Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Stink of Corruption at the Ethics Commission

Late Tuesday afternoon, a long line formed in front of Room 400 at San Francisco City Hall to watch the Ethics Commission as they made up the rules in their continuing public inquisition of deposed Sheriff Mirkarimi during a contentious six hour meeting. (Click here for a background story.)

The crowd was large enough that the overflow of about 100 people were put into an adjoining hearing room that featured a large screen where the meeting was being televised.

Though the crowd was mostly quiet and attentive, there were also plenty of groans and derisive laughter when the City's unctuous attorneys, such as Peter Keith above, laid out the need for an encyclopedic list of expert witnesses that have nothing to do with the core issue of whether Mirkarimi committed "official misconduct" when he got into a domestic argument with his wife, Eliana Lopez.

Provoking the most derision was attorney Sherri Kaiser above who was reminiscent of the Dolores Umbridge character in the Harry Potter series. That was the teacher at Hogwarts who wore big pink bows and was a stickler for good behavior and propriety while not so secretly torturing children. Ms. Kaiser kept intimating that there were deeper, darker secrets that had not yet been revealed, and the only way she was going to get to them was if Mirkarimi essentially stopped defending himself and declared himself a dastardly woman-beating criminal. "We have so few resources and time," she kept complaining, which was one of the more patently absurd lines of the evening.

The City and County of San Francisco has an annual budget of nearly seven billion dollars which is somehow not enough to fix potholes without a special public bond, but does seem to be enough to pay "expert witnesses" millions of dollars to testify about law enforcement practices around the state of California. Meanwhile, Mirkarimi is going bankrupt trying to defend himself, with Shepard Kopp above as one of his lawyers. (Click here for another thorough, brilliant article by Larry Bush at CitiReport about the dubious ethical track record of some of these expert witnesses.)

Bush also points out how grotesquely skewed the media coverage has been from day one with this damning set of statistics:
"In the first sixty days of the Mirkarimi case emerging publicly, the Chronicle ran 98 news stories, gossip column items, editorials and other materials. The Examiner ran 55 stories and editorials and gossip columns in the same period, and the SFAppeal and BayCitizen each ran just under 20 stories.

The Chronicle, which led the coverage, never mentioned the District Attorney’s conflicts, never covered Mirkarimi’s longtime romantic partner’s claim that Ross was never violent, never covered the District Attorney’s failure to pursue nearly 1,000 domestic violence referrals in the past year, and never covered other issues such as the potential lack of impartiality on the part of the judge hearing the case.

Unsurprisingly, the paper backed its coverage by rushing out a poll with an unknown client and with no reporting on the questions to say that public opinion has turned sharply against Mirkarimi."
Update: The Mayor, The Ethics Commission, and the San Francisco Chronicle proceeded to digitally publish the Eliana Lopez video today in an act so personally invasive and disgraceful it beggars belief.

It appeared fairly obvious that the fix is in for the commission to do whatever Mayor Ed Lee tells them to do, and when angry outbursts from the audience got out of hand, Commission Chairman Benedict Hur above adjourned for a quick recess.

The entirely pro-Mirkarimi crowd in the hallways started chanting what I thought was "Shame on You!" at the city lawyers as they came out for a break, but which has been reported elsewhere as "Shame on Lee!" Either one would have been appropriate because the stink of brazen corruption at San Francisco City Hall these days is getting a bit ripe.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Writhing Lotus

Breathing Lotus, the Asian Art Museum's giant outdoor installation in Civic Center Plaza, is situated in a wild wind tunnel.

Spring and summer, when the sculpture is slated to hang out, are traditionally the windiest times of the year.

The piece is constantly writhing and changing shape...

...sometimes even imitating the Rolling Stones lips logo.

Let us hope that the flower doesn't get blown off its pedestal and take out a doubledecker tour bus, like the 1991 Christo death by a giant yellow umbrella in Los Angeles.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Finland Station at the San Francisco Symphony

Last week's San Francisco Symphony program was devoted to Finland and Russia, with Finnish conductor Osmo Vanska conducting Minea by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho, followed by music by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Minea was written in 2008 for the Minnesota Orchestra where Vanska is the Music Director, and was meant to evoke the city of Minneapolis, but if you were given twenty guesses about which American city this music was meant to portray, the chances are that Minneapolis would probably not be one of them. The twenty-minute work for large orchestra builds to a loud climax about halfway through, and then just gets louder for the next half. Though I liked the bongo drums that kept popping up, Minea mostly sounded like particularly bombastic film music.

The Prokofiev First Violin Concerto, with the composer at his most gentle and lyrical, came as a welcome relief. Hilary Hahn, in one of the most beautiful concert gowns ever seen at Davies Hall, gave an amazing performance of the upside-down concerto which starts off ethereal and dreamy in the opening movement, turns spiky in what is usually the slow movement, and then drifts off softly and beautifully in the third.

