Sunday, October 30, 2011

Indian Summer at Patricia's Green

The monumental "Ecstasy" sculpture in the Hayes Valley park called Patricia's Green was taken away a week ago... the lady in the wheelchair was pointing out to her extremely sweet caregiver.

The small park didn't feel particularly bare, however, because the warm weather over the last couple of weeks seems to have brought the whole neighborhood out of doors.

Plus, the area is being inundated with young tourists flocking to the pop-up businesses near the park along Octavia, such as the newly opened Suppenkuche Biergarten above...

...which already has a line down the block to get in on a sunny afternoon...

...that almost stretches to the fancy Smitten ice cream stand fifty yards away.

If you're feeling poor, you can also buy your own ice cream and beer from a local corner grocery and happily sit on a bench watching the world go by.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Snowboarding at The Pioneer Statue

A snowboarding tournament was supposed to start at noon today in Civic Center...

...but they seemed to be having technical difficulties at about 12:30...

...possibly because the Seattle-based group putting on the exhibition wasn't expecting temperaturees in the high 70s.

A pair of emcees were keeping up an entertaining patter but lunch seemed more urgent than waiting around for the daredevils.

Update: An acquaintance, Beth K., happened by at about 1PM and said the snowboarders did finally appear and were gifted athletes who were a joy to watch.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Downtown Throwdown on Saturday

An urban snowboarding exhibition out of Seattle called Downtown Throwdown just had its sixth annual tournament, and they've added San Francisco as a satellite city for the first time.

Tomorrow (Saturday) between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Library, from noon to four, we are in for a treat according to the Transworld Snowboarding site. "In the past 5 years this event has grown from a great local event to the biggest and most respected urban snowboarding event in the world, with a focus on the up and coming snowboarders who are shaping the industry."

"It's gonna be BANANAS!" the site also promises.

According to their website, "Snowboy Productions was started in 1997 by Krush Kulesza...and has become the premier event production company for boardsports and youth culture in the Northwest."

It's free, there will be beautiful young athletes performing amazing physical feats on fake snow, and it's being billed as explicitly hipster. I'll be checking it out and if you're in the neighborhood, you might want to do the same.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Sidewalk Bicyclists of Van Ness Avenue

Being a pedestrian on Van Ness Avenue is terrifying enough dodging bad automobile drivers while crossing streets, but lately the real danger has come from bicyclists speeding up and down the sidewalks.

The San Francisco Police Department could care less and yelling at the bicyclists doesn't seem to do much good, so I am going to start a monthly Sidewalk Bicyclist Hall of Shame as a simple form of anger management.

It's particularly irritating being narrowly missed by a bicyclist who is decked out in full safety gear, including a helmet. "Glad you're feeling safe, you jerk. I'm not."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Harbison, Rohde and Schulhoff at BluePrint

An unusually entertaining concert inaugurated the BluePrint new music series' 10th anniversary on Saturday evening. The evening at the SF Conservatory of Music started with mezzo Julienne Walker above singing five John Harbison songs from poetry by Elizabeth Bishop. The musical writing for a seven-person orchestra struck me as well-done, dry and academic, which didn't seem to fit the poetry at all. Even though Harbison was trying to be bluesy at times (two of the poems were written for Bishop's friend Billie Holliday), the attempts meerely highlighted that rhythm wasn't necessarily his strong suit.

The next piece on the program, a "Concertino for Solo Violin and Small Ensemble" by Kurt Rohde (above right with BluePrint general manager Jacques Desjardins) that premiered last year was the diametric opposite: propulsively rhythmic, filled with energy and color, and as rich and unacademic sounding as you can imagine, which is ironic in that Rohde teaches at UC Davis and the Conservatory.

Rohde claims the three-movement work isn't really a violin concerto, but it is. The writing for the solo violin, composed for Axel Strauss above, is virtuosic in the extreme and underpins the entire twenty-minute piece. The first moment has an almost gamelan brightness, the slower second movement shimmered in all kinds of interesting ways, and the final movement felt like we were on a very entertaining, retooled John Adams Fast Machine. The performance by Strauss and the eight-member chamber ensemble (William Cedeno, Jeannie Psomas, Masako Iguchi and Alex Wadner, Paula Karolak, Patricia Ryan, Eugene Theriault, and Carlin Ma) was so exciting and expert I can't imagine it being played better.

