Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Lone Star Light

The usual crowd at the Lone Star Saloon's Saturday afternoon beer bust were no longer there this last weekend, either because they were doing their laundry or they had become clean and sober, moved away, joined other scenes, or died.

The small backyard with its tall windbreak was sunny late into the afternoon which at the end of a classically San Francisco fog-ridden summer made it a lovely place to drink beer in public.

Plus, the studious bartender could not have been more pleasant.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Weather Channel Flash Update

There were many incidental pleasures watching wall-to-wall Weather Channel coverage of Hurricane Irene this weekend: the multi-colored charts and graphs and spinning weather systems, the endless cliches, and of course the absurd sight of a reporter standing outside in a hurricane telling the public that they need to hunker down at home and stay out of the dangerous open air.

The weather reporter above, stationed in Virginia Beach on Saturday, was particularly plaintive, calling it "depressing" that nobody was listening to his on-air warnings of gloom and doom, and were instead driving their cars around to look at devastation. In the middle of his diatribe a trio of young men ran behind the reporter and one of them took his pants down and flashed the live Weather Channel feed. It was stupid, brilliant and hilarious all at once.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Systems Mural Project Arises

Commuting on Caltrain back from Silicon Valley last Wednesday, we passed a new loft development next to the downtown San Francisco station at 4th and Townsend.

The back of the development is a windowless, curving brown wall that stretches for 600 feet along the train tracks.

A long-delayed dream of painter and muralist Brian Barneclo started going up Tuesday morning on the wall...

...and judging from the illustrations on the Systems Mural Project website...

...this could easily be his masterpiece...

...following his huge breakthrough on the FoodsCo wall on Shotwell Street in the Mission (click here for a "Civic Center" account of that 2006 mural).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Alien Invaders Pour Concrete

A decade after the doubledecker freeway was torn down in the Hayes Valley, residential buildings are finally being erected as infill. Last Saturday an army of concrete trucks took over Franklin Street between McAllister and Golden Gate Avenue where they hooked up with a trio of concrete pourers that looked like a cross between the aliens in Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" and the monster spiders in Verhoeven's "Starship Troopers."

The day-long foundational concrete pouring wreaked havoc with traffic on the one-way Franklin Street, but it was fun to watch, rather like a concrete truck version of the Fred Levine classic for two-year-old boys, "Road Construction Ahead."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Critics on the grass alas

How pleasurable it is that the 1928 Stein/Thomson opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts," can still inspire both worship and outraged indignation. (Pictured above in the Ensemble Parallele production are left to right Michael Strickland, Heidi Moss, Eugene Brancoveanu, Charlie Lichtman, Joe Meyers and Maya Kherani.)

The longest, funniest, and best informed essay is by Patrick Vaz at Reverberate Hills where he coins the newly classic phrase:

"The St Ignatius of Eugene Brancoveanu...was particularly fine – vibrant and sensitive and pointed – in Pigeons on the grass, alas, which is the Nessun Dorma of avant-garde opera."
Also appreciating the recent production was composer and writer Charles Shere at Eastside View:
"It's one of the great operas not only of the 20th century but of any, and productions are rare, and this one is worth seeing."
(Pictured above are left to right Brendan Hartnett, Heidi Moss, Jonathan Smucker, and Eugene Brancoveanu.)

Two other writers were similarly amused by the production and the piece, Cedric at SFist and Charlise at The Opera Tattler. (Pictured above are Kalup Linzy and the ensemble in Luciano Chessa's prologue opera A Heavenly Act.)

Thankfully, it wasn't all kittens and roses. Joshua Kosman, the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, was "livid" after Sunday's performance, according to a friend sitting nearby. He starts his review with:
"Four Saints in Three Acts," the cloying little theatrical concoction by composer Virgil Thomson and librettist Gertrude Stein, is the grade-school pageant of the operatic repertoire. You don't so much attend to it - at least not if you're an adult - as pat it on the head, coo indulgently and wait for it to be over already."
And though he bends over backwards to be kind to some of the singers and the production, it's clear Mr. Kosman doesn't quite get Gertrude Stein and hates the simplistic sounding music. He's certainly not alone in that view, and in fact half the cast felt the same way going into rehearsals, but the opera has an amazing, powerful charm when you live with it every day. Forty-eight hours after the last performance and I am still dealing with all the lovely earworms that arrive unbidden in my brain. Patrick and Charles are right, it's a great piece.

