Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CurrencC SF Wants Direct Deposit

San Francisco Mayor Lee isn't having an especially good week, with nearly simultaneous news of the imploding America's Cup real estate deal and the canceled new headquarters of in Mission Bay.

In a feel-good photo-op on the Mayor's City Hall balcony Wednesday morning, Lee joined City Treasurer Jose Cisneros (above at the podium) to announce a new nanny state initiative sponsored by the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment, a group housed in the Treasurer's office that helps lower-income citizens with financial literacy. The initiative is called CurrenC SF (click here for the website) and its goal is to make 100% of San Francisco's employers pay their employees with direct deposits to banks rather than with checks.

The stated benefits are, "It cuts waste and pollution. It lowers your business costs. It empowers your workers financially, leading to more stability at home and in the community. Add it all up, and we get a stronger City." This might be so, but it's also unintentionally cruel towards older people, particularly women, who are being dragged into the digital world holding their beloved checkbooks tightly in their hands.

It's Not as Bad as It Looks

Receiving an urgent phone message from my dermatologist to immediately schedule an appointment with an ophthalmological oncologist (read, "eye cancer doctor") down the hall, at the beginning of this year, was just the start of two months of anxiety. All's well that ends well, though. My eyes turned out to be fine, and a small patch of skin cancer on my nose was eradicated Monday morning. I guess my dear, departed mother should not have raised us on Southern California beaches day in and day out, but who knew?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Newly on View at The Asian Art Museum

With exquisitely bad timing last October, the Asian Art Museum opened a touring show from London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Maharajah: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts, just as Occupy Wall Street was in full blaze.

The exhibit features a host of examples of conspicuous consumption, such as the solid silver coach above, by the historical One Percent of Royal India over the last 300 years.

Adding to the exhibit's underlying queasiness, the show also recounts the co-opting of this royal class by their British conquerers, with political roles becoming increasingly ceremonial as their baubles become correspondingly baroque.

So if you can't say something nice, sometimes it's better to say nothing at all, and since the Asian Art Museum is full of beautiful objects such as the ancient Chinese Buddha above, it might be better to focus on those.

There are 1,200-year-old Persian ceramics newly on view on the third floor...

...sitting next to a beautifully illuminated 19th century Quran from the same part of the world.

A room on the second floor has recently been hung with interesting modern Chinese art, such as Which Is Earth? No. 30 from 1969 by Liu Kuo-sung above.

There is an arresting wall-size photograph in the Korean wing from 1990 by Bae Bien-U that reminds me of the photography of Michael Starkman.

Finally, a nineteenth century screen of calligraphy by the Japanese Samurai Yamaoka Tesshu looks like some kind of perfection.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Caltrain Commuting

The 7:19 AM modified Caltrain bullet south from San Francisco to San Carlos has become a new morning ritual over the last year.

The Brian Barneclo Systems mural near the 4th & Townsend station is a touchstone, and the piece is looking more classically perfect with each passing day.

Industrial southeast San Francisco at sunrise is also a powerful, interesting sight, especially as it's followed quickly by the San Francisco Bay slough below which is spectacularly beautiful in a different way every day.

After that, I barely look outside for the next thirty minutes and luxuriate in gazing upon print. People using Kindles or working on laptops are missing the point of reading on public transport. Since we all seem to spend our entire days interacting with computer screens, having the time to stare at reflective print feels like a blessing. Check out some photos by Jan Adams on BART making exactly that point.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The 88th Birthday of George Birimisa

The pioneering gay playwright George Birimisa (above left with his niece) celebrated his 88th birthday on Sunday with a delightful collection of friends and family.

The hosts were a couple in the upper Eureka Valley, Alain and Martin (above left, with publisher Steve Susoyev on the right).

On Birimisa's entertaining blog (click here), he writes:
"I’m still emotionally digesting my 88th birthday party. It used to be 99% queer but now I have 9 heterosexual friends [including Dino above] at the party of about 25. It was a humdinger. Such a change from the old-old days where everyone was getting drunk and dishing everyone else...and my 80 year old sister was lovy-dovy with her 89 year old boyfriend [the pair are flanking George in the photo below]."

Happy birthday, George. You're an inspiration.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Return of Edo de Waart

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony both gave concerts in Davies Hall this week. I went to one performance of each, fully expecting the legendary Chicago troupe to eclipse our local band, but in a delightful surprise, the home team won resoundingly.

Part of the reason was simple repertory. The touring Chicago Symphony, under new music director Ricardo Muti, played the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger's short 1924 paean to the locomotive, Pacific 231, and followed it up with a premiere by the young Bay Area-based composer Mason Bates called Alternative Energy that was a mixture of recorded techno music booming out of large speakers and live orchestra. I enjoyed Bates's similar The B-Sides, premiered three years ago by the San Francisco Symphony, but Alternative Energy has a global warming, end-of-the-world scenario attached to it that vaulted the score into silly and pretentious rather than just loud and banal. The second half of the concert was Cesar Franck's lone, insipid Symphony in D Minor, performed exquisitely, which made one wish they were playing something more interesting.

Later in the week, as part of its centenary celebrations, the San Francisco Symphony invited former 1970s-1980s music director Edo de Waart (above) to conduct for the first time in a couple of decades. He led a high Romantic program of a lush 1914 Schreker opera overture (Die Gezeichneten), Rachmaninoff's late, unpopular Fourth Piano Concerto, and another French symphonic warhorse, the Organ Symphony #3 by Saint-Saens. On paper, this program looked like it could be either terrible or interesting, and it's a treat to report that the entire concert was thrilling and beautiful.

