Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Asian Art Museum 1: Upside Down Rebranding

A press and photo scrum was invited to the Asian Art Museum on Tuesday morning...

...along with a full roster of local dignitaries that included SF Chief of Protocol Charlotte Schultz (standing above), the three Asian-American San Francisco Supervisors (Chu, Mar, and Chiu), and the Asian-American San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee.

The event was the unveiling of a new rebranding initiative for the institution, and Museum Director Jay Xu gave a speech filled with a lot of marketing buzzwords to the accompaniment of a very plain, ugly PowerPoint presentation.

The moment finally arrived for the literal unveiling of the new logo that represents the "Asian For All" theme that is being newly embraced, with Jay Xu and Edwin Lee doing the honors (above).

The logo was fairly ghastly, an upside down A with the word "Asian" floating somewhere to its right, designed by the London branding company Wolff Olins.

This was the same company that was responsible for the almost universally loathed logo for next year's Olympics in London (above).

Nick O'Flaherty, the Strategy Director for Wolff Olins was in attendance, and told us that the upside down A symbolized "ALL" in mathematics, which seemed to be news to everyone in the room except for the people who had approved the design.

The real question is why the Asian Art Museum decided to hire a London firm for close to half a million dollars in the first place. The San Francisco Bay Area probably has as many great graphic designers per capita as any comparable spot on the globe, and there are even quite a few who are Asian-Americans who understand Pacific Rim cultures in a way that Wolff Olins is not going to be even close to mastering.

On a sheerly practical level, the logo looks like hell to work with. "Why are there different spaces on the various collateral pieces between the upside down A and Asian?" I asked a few museum employees, and the consensus seemed to be that having Asian too close to the upside down A which looks like a V makes it look like "Vasian," which could be extrapolated into (Asian) Invasion, not a happy branding message.

Mayor Lee gave a speech at one point and said, "Charlotte and I have discussed how important the museum is for our local economy and its international visitors. Soon there is going to be a huge show about Bali." Nobody corrected Mayor Lee, but just about everyone in the room knew that the Bali exhibit had come and gone over the last six months, and had just been shipped out in anticipation of a new show devoted to East Indian Royalty.

The whole exercise was sad, because the Asian Art Museum deserves to draw more visitors. Their special exhibits are hit and miss, but often spectacular, and the rotating permanent collection is probably the best of any museum in the Bay Area. Do consider becoming a member in spite of the silly new logo.

Monday, September 26, 2011

New Century Chamber Orchestra's 20th Anniversary Season

Artistic organizations, like businesses and human lives, have their own ups and downs and it's particularly fun to be around any group that is on an upward trajectory. For instance, the New Century Chamber Orchestra, a conductorless string ensemble, has had three music directors in its twenty-year history, starting with concertmaster Stuart Canin for seven years and for the last three years, the violin soloist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg who has brought a whole new level of energy to the group.

Last Tuesday, there was an open rehearsal for their 20th anniversary season's first concerts around the Bay Area, and it was fascinating to watch the give and take between Nadja and the various members of the orchestra on everything from tempo to expressive choices.

After the rehearsal, a dozen of us were invited to talk with Executive Director Parker Monroe, Board President Paula Gambs, and Nadja herself (above left), who turned out to be funny and smart. "I'd never been a conductor or a music director before this, so I asked various friends in the industry for advice. 'Beware of your Board,' was instruction number one, and 'Don't become personal friends with your musicians' was instruction number two. Those are probably good pieces of advice, but I didn't follow them because I was blessed with a great Board of Directors led by one of the most wonderful people I've ever worked with, Paula Gambs. Plus, I loved my fellow musicians in this ensemble on first sight, so there was no way I could keep them at arm's length."

Executive Director Parker Monroe also shared the startling news that while most local arts organizations have been struggling mightily in the last three years of recession, the Nadja-led New Century Chamber Orchestra has produced a remarkable statistic. "67 is the number," he said. "Our attendance is up by 67% and our donor base is up by 67% over the last three years. It's amazing."