Hahn has been commissioning 27 contemporary composers to write new encore pieces for the violin, which she has begun playing around the world. On Thursday afternoon, she played a new piece by Nico Muhly, and on Friday evening it was Tina Davidson and J.S. Bach. On the Saturday evening we attended, it was the turn of composer Lera Auerbach, whose encore piece didn't make much of an impression.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Shostakovich's Sixth Symphony, which I heard for the first time when the Cleveland Symphony brought it as part of its West Coast tour. At the time, I wrote that the Clevelanders' playing of the long, slow first movement was beyond compare, but that they didn't seem to get the wild, rhythmic pulses of the two short final movements.

With the San Francisco Symphony, the opposite was true. They played the first movement very well indeed but it didn't quite take one to the holy places where Cleveland had journeyed. San Francisco's playing of the final movements, though, was everything that the Cleveland performance was not: rhythmically precise, brilliantly fun, surprising and sarcastic all at once. So between the two orchestras, I have now heard a perfect Shostakovich Sixth Symphony.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Return of Narkissos

Narkissos, the last great collage completed by the San Francisco artist Jess has made a welcome return to the permanent collection gallery on the second floor of SFMOMA.

Jess was born Burgess Collins in Long Beach in 1923, was drafted into the military after studying chemistry at Cal Tech, and worked on the Manhattan Project during World War Two. He followed that with a three-year stint at the Hanford Atomic Energy Project in Richland, Washington where he became completely disillusioned with his scientific career and its role in the atomic destruction of the world. In 1949 he enrolled in the California School of the Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) and began referring to himself as "Jess". He met the Berkeley poet Robert Duncan in 1951 and the two became lovers until Duncan's death in 1988.

Duncan and Jess were central spokes of San Francisco gay bohemia in the 1950s and 1960s which culminated in the Beat and Hippie movements, along with whatever we're calling the digital revolution that also flows from their work.

A Wikipedia entry on Jess notes that his collages are known for themes drawn from chemistry, alchemy, the occult, and male beauty, which pretty much describes Narkissos to a T. He worked on the piece from 1976 to 1991, and it's great to have it back out of storage.

Friday, May 25, 2012

La Koro Sutro at the Berkeley Art Museum Tonight

Years ago I bought a CD of music by Lou Harrison out of a bargain bin at the great Boo Boo Records in San Luis Obispo, and the 1972 La Koro Sutro for 100 voice chorus, American Gamelan, harp and organ quickly became one of my favorite pieces of music. Even though the forces are massive, the work is delicate and dreamy, and is sounding better with each passing year.

The text is taken from a Buddhist sutra, which was then translated into Esperanto, the invented language from the late 19th century which was created to foster world peace. In other words, it doesn't get any more California coastal multicultural gay hippie pacifist than La Koro Sutro, and there's nothing quite like it.

The problem is actually getting to hear a live performance, and once again pianist Sarah Cahill above is coming to the rescue with a Lou Harrison concert featuring La Koro Sutro tonight at the Berkeley Art Museum. Doors open at 5, concert starts at 7:30, and admission is only $7. The fact that I am going to miss this concert because of a last-minute rehearsal scheduled at the San Francisco Opera is depressing, but if you have a chance to catch it yourself, please do. The evening promises to be legendary. (Click here for a nice preview by Jason Serinus at SF Classical Voice.)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Utah, Gateway to Sansome Street!

At the east end of the Montgomery Street underground BART and Muni station in San Francisco, an immersive ad campaign for the state of Utah and its natural wonders has been installed, and it's something of a psychedelic wonder.

Looking at the signage brought back memories of a hilarious 1984 guidebook to the state by Tim Kelly called Utah, Gateway to Nevada! The deadpan satire of the Mormon founded state even inspired a song of the same name by a band called Plague of Locusts (click here for the YouTube version).

Peter Huestis at Princess Sparkle Pony's Photo Blog also just posted a "Random Arizona Memory" with a nifty map detailing Mormon influence in that state, and how he managed to avoid being housed by Mormon families during his stint in a Tucson high school glee club that went on overnight field trips. As he explains:
"If you stayed with an LDS host family, you were treated to a non-stop festival of Mormonism, abounding with special "youth activities" which just happened to be scheduled while you were visiting. Meanwhile, the rest of us were attending totally fantastic teen keg parties. The ones I went to in Flagstaff, huge raucous bonfires in the woods, were the best parties I went to in high school."
Click here for the whole, hilarious thing, and do pray to your favorite deity that Mr. Romney doesn't become president.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Phantoms of Asia 2: Mixing It Up

The Asian Art Museum, as part of its attempt to rebrand itself, has undertaken an ambitious attempt to rethink the museum, with a contemporary art exhibit called Phantoms of Asia matched up with older pieces from the permanent collection.

The juxtapositions mostly work out quite well.

There are video and installation components, including Death Class above, a very disturbing video by the Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook lecturing a room of actual cadavers about the meaning of death.

Next door in the North Court there's a striking installation of ghostly soldiers playing on instruments, Anno Domini, by Indonesian artist Jompot.

Around the corner is Untitled I (Peacock with Missiles) by the Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman that has its own surreal charm.

Best of all, this show reflecting on Asian cosmologies has been installed throughout the entire museum, escaping the usual touring show ghetto of three boxy rooms in the North Court. Check out the Indian wing on the third floor where The Cult of Appearance III above by Janneth Parda is situated.