After intermission came a concerto by Erwin Schulhoff, this time for piano and small orchestra (about 40 players), with a stunningly good Keisuke Nakagoshi (above) as the soloist. Schulhoff was a Jewish Communist composer in Prague at a time when that wasn't the safest thing to be, and he died at age 58 of tuberculosis in a concentration camp in 1942. The undated [in the program or the internet] Concertino for Piano and Small Orchestra sounds like an interesting mixture of early, sarcastic Prokofiev and Shostakovich along with a mystical vein that feels more Bartok. The ten-movement piece would switch gears from soft, spare and yearning to jazzy, driven and wild at a moment's notice and was a complete pleasure to discover.

The final piece was a scene from an upcoming Ensemble Paralle production in February of John Harbison's 1999 Metropolitan Opera commission, "The Great Gatsby." The opera is being reorchestrated by Jacques Desjardins from 120 instruments to 35 in order to give the piece a better chance at a performance life. The scene that was performed certainly had a huge amount of energy, especially when Erin Neff and Bojan Knezevic starting singing the parts of Myrtle and Wilson right before a car crash.

Conducting all this disparate music, brilliantly, was BluePrint artistic director Nicole Paiement (above left).

She was self-effacing all evening long, pushing her soloists and ensembles into the limelight, but the triumph of the evening was definitely hers. I can't wait to hear what she does next.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

You Look Familiar

A photography exhibit by 19 Bay Area artists focusing on various subcultures opened this month in the basement of San Francisco City Hall, and much of it is lovely, including the large black and white photos of Alameda teenage baseball players by Lisa Levine above.

The exhibit is being presented by the San Francisco Arts Commission and PhotoAlliance, and it's hard to know who to blame for the nonsensical ArtSpeak describing the exhibit on the signage. Here's a sample:
"From fashionistas to sports fans, and from mountain climbers to rockabilly swing dancers, how do we identify people who look familiar to each other? If familiar faces are not present in the photographs, what kind of residues do groups leave or what objects could be attached to a place as a signifier of a shared activity or event? What kind of places or objects define a group?"

San Francisco's North Beach attracted a couple of photographers, with Dennis Hearne presenting pictures of the Cafe American Social Club at the Cafe Trieste on Upper Grant Street (the two photos above).

Krista Perkins focuses on Catholic kid rituals in the same neighborhood. I loved the photo above of a girl in what looks like a confirmation dress shooting hoops.

Jackson Nichols has a series of photos documenting the Portuguese community's Holy Ghost Fest around California (those are real women in the Barbie capes above).

The most remarkable photos are a large trio from Robyn Twomey who had a photo assignment from Fortune magazine about the medical marijuana trade, where she met a number of interesting characters suffering from things like leukemia who swore by the herb as their only relief.

She's one great photographer.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Anybody But Lee For Mayor

In Civic Center's Heart of the City Farmers Market on Wednesday afternoon, a half-dozen young people were handing out leaflets for Leland Yee for Mayor, including the gentleman above right who was having a difficult time convincing the gentleman on the left that Yee's promises to help the middle class in San Francisco was going to do anything for him.

I asked Gerald above why he was shilling for State Senator Leland Yee for Mayor, and the answer was that he had worked for him, and liked the man. "Good answer." When asked about candidate Jeff Adachi, Gerald said he'd worked for him too and seriously respected Adachi. With that, I decided to put Yee as third on my ranked choice ballot, mostly because he has an outside chance to beat the current Mayor Ed Lee.

As you may have heard, Ed Lee was selected at the beginning of this year in a sleazy coup d'etat by old-time power brokers as an interim, caretaker mayor when their previous puppet, former mayor Gavin Newsom, bolted for the Lieutenant Governors seat. The promise was that he would not run for Mayor in this November's election, using his incumbency as a weapon, but Lee was talked into breaking that promise and he's now the clear front-runner. The only way he can be beaten is if enough San Francisco voters follow an "Anyone But Ed Lee" strategy, imitating the voters of Oakland who did something similar to front-runner Don Perata in his election for mayor in that city.

In other words, don't vote for Lee (above center) as your first, second, or third choice for Mayor. I am voting for Jeff Adachi as my first choice, but I encourage you to vote for whoever the heck you like other than Ed Lee, who has made no pretense that he's a puppet for Willie Brown, Jr., Rose Pak, and a whole host of the most corrupt, established, pay-for-play power brokers in this city. By marking Ed Lee anywhere on the ballot, you are basically voting for four more years of the same Willie Brown/Gavin Newsom political machine which is a depressing, ugly prospect. Vote for change instead and maybe even a little hope.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Britten, Vishnevskaya, and Shostakovich's 14th Symphony

The musical works of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich (above left) and British composer Benjamin Britten (above right) are still being absorbed by the culture at large even though it seems to me they were unquestionably the two greatest composers of the mid-20th Century. Though both were successful in their own time, performances of their music are still lagging behind Mahler and Brahms symphonies, for instance, or Strauss and Puccini operas, even though Britten and Shostakovich are better or equally great composers, something I am reminded of every time their music is played live.

