Monday, December 30, 2013

Civic Center 2013 in Review, Part Three

13. Construction Mania

The Hayes Valley neighborhood and Market Street from 8th to Castro has been dotted with gigantic construction cranes all year, building huge luxury rental and condo complexes, which may help alleviate the housing shortage in San Francisco, but probably do little to bring sky-high prices down.

14. The Taxi Upheaval

The San Francisco taxicab industry has been seriously undermined by its new smartphone-fueled competitors like Uber and Lyft. Taxi drivers held numerous protests this year, honking their horns while driving around City Hall, but the public doesn't seem very sympathetic to their cause after decades of terrible, spotty service.

15. The Center for New Music Arrives

The young composers Adam Fong and Brent Miller opened a collaborative office, rehearsal and performance space in the heart of the Tenderloin last year near Market and Taylor, and it's turned into a heartening success. Members are given a space to perform and keep all the money from the door, which allows for risk, experimentation and fellowship.

16. New Bay Bridge Span Opens

It only took 24 years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, billions of dollars of cost overruns, stalling action by local politicians, and an engineering safety scandal involving sloppy Caltrans inspectors, but the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is unexpectedly beautiful. Its light, airy design is a huge contrast to the old, corroding western span which was recently named by the California State Legislature for former mayor and present-tense powerbroker Willie Brown, Jr.

17. 50 United Nations Rehab

One of architect Arthur Brown's crown jewels in the Civic Center was an early 1930s federal building that had been abandoned by the government in the early 00's for other offices. The General Service Administration decided to rehab the building with Obama's 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and moved their Pacific Rim Region headquarters onto four of the five floors in November.

18. San Francisco Government Runs Over The Public

Two fire trucks ran over a survivor of the Asiana plane crash at San Francisco Airport. A reckless Rec and Park gardener drove over a young mother in Holly Park while she sunbathed on the lawn with her baby daughter and dog. A motorcyclist was run over by a fire truck driven by a drunk fireman at 5th and Howard. Yesterday, there was another incident at the same intersection involving the same bibulous fire station and a Mercedes station wagon. Running over the public in official vehicles is starting to look less like a tragic accident and more like a new SF government employee pastime.

There must be some reason that so many well-paid, underworked San Francisco government workers are such unhappy drunks, and it's possibly because of the rot at the top. Willie Brown, Jr. did more than get his name on a bridge. He appointed hundreds of "special aides" while in office, paying off favors from his decades as the Speaker of the Assembly in Sacramento. Most of those people are still at City Hall, making serious six-figure salaries along with hefty pensions and healthcare for life (click here). Willie still tells them what to do in his role as "consultant," and their everyday, lazy corruption seems to be setting the tone for everyone.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Civic Center 2013 in Review, Part Two

7. I Love A Parade

One of the pleasures of the neighborhood is watching parades begin or end in Civic Center Plaza. This year, the newcomer was the Filipino Pistahan Parade in August which made its way down Market Street to Yerba Buena Center. The Cherry Blossom Parade in April, which marches from Civic Center to Japantown, still holds the title for best headgear.

8. San Francisco City College in Accreditation Turmoil

By most accounts, the administration of San Francisco City College is a case of lunatics in charge of the asylum. Its accreditation is being pulled at the end of this academic year by an organization called the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), which has ethical issues of its own. The state's largest community college, with 80,000 students, is in danger of being destroyed altogether, which would be a serious disaster for the city. Attempts to overturn the commission's ruling in San Francisco Superior Court are presently ongoing, but the future is looking bleak.

9. SFMOMA Breaks Ground for Museum Expansion

Meanwhile, a subsection of the superrich in San Francisco are donating their wealth to gut and expand San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art on Third Street, even though the building was less than 20 years old. The expansion was necessitated by the acquisition of GAP founder Donald Fisher's massive art collection, which he donated on his deathbed after his plans for an eponymous museum in the Presidio were thwarted. The huge new building is slated to open in 2016.