So is Absence of God VII by Raqib Shaw in all its glittered, rhinestone glory.

The contemporary art is not only literally from all over the map, but like any contemporary group show, there are highlights and stinkers. The biggest surprise is how many of the older pieces, shown in this context, look so bizarrely contemporary, like the Cosmological Painting from India from approximately 1750-1850 that scholars haven't even begun to figure out. In a strange way, it felt like one of the most modern pieces in the whole show.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Phantoms of Asia 1: Mayor Ed Lee

Phantoms of Asia, the big summer show at the Asian Art Museum, opened last week with a party, a free admission Saturday during the Asian Heritage Street Celebration, and a press preview last Wednesday morning.

The gaggle of press people on Wednesday were asked to leave the warm confines of the museum and make their way to the Breathing Lotus in the foggy Civic Center where we were to wait for a speech by Mayor Edwin Lee.

The contemporary artists who were attending the opening of the show posed together in front of the lotus, and museum director Jay Xu gave a short speech explaining that the Mayor was running slightly late but "he will be here directly."

Xu was interrupted by the Christian crazy above with a bullhorn who occasionally hangs out in Civic Center. He was drawn to all of us sinners like a fly to excrement, shouting hell and brimstone through his instrument as loud as he could, and drowning out Xu who joked about the wonders of "free speech."

The Mayor and his entourage above finally arrived twenty-five minutes late and we were all cursing him under our breath because it was a bitterly cold, blustery morning in Civic Center and most people weren't dressed for the occasion.

Lee is also a terrible public speaker, so to add insult to injury we listened to ten minutes of cliches and inanities that made absolutely no sense.

The Japanese guest curator of the contemporary Asian art show is Mami Kataoka above, and after a short explanation of the show which was also fairly incomprehensible, we were let loose into the museum which looks very lively with all the new work mingling with the older, permanent collection.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Asian Heritage

The once itinerant Asian Heritage Street Celebration, which used to appear in different neighborhoods around San Francisco, has seemingly found a permanent home in the lower Larkin Street district of the Civic Center called Little Saigon.

On Saturday, the fair was perfectly mellow, with enough attendance for good people watching but not too many people to induce claustrophobia.

Possibly the most charming aspect of the fair is that the racial and cultural aspect is amorphous, so that you have rock bands like Johnnie Hi-Fi playing with a totally mixed race trio...

...the public Tai Chi demonstration course was being led by an old white lady...

...and an herbal tea healing booth was being manned by the San Francisco Opera chorister above.

The "celebration" T-shirts were on sale for $10 so I bought one. If you are a non-Asian who has lived in San Francisco long enough and are not a complete racist, you are of "Asian Heritage," sheerly through osmosis.

Friday, May 18, 2012

New York Philharmonic Loses to San Francisco Symphony

Last weekend the New York Philharmonic came to town as part of the San Francisco's centennial celebrations, and the two orchestras played a softball game at Jackson Field in Potrero Hill. This was the first rematch of a tied series in close to 30 years, but it turned out not to be a contest, with the SF Symphoniacs beating the NY Philharmonic Penguins 34-4. The not-so-secret weapon was Mark Inouye above, who is not only one of the great trumpet players of the world but who also turns out to be a serious softball player. (Photo above by Chris Lee.)

The Sunday evening performances by the New York Philharmonic consisted of Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Tchaikowsky's Fourth Symphony sandwiching a new piano concerto by Magnus Lindberg with soloist Yefim Bronfman (above right, with music director Alan Gilbert). In the program notes, Lindberg writes about the piece, "The challenge was to stretch expression to the extreme. It includes some brutal music, like in Kraft, as well as very detailed and lyrical music." I whipsawed between enjoying the music and feeling brutalized, and the consensus in the press room at intermission was also passionately divided. Bronfman in any case gave an insanely virtuosic performance, and I only wished that he had been provided a page turner because there were lots and lots of notes.

The Dvorak and Tchaikowsky didn't fare as well, sounding mostly loud and not very Slavic. In the competition for touring orchestras so far this year, I would rate Boston, Chicago and Cleveland at the top in terms of sheer sound and musicality, and I would put the San Francisco Symphony near that top tier too.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Giant Red Lotus Comes to Civic Center

A giant red "kinetic fabric" lotus on a pedestal appeared in Civic Center Plaza last Friday as part of the Phantoms of Asia exhibit at the Asian Art Museum next door.

Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa has created a 24-foot motorized Breathing Flower, but in truth she didn't need the motor because the installation site, at the exposed end of Civic Center Plaza, is a wild wind tunnel that starts on the Pacific Ocean, tears down Golden Gate Park and whips through the Civic Center.

The lotus has been moving wildly with nature since it was installed in its cyclone location, which is half the fun.

There were already a few tears, as you can see above, after a couple of particularly blustery days this weekend.

It turns out the sculpture arrived with plentiful patch kits so this must not have been the first natural tear...

...and the next day it looked like new.

It's a perfect tourist attraction and a delightful addition to the neighborhood.