Monday, January 30, 2012

San Francisco Is Noir City

The wildly successful, ten-day Noir City Film Festival wrapped up on Sunday at the Castro Theatre with a six-film Dashiell Hammett marathon.

Friday evening, the nearly full house was entertained by the Los Angeles chanteuse Laura Ellis, who has just released a "Femme Fatale" CD featuring torch songs from old films.

Noir City founder Eddie Muller (above right) introduced this year's Ms. Noir City, Helena Bianca, who modeled for this year's festival poster as the character Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Dashiell Hammett's old San Francisco apartment where he wrote The Maltese Falcon.

The featured film was the 1949 Thieves' Highway with Richard Conte as a WWII veteran, Valentina Cortese as a waterfront "working girl," and Lee J. Cobb as a Mafia distributor in San Francisco's old produce market which has since been supplanted by the Embarcadero Center. The trail of corruption and violence that surrounds a truckload of Golden Delicious apples that makes its way from Fresno to San Francisco is outrageously entertaining, and as the beautiful four-color program maintains, the film is "a masterpiece of proletariat noir."

At the end of Eddie's introduction to the movie, he was surprised with a commendation from the San Francisco Mayor's Office, extolling him for all his contributions to the city. "You are commended for such-and-such, and then there's some legalese, and it's signed by Mayor Edwin M. Lee." Muller was gracious about the official honor, but his eyebrows raised when he read the mayor's name, and he added, "I'd better keep my mouth shut here. Just remember, San Francisco IS Noir City, and that includes City Hall," referring I assume to the film genre's fascination with official corruption and double-dealing.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dragon Pagoda Boat in Civic Center

The two week period that is Chinese New Years has just begun, and a wildly decorative float was being erected for the first time in Civic Center Plaza in honor of the holiday.

I asked the security guard if the float was going to be part of the Chinese New Years Parade on February 11th, but he said the structure was too large and was only meant for Civic Center.

Presumably, the arrival of this new bit of civic decoration has something to do with San Francisco's first, long overdue Chinese mayor, Edwin Lee.

The Pagoda Boat is a colorful addition to the neighborhood, and helps assuage the feelings of loss from the three-headed six-armed Monster Buddha who left us last year so mysteriously and precipitously.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Flight from Redwood Shores

A month-long contract job consisting of twelve-hour days in Redwood Shores has just finished, which means I can finally sleep again.

The best part of this occasional gig, besides being able to pay bills, is eating lunch outside on the deck of the Redwood Shores Public Library above.

It overlooks a tidal slough from the San Francisco Bay which is a marvel for watching birds, with different species feeding depending on how much water is covering the mud flats...

...including improbably graceful cranes who look like imaginary creatures.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Noir City X and the Mirkarimi Mess

Noir City, the coolest film festival in San Francisco, is holding its tenth anniversary this week at the Castro Theatre. There are double bills and newly-struck, pristine prints of fascinating films, and a cheap admission price to one of the great movie palaces left in the world.

Festival founder Eddie Muller, above right, has created an interesting niche for himself as a film preserver, evangelist, writer and filmmaker focusing on the dark, fatalistic film genre from the late 1930s to early 1960s known as Film Noir.

I mentioned to him that somebody we knew in common had been caught in the maws of the Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi domestic violence inquisition. The scandal has become a tabloid sensation for the local media, partly out of political intent and partly because certain morality tales have their own celebrity momentum. "The entire story, with all its layers of corruption, is like one of your movies," I told Eddie, and he replied, "It's a demonstration of the maxim that in the world of Noir, there is no good deed that goes unpunished."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Music and Glamour at the Symphony

Last week's San Francisco Symphony program was delightful, with four 20th century pieces that featured two glamourous female soloists, all conducted by the 34-year-old Pablo Heras-Casado from Granada, Spain. Pablo is pictured above left with the chamber orchestra which started the program playing Stravinsky's concerto grosso from 1938, Dumbarton Oaks.