The orchestra went on its first tour last winter to the Midwest in the middle of a blizzard, and still managed to sell out houses and thrill audiences who weren't used to classical music groups playing with their intensity. "When I went to the first rehearsal three years ago," Nadja related, "the rehearsal space was in a glass room where strangers could walk by and look at you as if you were fish in an aquarium and the sound was ghastly. I asked why they were rehearsing in such a crummy location, and the response was on the order of 'We're lucky just to have this place for rehearsals,' and my response was 'Well, that attitude is your first problem.' "

On account of a cold that arrived with a whammy on Saturday, I didn't make the concert this weekend of Bloch, Mendelssohn, and a modern "Carmen" reworking by the Russian Rodion Schedrin, but the accounts from Axel and Jeff and Joshua made it sound wonderful.

Friday, September 23, 2011

SF Symphony's Magnificent Mahler Third

Even by Mahler's expansive standards, his 1902 Third Symphony is a gargantuan, overstuffed spectacle with six movements that span over ninety minutes, performed by an enormous orchestra, a mezzo-soprano soloist (Katarina Karneus below left) and a huge women's and girl's chorus.

The last couple of Mahler performances of Symphonies #2 and #5 I have heard conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas above were disappointing. There were sections of the large symphonies that were spun out and played beautifully while at the same time there wasn't much coherence overall, so I went to Wednesday's opening performance of the Mahler Third without many expectations.

The performance turned out to be stunning, majestic, and eccentric all at the same time, and even though the supposedly ninety-minute piece clocked in at just under two hours, the long performance somehow never dragged. It felt like we were hearing it for the first time.

The chorus sat in the center terrace for the entire performance even though they only sang for about five to ten minutes, but it was pleasing just to watch them in expectation. The two chorus directors, Ragnar Bohlin of the SF Symphony and the recently ousted Susan McMane of the San Francisco Girls Chorus did a great job, and the "Ding Dong" chorus (not to be confused with the "Wizard of Oz" version) was flawless.

All the soloists within the orchestra stepped it up a notch, including principal trumpet Mark Inouye above, who sneaked out of the orchestra in the middle of the performance to a corridor behind the center terrace section where he played one of the most beautiful solos ever heard in Davies Hall. It was a special evening.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

9/11: The Aftermath

When creating the daily photo journal of the world ten years ago that became the 52-episode FotoTales video documentary, I had no idea what I would be capturing. Almost midway through, the 9/11 attacks occurred and it seemed a good idea to document the daily aftermath for the next six months, in those long-ago days before the Orwellian Department of Homeland Security was created.

Watching it again for the first time in seven years has been disturbing and amusing in about equal measure. There are so many bizarre details from those days that are easily forgotten.

What was clear from day one was that the Era of Bullydom was about to be unleashed, and that the media in conjunction with the incompetent, lunatic, and sadistic Bush administration were not to be trusted for one second. We're still living in that world and it's probably helpful to reexamine its early days.

Episode 23 of FotoTales can be watched online by clicking here. That episode starts with the Opening Gala of the San Francisco Opera, which was "Rigoletto" that year, and ends with 9/11. The stunned week after is detailed in Episode 24 which you can watch by clicking here. Episode 25 will be broadcast tonight (Thursday) at 7:30 PM on Comcast Channel 29, and can also be seen by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The New SFPUC EcoPalace Arises

The on-again, off-again plans to construct an expensive, ecologically advanced new headquarters for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission are not only on-again, but the building is slated to be completed by next summer.

According to Dan Schreiber at the SF Examiner: "The cost to build the project is estimated at $140 million, but the bill rises to $205 million once design services and things such as furniture are added to the mix. Planners had estimated the cost at $190 million."

The original plans were scrapped and construction was suspended in 2008 because the newly appointed SFPUC director Ed Harrington decided that it was another one of Gavin Newsom's outrageously expensive pie-in-the-sky initiatives and he temporarily pulled the plug. Harrington never stated that publicly, since he'd just been appointed to the position by Newsom, but it was fairly obvious when reading between the lines.

The escalating expensive design was "modified" after plenty of lobbying for the project to continue, including Chronicle architecural critic John King back in 2008 (click here).