(Pictured above are Michael Strickland and Michael Harvey about to fry Eugene Brancoveanu in the electric chair.) The great production rehearsal photos above are by Steve diBartolomeo.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Four Saints and a Cop in Three Acts

"To know to know to love her so" is the first line of Four Saints in Three Acts, the 1928 opera by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein. Getting to know the opera after two weeks of daily rehearsals with Ensemble Parallele and the director Brian Staufenbiel (above center) has fulfilled the predictive nature of that opening line. Hearing this opera sung repeatedly by a superb cast of a dozen singers over and over has been an immersive education and a joy.

We moved from our rehearsal space at SFMOMA to the surprisingly lavish Novellus Theatre at Yerba Buena Center across the street this week, and opened with a sold-out preview performance on Thursday evening and an official opening on Friday. (Left to right above, Brooke Munoz, Nicole Takesono, Joe Meyers, Eugene Brancoveanu, and Brendan Hartnett.)

The production design is about as far as can be from the cellophane original but it's elegant, beautiful and fits the piece perfectly. (Dancing the tango above are Eugene Brancoveanu with Heidi Moss, and Nicole Takesono with Joe Meyers.)

I am one of two evil supernumeraries (above left, with Mike Harvey on the right and Eugene Brancoveanu as Saint Ignatius in the center) who move furniture and singers around while occasionally playing a cop and a baliff and, during the tango, an Isadora Duncan dancing male couple. Yes, I am having too much fun.

The great production rehearsal photos above are by Steve diBartolomeo.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Violent Foreshadowing

Even by its usual meandering standards, Episode 20 of FotoTales managed to wander all over San Francisco, including a lovely afternoon at Lincoln Park Golf Course above. One section reminded me that we were getting close to Episode 23, which starts with Opening Night at the San Francisco Opera and ends with 9/11.

While I was doing this daily photo project back in 2001, I tried to stay away from the sensational unless it was right in front of my face. During the three weeks before September 11, 2001, I kept running into random violence, though, including a crazy bicyclist who bashed in the windows on a string of cars in front of my apartment on McAllister Street above.

I'm not sure if Episode 20 even aired correctly this evening at 7:30 PM because I was onstage and forgot to record it. The episode is archived at the Bay Area Video Coalition site, though, so click here if you're interested in checking it out.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Scenes From a BART Non-Riot

A pair of us were let out early from a "Four Saints in Three Acts" rehearsal at SFMOMA on Monday afternoon because there were reports of a riot and mayhem coming to the BART system at Civic Center Station, where a street drunk was gunned down by a BART policeman last month.

This prompted a protest in the Civic Center BART station a week ago that was raucous, disruptive and very theatrical, staged for a media swarm who were loving every minute of it while officially tsk-tsking the protestors.

Blowing up this tiny incident into an international news item was the unintended fault of BART spokesman Linton Johnson who came up with the bright idea to turn off all mobile device service in the station so the protestors couldn't communicate with each other digitally. This is the kind of action the United States has been officially condemning when it happens in Egypt and China and other occasionally authoritarian regimes.

The action also got the serious attention of the worldwide hacking community, and so Anonymous and its loosely allied group of friends online have started attacking the BART bureaucracy until they apologize and make it official policy that they will never pull something that authoritarian again.

Walking through the middle of United Nations Plaza, I saw a few young protestor types in red T-shirts and a few V for Vendetta masks and also saw a large, fairly relaxed crew of police sitting and standing, waiting for orders.

There were also tour buses gliding through which added to the surreal feeling.

By the time I got home at 5:30, the police and protestors started a cat-and-mouse game down Market Street and it was the police who shut the four downtown San Francisco stations for two hours, bringing on BART commuter hell. And it looks like the hackers are just getting started (click here for the latest from the Bay Citizen).

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sunday Streets in Civic Center

The San Francisco Sunday Streets program came to the Tenderloin and Civic Center neighborhoods this weekend and it seemed very lightly attended as the photo of Larkin Street below demonstrates.

I am not sure how closing down a section of city streets to car traffic for five hours every month in different parts of the city helps the environment and makes people healthier.

This is especially true when the event isn't all that well-publicized, causing huge traffic jams among the uninitiated, who are sent on detours by an army of traffic control officers, as you can see from the photo above of 9th Street.

Still, any excuse to take public urban space away from cars is okay in my book, and it brought do-it-yourself exercise cults to Civic Center, ranging from break dancing...

...to a free public yoga class...

...being given by the grumpy looking instructor above.

"Break dancing and yoga, together at last," I thought...