This was followed Ravel's jazzy 1931 Piano Concerto, in an amazing performance by another phenomenal young female pianist named Khatia Buniatishvili from the Republic of Georgia. She didn't efface the memory of Martha Argerich playing the same score back in 2009 with Tilson Thomas, but she was virtuosically splendid and Heras-Casado gave the accompaniment some real snap.

After intermission, there was another short bit of Italian serial music from Luigi Dallapiccola, the 1954 Piccola musica notturna, which was a reminder of how little most twelve-tone music connects with my listening brain. Thankfully, it was short, and we went on to the 1916 Spanish ballet El Amor Brujo by Manuel de Falla with the "flamenco singer" Marina Heredia above left on a microphone giving a sensational performance of the four songs given to Candelas, who is sort of a gypsy Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands character, with a dead lover whose ghost won't get out of the way for her new one.

You've heard the Ritual Fire Dance music from this score whether you know it or not since it's as ubiquitous as The Flight of the Bumblebee, but oddly I had never heard the music live before and according to the program notes, the entire 30-minute ballet with vocal soloist hasn't been played in San Francisco since 1958 which is shocking since the music is so fun and accessible.

When listening to classical LPs as a precocious pubescent brat with my own stereo, I used to drive my family crazy with difficult music like Mahler symphonies and Britten's War Requiem, so it always made my Spanish-born mother extremely happy when I put on a recording of El Amor Brujo. She did everything but get her castanets out of the closet. She would have loved this performance.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

49er City Hall

San Francisco City Hall has been specially lit up this week in honor of the 49ers football team who are in the NFL playoffs for the first time in over a decade, and the lighting scheme is rather attractive. If only for the sake of the wonderful writer Jan Adams, who is a local, left-wing, lesbian, political organizing, Episcopalian football fan, may the 49ers prevail tomorrow afternoon against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Martyrdom of Saint Janacek

Everybody was at the San Francisco Symphony last week, including the operatic actors Charlie Lichtman and Ron Mann above. They were featuring Janacek's late, great Sinfonietta and Debussy's incidental music to a weird, five-hour, pretentious performance piece from 1911 about The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastien.

Sitting across the aisle from us was composer John Adams, seen above with fellow composer Mason Bates. The two are sharing world premieres at the upcoming American Mavericks concerts at the Symphony later in the season.

The short first half of the concert, with Janacek's brass-filled Sinfonietta, was sensational, with extra horn players ringing the sides of the stage. Poor Debussy in the second half hardly stood a chance after that mighty blast.

Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien sounds like one of those fabulous messes that could only be accomplished by putting together lots of talented people on the wrong project, and one of the major instigators for Debussy's participation was Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac, who was the model for Proust's homosexual aristocrat in Remembrance of Things Past, the Baron de Charlus. The dancer and poseur Ida Rubenstein mimed the titular saint originally, and the playwright was the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, whose verse in translation is laughably terrible.

The performances in San Francisco were of the complete incidental music along with narration by recently retired mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, along with beautiful solo singing by Karina Gauvin, Joanna Taber, and Sasha Cooke, all of whom walked on and off tall platforms above the orchestra with the chorus sitting in between them. There were also groovy string cheese video screens of different shapes above the orchestra with video and still projections by Anne Patterson, who directed the show. Unfortunately, for all the talent and good work involved, the evening was something of a somnolent failure.

Whenever I shut my eyes, the Debussy music would be evocative and soothing, but when I would reopen my eyes they would be to some beautifully declaimed French phrase by von Stade that would be translated as "I love you, my brother, in God, as a lily" or some nonsense and you'd wish they hadn't bothered with projected titles at all.

Many of the video sequences featured the San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Damian Smith (above left) in some kind of loincloth but his talents were sadly wasted, in that the choreography by Myles Thatcher seemed to consist of a lot of stationary writhing, and the focus most of the time was on Damian's armpit. Mr. Smith is a very handsome man and has a handsome armpit, but he's also an excellent dancer and it would have been nice to see an actual dance to some of the score.