Last week, the San Francisco Symphony conducted by James Conlon (above left with baritone Sergei Leiferkus), played Shostakovich's penultimate, 14th Symphony for the first time, 42 years after it was written in 1969, which is rather shocking because it's a masterpiece. The symphony consists of a cycle of eleven songs traded between a baritone and soprano that focus on death as an unwelcome reality. It is scored for nineteen strings and a percussion section, which managed to sound like everything from the quietest string quartet to a full-bore symphonic presence.

Shostakovich dedicated the symphony to the living composer he most admired, Benjamin Britten, which was a mutual feeling. When Britten heard a concert version of "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" in 1936, he wrote to a friend:
"Of course it is idle to pretend that this is great music throughout--it is stage music and as such must be considered. But I will defend it through thick & thin against these charges of "lack of style"...The satire is biting and brilliant. It is never boring for a second, even in this concert form...The eminent 'English Renaissance' composers sniggering in the stalls was typical. There is more music in a page of MacBeth than in the whole of their 'elegant' output."
Shostakovich decided he was in the presence of greatness upon seeing the score for Britten's pacifist "War Requiem" in 1962, which he thought the greatest work imaginable (Dmitri was right). His only complaint with the piece was the angelic boys' voices singing a prayer at the end which promises some kind of healing and transcendence over death. Dmitri didn't buy that for a second, so with his body falling apart while sitting in a flu-quarantined hospital at the age of 63, he put together a suite of poems about death by Garcia Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke and Kuchelbeker in Russian translation. They are angry, philosophical, political, despairing, sad, and in the final duet, almost sarcastic. The music is simply phenomenally interesting, and Shostakovich dedicated it to Britten.

(Pictured above are Mstislav Rostropovich, David Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich.)

The great cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, the Bolshoi diva Galina Vishnevskaya (pictured above with Britten and his tenor lover Peter Pears), were the real glue that bound the two composers. Britten wrote music specifically for Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, including the female soloist role in the "War Requiem" while Shostakovich also wrote pieces for both of them, including the soprano soloist in the 14th Symphony. Rostropovich died four years ago, but in the year before that he conducted two weeks of all-Shostakovich concerts with the San Francisco Symphony that were revelatory.

So were the performances last week, with Olga Guryakova above tearing into the poems with such intensity, commitment and power that you could swear you spoke Russian by the end of the hour-long symphony whether or not that was true.

The veteran baritone Sergei Leiferkus was perfection, and was a reminder that there are certain kinds of Russian music that really should only be sung by Russians.

The string ensemble was astonishingly good, with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik digging into the piece in way I had not heard from him before, and the two violas, Jonathan Vinocour and Katie Kadarauch above, created small miracles together throughout.

After intermission, the orchestra played the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" but it didn't make much of an impression, even with its huge orchestra, because the Shostakovich was still in our brains.

Note to the New Century Chamber Orchestra: When you're feeling ambitious, please program this piece which was essentially written for your ensemble.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

15th Century Korean Ceramics for Your Monday Viewing Pleasure

The Ecclesiastes quote, "There is nothing new under the sun," is perfectly demonstrated at the Asian Art Museum right now at their Korean "Poetry in Clay" exhibit.

The ceramics in all these photos are from the 15th century, which in Korea's long history is the beginning of the final Joseon dynasty that stretched into the twentieth century.

Korean culture seems much older, deeper and sturdier than most of its Western counterparts.

This style of ceramics became so popular in its time that it was used as an offering for government taxation, but too much of it ended up being pilfered so they incorporated the name of the government bureau to which the tax tribute was being sent into the design.

Think of an ancient, elegant version of "This towel belongs to Holiday Inn."

I am a member of the Asian Art Museum and live a couple of blocks away, but don't attend very often, partly because of the airport security style shakedown one encounters from the guards on entering the museum.

This special exhibit from Seoul is so cool, though, that I've decided to make a visit to it as part of a weekly routine, on the way to the Heart of the City Farmers Market on Sunday mornings.