The pagoda style finish at the corner of Golden Gate and Polk above is rather stylish, but creating a completely transparent, 13-story glass building for a rich, powerful city department that has flourished on backroom deals for decades seems like something of an architectural oxymoron. It's a good bet there will be serious curtain hanging within a year of its being inhabited.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Galaxy Is Destroyed

In San Francisco, it seems to take forever to tear any existing building down, which is either a good or bad thing depending upon your point of view. For instance, the Galaxy Theatre multiplex at Sutter and Van Ness closed for business in 2005 and it has taken six years to start taking the building down.

The architecture by the local firm KMD Architects appalled a lot of people when it went up in 1983, but I was always amused by the glass children's building block aesthetic. Still, it's not a major loss, such as losing the Coronet on Geary five years ago or the palatial Fox Theatre on Market in the 1960s. (Click here for a wonderful website devoted to movie theatres called "Cinema Treasures.")

The colored windows were recently removed and the building is being gutted from the Hemlock Alley side (click here for some photos at The Tender).

Going up on the site will be a generic 13-story, 107-unit apartment building designed by the San Francisco-based Cristiani Johnson Architects, seen in illustrations above on Van Ness and Sutter Streets. The plan is to have it completed by early 2013.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

SF Symphony 100th Season Preview

The San Francisco Symphony, including publicist Louisa Spier above left, hosted a reception in the basement of the Main Library last Tuesday in honor of the publication of "Music for a City, Music for the World," an authorized history of the institution's first 100 years written by Larry Rothe (below).

Cedric Westphal had a funny distillation of the large, lavishly illustrated coffee table book at SFist (click here):
"...if there is a drinking game associated with the book, it is to gulp a shot every time a music director is said to have brought the orchestra up to national status and recognition. You'll drink to Alfred Hertz, Pierre Monteux, Josef Krips, Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt and MTT."

There is an associated exhibit at the Main Library which mainly served to remind me that I am old and have been listening to live concerts by the San Francisco Symphony for almost half of its century-old existence. As a teenage hitchhiker from Southern California, I remember buying a standing room ticket at the San Francisco Opera House for one of Seiji Ozawa's concerts in his love-beads and Beatle haircut first season. Ozawa announced that he was going to focus on Berlioz and Haydn that year, and that first concert consisted of Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," one of Haydn's 100+ symphonies, and Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" in a sensational performance.

At the reception, we were joined by the Symphony's current principal trumpeter Mark Inouye above who turned out to be as charming as he is musically gifted. Inouye told a few stories involving his Giants Rally Rag and tuxedo, along with a recurring practical joke involving standing for applause with his brass section. I am not sure the tales were meant to be shared, so ask me in private if you're dying to know what he said.

After being wined and dined, there was a talk between the author Rothe and Symphony archivist Joe Evans (above) about the process of digging through a century's worth of ephemera to find historical treasures.

A couple of years ago, during the announcement of the programs for the 99th season, a number of writers complained about how boring most of it was and asked if all the exciting stuff was being held back for the 100th anniversary season. The answer then was "no," but they weren't really telling the truth, because this year is jammed to the gills with musical goodies.

I went to the opening concert of the season last Thursday with Yo-Yo Ma playing the Hindemith cello concerto in a great performance of music that doesn't do much for me, though it does for counterpoint enthusiast Jeff Dunn (click here) who thinks it is one of the greatest concertos of the 20th century. The second half of the concert had MTT conducting the Brahms First Symphony in a surprisingly good performance. I haven't been convinced by Tilson Thomas in a lot of 19th century music, so this felt like a good sign.

Here are a few of my favorite things, on paper, that are scheduled for this fall: Mahler's gargantuan 3rd Symphony is coming up this week (September 21-25); the Symphony-commissioned "Polaris" by British composer Thomas Ades with "moving images" by his partner Tal Rosner (September 29-October 1); the great young conductor Vasily Petrenko conducting Elgar's First Symphony and joining with Joshua Bell in the Glazunov Violin Concerto (October 5-9); James Conlon conducting Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 (October 14-16) and then jumping in as a substitute for Fabio Luisi with Verdi's Requiem (October 19-22); a Symphony commission of a new work from the amazing composer Sofia Gubaidulina (November 17-20); and Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting Sibelius, his own Violin Concerto, and excerpts from Wagner's "Ring" (December 8-10).