...and the hip hop DJs on their turntables kept reassuring us that this was the authentic, noncommercial form of break dancing that was historically informed by the early 1990s.

The real fun looked like the double jump rope, which is much trickier than it looks. For more photos from the Tenderloin, check out The Tender here.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wind Up Broken on The Curb Unplugged

On the corner of Franklin and Hayes Streets Saturday afternoon, there was an abandoned tv set with its innards falling out the back.

A graffiti tagger had already decorated the screen...

...and somebody had written "BE HAPPY" in a dust outline on the top.

What set this apart from litter and into the realm of public art installation was the note somebody had taped to the top over "BE HAPPY," which sounded a bit like Gertrude Stein except that it made too much sense:


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Outside Lands Muni Mess

The Outside Lands music festival started its three-day rock music marathon in Golden Gate Park on Friday, and this was what was printed prominently in an Examiner story:

"With extremely limited parking availability at the Outside Lands music festival, taking public transit or alternate means of transportation is encouraged in order to reduce congestion."

The crowds on Friday were dutifully following this advice but the criminally mismanaged Muni system hadn't bothered to schedule any extra buses on the few lines that travel close to Fulton and 30th Avenue such as the 5-Fulton, so the vehicles were overfilled before they even exited Market Street for the park.

Beleaguered Muni drivers were forced to drive by stranded would-be passengers without stopping for them, and frustrated concertgoers were then trying to hail nonexistent cabs.

It shouldn't be that complicated to schedule Outside Lands Limited Muni bus service for three days, running from the Embarcadero BART station and stopping only at major transfer points on its way to the music festival. Instead there is overcrowding, long waits, and general chaos, which is completely counterproductive when you're encouraging people to take public transportation.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

FotoTales 19: The Palm Springs Short Film Festival

The staff at Bay Area Video Coalition promised they would broadcast the proper episode of "FotoTales" this evening at 7:30 PM on Channel 29, but since their computer system seems to be seriously screwed up these days, it's best not to be too optimistic. In any case, Episode 19 documents a trip to the Palm Springs Short Film Festival in the middle of August 2001 when the high temperature was about 120 degrees.

We had a short film in the festival and were invited to all the cool events, including a house party in Cathedral City where I met a British producer named Ivor Powell who was trying to raise money for a feature based on the short sci-fi film "The Dreamer" he had produced. "Have you ever worked with sci-fi before?" I asked him, and he replied, deadpan, "I started on the crew of Kubrick's '2001' and then was an associate producer on "Alien" and "Blade Runner." According to imdb, this was true, although after this film, he basically disappeared.

Update: If you don't live in San Francisco and have cable, you can live-stream the show at 7:30 PM by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Summer of Gertrude Stein 4: Rehearsing Four Saints in Three Acts

Every day for the last week I have been surrounded by the music from Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's first opera, "Four Saints in Three Acts," as it is being rehearsed in the small Wattis Theatre at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. To say it has been undiluted joy is something of an understatement.

Two friends who know more about classical music than I do, Patrick Vaz and Sidney Chen, both told me that the opera ranked as one of their all-time favorites which struck me as weird since their musical tastes are so sophisticated and the Thomson score is so dull and simple on the surface, a succession of Southern Baptist and Methodist hymn tunes interspersed with an occasional dance set to Gertrude Stein at her most hermetic.

When conductor Nicole Paiement above was approached about doing the piece with her Ensemble Parallele chamber opera group for SFMOMA, she had a similar reaction. "That piece is so dull," she thought, but after studying and playing with the abridged (by Thomson) score, she has become a fervent convert and is leading a dozen singers through rehearals in a nuanced and outrageously enjoyable rendition of the opera.

It's also fun to watch the composer Luciano Chessa in the house following along at the rehearsals with the Thomson score, usually with a huge grin on his face. Chessa has written a half-hour prologue opera for the evening with video art contributions by Kalup Linzy, and the little I've heard sounds remarkable, with music that ranges in sound from the Ligeti "Requiem" to a hip-hop gospel chorus.

I have no idea how the actual show is going to turn out (click here for tickets), though there are some spectacular plans for staging, but I can confidently state that the music is going to be very special thanks to Ms. Paiement, who has her talented cast sounding better each day. For an interesting, long essay on the opera and this production, click here for Brett Campbell's essay at San Francisco Classical Voice. Janos Gereben at the same site doesn't get the music or Gertrude Stein's writing at all, so he had me write a defense of the opera, which you can get to by clicking here.