull boy. The concert first attracted me because they were playing an "Elegie" by the contemporary Ukranian composer Valentin Silvestrov, whose music is reportedly powerful and depressing. In the event, it was only six minutes long with a chamber-sized string orchestra, which felt like a total cheat, particularly since the young guest conductor Kirill Karabits (below) is a Ukranian compatriot who knows the composer.

This was followed by Helene Grimaud (above) playing the Schumann piano concerto, which wasn't particularly enjoyable because I was suppressing a hideous cough during the whole piece and feeling close to choking on my own phlegm. Since Ms. Grimaud was a complete goddess playing Bartok's 3rd piano concerto a couple of years ago here, the only conclusion is that the fault was mine.

The real joy of the concert was stumbling across online buddies all evening, including Patrick the claustrophic poet, Cedric the French philosopher, Terrance the Quentin Crispy aesthete, and the ineffable Opera Tattler who confessed that she had recently moved from Civic Center to Alameda. This news put us all into a state of sad shock.

Kirill Karabits (above), looking like an Eastern European version of Justin Timberlake, conducted Rachmaninoff's last major piece, the "Symphonic Dances," which was totally agreeable schlock, but really, Silvestrov has written seven symphonies. Bring one of those next time instead and the cognoscenti will give you some real cheers.