After the Korngold-sounding overture, the young Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski (above, with de Waart) was soloist for the Rachmaninoff Fourth Piano Concerto, which doesn't have the catchy, famous tunes of numbers two and three, but in this performance it was consistently absorbing.

Though Trpceski is visually no matinee idol, looking a bit like a young Mel Brooks at the piano, his obvious joy in playing and sheer musicianship is delightful to witness. He played the Grieg Piano Concerto in San Francisco a couple of years ago, turning that overplayed warhorse into something special, and he accomplished something similar this weekend with the Rachmaninoff.

After a huge ovation, Trpceski returned with a charming encore. Joshua Kosman in the Chronicle describes it in his glowing review of the concert:
"Instead of moving into the spotlight alone with a bit of Chopin or Bach, the way pianists usually do in these situations, Trpceski enlisted concertmaster Alexander Barantschik [above right] to join him for the American premiere of "Dancing Fantasy," a jaunty, rhythmically beguiling accordion ditty by Koco Petrovski arranged for the occasion by Damir Imeri. The joyful energy of the music - and the astonishing fact that Barantschik had worked it up on short order just in case it was called for - only contributed to the high spirits..."

Conductor de Waart above, who is looking more like Elmer Fudd with every passing year, watched the encore from the side of the stage while sitting on the organ bench. After intermission, he conducted another overplayed warhorse, the Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, and demonstrated that he's only gotten better with age as a conductor. It was a great performance, highlighted by brass players that sounded superior to the famed Chicago Symphony's brass section earlier in the week. I hope de Waart is invited back soon.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Oracle Cranes Are Flying

Oracle headquarters in Redwood Shores is surrounded by a network of tidal sloughs off the San Francisco Bay.

Signage on the nearby cart paths is quite strict about trespassing and allowing dogs off leash to harass the wildlife.

This may be why the wild birds almost feel tame, allowing you to walk right up to them...

...until you step too close.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Drinking Beer with the Obama Motorcade

On the way home from Sam's Corner grocery this evening with a $9.99 12-pack of Budweiser in my hand, I got stuck at the corner of Franklin and McAllister for ten minutes while San Francisco motorcycle cops stopped everybody from crossing Franklin Street in anticipation of President Obama's motorcade. (That's me in the red circle.) The leader of the Free World was on his way to a $35,000 a head fundraiser at The Regency Center on Van Ness and Sutter.

"Your president is going to be driving by soon, so don't cross the street!" a motorcycle cop cautioned a small group of pedestrians, and I asked, "Is he going to stop right here and have a conversation with me?" The policeman was unusually friendly and ran with it. "Yes, he's going to stop right here, and have one of those beers with you."

This turned out not to be the case, but it was a pleasant wish on the policeman's part. (Photos from my fourth-story apartment across the street by Tony Hurd.)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ensemble Parallele's The Great Gatsby

Playing the non-singing part of the head butler at a 1920s Long Island estate (above) this last weekend in the Ensemble Parallele production of John Harbison's opera The Great Gatsby was great fun. It's my third production in a year with this interesting and intrepid troupe who do contemporary Grand Opera on a beer budget, brilliantly. The trilogy started with Philip Glass' Orphee last February and continued with Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts this summer.

The Boston-based composer John Harbison above right was present for the entire weekend run, hanging out mostly with Jacques Desjardins above left who reorchestrated the twelve-year-old opera to 30 instruments from close to 100. It was a skillful job, and I prefer the chamber version to the recording with full orchestra because the complex music sounds less muddy.

The reviews of the production pretty much reflected what I felt from day one, which was that the orchestral writing was interesting but the vocal lines were awful, a series of recitatives made up of awkward intervals that were difficult to sing and not particularly rewarding for either the performers or the audience. To make matters worse, Harbison also wrote a number of brand-new 1920s pop songs for an onstage band and singers for the two large party scenes that are so entertaining you wonder why he didn't just write the entire piece in that vernacular with ascetic, difficult recitatives as the seasoning.

The reviews were also unanimous in praising the production itself, which was a beautifully conceived piece of theatre. The cast was just about perfect, intelligent and great musicians besides, and it was a joy watching them work out their characters and the story amongst themselves during rehearsals.

For two of the most interesting accounts from the audience point of view, click here for Patrick Vaz and here for Axel Feldheim.

Monday, February 13, 2012

America's Got Terrible Talent Shows

Simon Cowell's America's Got Talent TV show was holding public auditions in Bill Graham auditorium this weekend...

...and Sunday's roster of hopeful starlets were being herded pre-audition into the main square of Civic Center for a photo and video op.

The English-accented blonde above was trying to rustle the crowd into some kind of shape for a photo shoot...

...but it was a bit like herding cats.

There were aspiring entertainers everywhere...

...looking variously sad, elated, and altogether delusional.

It felt a bit like walking through The Day of the Locust for breakfast.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chinese Lantern Festival in Civic Center

Early Monday evening, there were a host of performing groups celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year and its associated Lantern Festival.

A small stage was set up in front of the illuminated dragon pagoda boat in Civic Center...

...where everything from martial arts experts... various dance troupes from the Bay Area...

...and students from China...

...strutted their stuff...

...and played weird, piercing instruments in a sort of goofy variety show.

The marvelous illuminated dragon boat was actually an import from the "Global Winter Wonderland Festival" held in Santa Clara last December (click here for a look).

According to an organizer I spoke with, the event in Santa Clara was created in China where the Lantern Festival is a huge annual event, and it was supposedly a completely non-governmental affair.

A handful of Falun Gong protestors were not buying the non-government line, though, and came out to announce that Falun Dafa is Good.