I have no clue what Anne Patterson (above center, with MTT on her right), the director and designer of the production, could have done with this strange piece, but her tasteful choices were dull, and one almost wished for an oratorio-style sit and stand performance that simply concentrated on the lovely, unfamiliar music. I'm glad I heard and saw it, though, and the performers were beyond reproach. Even just speaking in French, amplified, Frederica von Stade is still a vocal goddess.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Chosen Spot 3: Weill Hall

The Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall, a new 1,400 seat concert space modeled after Tanglewood's Ozawa Hall, is opening at Sonoma State University this September 29th with a concert by the pianist Lang Lang. He is a friend of the donor Mr. Weill, who among other positions, is Chairman of the Board at Carnegie Hall while wife Joan has a similar position with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre.

The all-wooden concert hall is visually and sonically stunning, with its wooden lattice work reminding me of the Luther Burbank Gardens and the local Arts and Crafts Movement in Northern California. There are very few buildings I walk into that feel holy, but this was instantly one of them. (The San Francisco Opera House is another, while Davies Hall is not, and if we're going to be making these kinds of comparisons, San Francisco's Old First Church on Van Ness feels holy while the Unitarian Church on Franklin Street does not.)

The hall is going to be the Santa Rosa Symphony's new home base, student groups will be using it for a variety of purposes, and the San Francisco Symphony has promised four concerts during next year's season. There is also supposed to be some synergy between Carnegie Hall through Weill's connections and the music curriculum at Sonoma State, and who knows how that will work out?

Most exciting is the prospect of the San Francisco Symphony possibly changing its Summer in the City Pops concerts, which are subsidized by taxpayers through the San Francisco Arts Commission, and engaging in a real summer music festival such as the Boston Symphony does every summer in the country in Tanglewood. The back of Weill Hall opens to the air, and there are concerts planned to include an additional 2,000 people on the adjoining lawn seating. After nearly forty years in the summer fog in San Francisco, I long for a sunny place to hang out nearby in nature while listening to music, and this would be a perfect opportunity.

There could be buses to take freezing city people into the warm country summer, with different neighborhoods and affinity groups having their own afternoons and evenings. In fact, if any of these pipe dreams come true, I promise to charter a bus so all the cool people can get lubricated and enjoy themselves and argue with each other about music, with a pickup and dropoff at Davies Hall.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Chosen Spot 2: Green Music Center

The reason I visited the Luther Burbank gardens on New Years Day was because my host and chauffeur Janos Gereben insisted upon it. Afterwards, we wandered around Sonoma County in his rental car while he indulged in an interesting relationship with his female-voiced GPS unit in particular and navigation in general.

Janos had invited me along principally so that I could take some photos for his San Francisco Classical Voice article about the upcoming opening of the $130 million Donald and Maureen Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University. The theatre above was still having a front outdoor plaza installed but essentially the new concert hall, its lobby and adjoining fancy restaurant have been completed.

On New Years Day, there was a reception for donors, development people, publicists, and a few journalists, held in the restaurant space which is already being rented out for wedding receptions.

It's easy to see why as the place is beautiful.

There were speeches by University President Ruben Arminana above right, and Sanford I. Weill (sitting beside him next to his wife Joan) thanking all the donors and also threatening them with more outreach for funds.

The project started off with a large donation by Maureen and Donald Green (above right, with Arminana) for a new choral center on the campus twelve years ago, and somewhere along the way the plans became more and more ambitious, and the simple choral center had morphed into a major musical education complex with a serious, world-class concert hall at its center.

To complete the project, Sanford Weill and his wife Joan donated a huge sum last year and the concert hall has been named after them. It was a good investment, as the building is magnificent.