This is without even mentioning the special party guests who will be playing in Davies Hall this year, which include the entire orchestras of Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, many bringing brand new music written for their respective ensembles. Click here to buy tickets or call (415) 864-6000. If you are feeling poor like me, Center Terrace seats behind the orchestra are a wonderful deal at $15 a ticket, and you are basically sitting in trumpeter Mark Inouye's lap.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pissing on Muni

An empty Muni bus with a crowd on the sidewalk is never a good sign, particularly when it's flanked by paramedic trucks from the Fire Department.

"What did you do this time?" I asked an acquaintance who was part of the crowd at the corner of Van Ness and McAllister on Wednesday afternoon.

"I didn't do anything. There was an old man in the front of the bus who stood up, pulled out his willie, and started pissing all over the bus and the people on it."

Tourists were taking photos of the paramedics who were carrying the probable old drunk off the bus onto an upright stretcher.

Other passengers (above right) were pointing out items belonging to the pisser that had fallen out of a bag onto the sidewalk, which seemed awfully civilized of them.

Paramedics, who I believe are paid quite a bit less than their police and fire counterparts, always strike me as the coolest, calmest, level-headed public safety workers of San Francisco.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

SF Opera's 9/11 Part 2: Opera in The Park

Opera in the Park was started 40 years ago by the longtime San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, and the free Sunday concert in Golden Gate Park has become a beloved, popular institution.

Tens of thousands bring blankets, portable picnic tables, food and drink to listen to a program that usually consists of a parade of well-known arias and duets by opera stars who are singing in the opening operas of the fall season.

This year the City and County of San Francisco and the San Francisco Interfaith Council partnered up with the opera to present a "Civic Observance Commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11," hijacking the usually festive occasion for an overlong, solemn bore punctuated by dreary speeches from political dignitaries such as appointed Mayor Ed Lee (above) and various religious leaders.

The performance started with the orchestra playing the interminable, dull "March of the Priests" from Mozart's otherwise sparkling Magic Flute. This is a slow, Masonic march written so that that the chorus and supernumeraries can get into position on the stage, or in this case so a procession of political and religious dignitaries can make their way through a pathway in the large crowd.

Nowhere in any of the subsequent speeches was it acknowledged that faith-based true believers were mostly responsible for the 9/11 disaster, nor was there any sensitivity to those in the audience who might be offended that religion was being shoved down their throats at an official government commemoration. More than half of the faiths on display, for instance, still look upon homosexuality as an abomination. As a gay man, I felt more in common with the crazy drag queen who was wandering around the concert above than I did with any of the religious speakers.

Happily, I was invited to a picnic by a group of opera supernumeraries who had set up camp near the stage, including the glamorous Jenny Jirousek above.

SF Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti led us in yet another rendition of The Star Spangled Banner and then into a performance of Mozart's Requiem. Though bowing to nobody in my love of Mozart's music, the lugubrious Requiem is not a favorite.

The chorus, under director Ian Robertson (above right), performed heroically after a week of daily rehearsals and evening performances of Turandot, Heart of a Soldier, and Lucrezia Borgia. The four soloists, Nadiene Sierra, Maya Layhani, Daniel Montenegro and Ryan Kuster sounded great but they were hidden behind the orchestra while the interfaith leaders were seated in front. This made it easier for the latter to go to the microphone and give a reading between each movement of the Requiem, which helped to make the piece feel even more interminable than usual.

After intermission, a Fire Department official above offered a long, mawkish speech about our heroic public safety workers.

This was the point where the beautiful and kind Irene Bechtel, above, finally lost a bit of her patience. "This is turning into overkill," she said.

SF Opera General Director David Gockley above has been doing a great job in his position over the last five years, wooing wealthy patrons into major donations and keeping a sharp eye on artistic quality. This Opera in the Park concert was a miscalculation, though, with enough maudlin flag-waving and uplifting Americana tunes in the second half of the program to stuff a Thanksgiving turkey.

Though it was a treat to hear great singers such as baritone Thomas Hampson above, the injection of solemnity into Opera in the Park was just wrong, no matter what the date. This is not Texas but San Francisco, where many of us associate 9/11 with the beginning of an unending, amorphous War on Terror that is politically, morally and strategically dubious, and certainly not as something to be celebrated. For an interesting take on the 9/11 commemoration, click here for Jan Adams' Enough Killing, which pretty much says it all.