Listening to Sanford Weill above was a bit disconcerting, since the 72-year-old investment executive is a major poster boy for the recent excesses of Wall Street. The Weills bought a winery estate from Joe Montana in Sonoma County a couple of years ago for $31 million, which is how they became involved with the Green Music Center in the first place, and then they convinced their pianist friend, Lang Lang, to test drive the concert hall at midnight one evening. He was enraptured with the sound, and the rest is soon to be local history.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Chosen Spot 1: Luther Burbank Gardens

This New Years Day, an hour before dusk, I visited the Luther Burbank Home and Gardens in Santa Rosa for the first time, after passing signage for decades on Highway 101 marking the historical landmark.

Burbank, born in 1849, was a poor boy from a huge family in rural Massachusetts. His father died when he was 21 and Luther used his patrimony to buy his own farm and experiment with horticulture, at which he turned out to be one of the intuitive geniuses in world history.

With the $150 he made from selling the rights to his new Burbank Russet potato, which we are still eating now, Luther moved to Santa Rosa in 1875 and bought land for a small experimental farm which is where his home and Memorial Garden still stands in downtown.

For the next fifty years, Burbank created hundreds of new strains of fruits, potatoes, cacti, and flowers, becoming an admired worldwide celebrity while earning the scorn of professional academics. His Wikipedia entry notes:
"Burbank was criticized by scientists of his day because he did not keep the kind of careful records that are the norm in scientific research and because he was mainly interested in getting results rather than in basic research. Jules Janick, Ph.D., Professor of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University, writing in the World Book Encyclopedia, 2004 edition, says: "Burbank cannot be considered a scientist in the academic sense."

In 1916, Burbank married his much younger second wife Elizabeth Waters above, and after his death in 1926, she continued living in their home until 1977, commissioning a beautiful, Arts and Crafts Movement style memorial garden in the 1960s from local landscape architect Leland Noel which is featured in the first two photos above.

There is a metal sculpture of a lotus with a sundial in the garden by Harry Dixon (1890-1967) from the same Arts & Crafts movement, and the daily free admission to the gardens, the inexpensive plant sales, and the general vibe is welcoming and lovely.

It's easy to believe the characterization of Burbank by a friend of his, Paramahansa Yogananda, who wrote in his Autobiography of a Yogi:
"His heart was fathomlessly deep, long acquainted with humility, patience, sacrifice. His little home amid the roses was austerely simple; he knew the worthlessness of luxury, the joy of few possessions. The modesty with which he wore his scientific fame repeatedly reminded me of the trees that bend low with the burden of ripening fruits; it is the barren tree that lifts its head high in an empty boast."

Friday, January 13, 2012


The birds of Silicon Valley are numerous, strange and enchanting, a welcome dose of the natural into the denatured digital world.

At the San Carlos Caltrain station, a group of pigeons welcomes us early every morning from their telephone line perches, looking like a John Cage musical score written after a consultation with the I Ching.

I have long felt that birds in nature were sending personalized, fateful messages but have never known how to read the omens other than a generalized, "be alert, something's up." It's reassuring to discover on the internet this evening that bird divination has a long, ancient history, and one of its many names is ornithomancy. There's probably even a school for it in the Bay Area since there seems to be a class for just about everything else.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tetzlaff Plays Ligeti

The San Francisco Symphony started the year with the irreplaceable Meredith above helping out subscribers in the lobby...

...while I tried to explain to the couple above why that Saturday evening's performance of the 1993 Violin Concerto by György Ligeti was such a big deal.

The soloist was the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff above, who gave one of those performances that are instantly legendary, and the final, fifth movement included a fabulous cadenza riffing on musical themes from the preceding four movements that was written by Tetzlaff himself. Everybody who was anybody loved it, including Janos and Lisa and Axel.

The following afternoon, between inaugurations, I saw Tetzlaff rushing down the sidewalk towards me on Hayes Street, possibly to pick up an espresso before another performance at the 2PM Sunday matinee. The only proper response seemed to be the Wayne and Garth "We Are Not Worthy" bow from the waist with both arms outstretched, and Tetzlaff burst into laughter. "Saw you last night, it was awesome," I told him, and it was.