10. Profiles in Courage by National Security Whistleblowers

Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Bradley/Chelsea Manning were the poster children offering evidence of a U.S. national security state run amok. Manning became a San Francisco focus this spring during her trial for treason because she was named an SF Gay Pride Parade Grand Marshal. Soon after, a clueless, overpaid Parade Board of Directors unilaterally rescinded the honor, and then all hell broke loose. There were protests galore that included Pentagon Papers legend Daniel Ellsberg, who publicly stated that Snowden and Manning were braver than he had ever been. A huge contingent marched in support of Manning at the Gay Parade in June, with the heterosexual Ellsberg as its unofficial grand marshal.

11. Gay Marriage in California Finally Legalized

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and that the California Supreme Court was correct in its ruling against Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage. Public celebrations ensued, and the dominoes started falling in other states, including New Mexico and Utah.

12. America's Cup in San Francisco Bay

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's "real estate deal masquerading as a boat race," as Aaron Peskin characterized it, was cursed from the moment that Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee pushed the deal through City Hall at the beginning of 2011. (Click here for an "I Told You So" post.) Between the dearth of participants caused by the stratospheric cost of competing, the many races with a single competitor, the death of a sailor, the Oracle cheating scandal, the lack of interested spectators, and the millions of dollars San Francisco taxpayers forked over for a rich man's hobby, Larry Ellison probably became the most despised billionaire in the San Francisco Bay Area. On the other hand, there was an improbable comeback by Oracle to win the Cup, fun viewing parties atop hills and on the shoreline, and a pop-up stadium hosting concerts. Mayor Ed Lee is even threatening to host the event again.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Civic Center 2013 in Review, Part One

1. SFJAZZ Center Opens

The $63 million SFJAZZ Center opened at the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets in January, and the institution went on to a vibrant, successful first year. The sound system is one of the best in the world, but the acoustics without amplification are unusually dry, as a few classical ensembles have discovered when they rented the hall for concerts.

2. Cars vs. Bikes vs. Pedestrians

The cars vs. bicycles wars raged on in 2013, with pedestrians caught in the middle. It does not help that in San Francisco many drivers are terrible, the bicyclists arrogant, and pedestrians careless. Half the population also seems to be concentrating on a mobile device rather than their surroundings which adds to the chaos.

3. Noir City a Local Cultural Treasure

The annual Noir City Film Festival at the Castro Theater in late January keeps getting bigger and better, with Peggy Cummins from Gun Crazy making a guest appearance.

4. The Terracotta Warriors at The Asian Art Museum

The underground warriors of the Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuang arrived for a visit to the Asian in February. Hordes of visitors to the usually quiet museum followed.

5. Last Call at Marlena's

The friendly dive drag bar in the quickly gentrifying Hayes Valley closed in March. Young gay people stopped moving to San Francisco in large numbers decades ago, and the current immigration trend is overwhelmingly young and heterosexual. Much of the aging gay population seems to have decamped to Palm Springs.

6. The San Francisco Symphony Strike

Also in March, the San Francisco Symphony embarked on a surprisingly acrimonious strike that seemed to be less about money and more about being treated like house servants by Symphony management rather than well-paid, highly trained musicians. Thankfully, both sides came to their senses, and the strike was over in April, unlike the union-busting mess at the Minneapolis Symphony where the Board of Directors, including Jon Campbell from Wells Fargo Bank, have effectively killed their own highly regarded municipal orchestra.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Inside The Construction Zone

The construction boom in the Mid-Market and Hayes Valley neighborhood continues at a frenzied pace, with the luxury Linea apartment complex above nearing completion at Market and Buchanan Streets.

A block north on Buchanan Street, the huge UC Extension complex is finally being torn down after decades of protests from preservationists and neighbors worried about overdevelopment.

Now it's just another drop in the booming bucket, with 336 new apartments slated for construction.

Two blocks further north on Oak Street between Laguna and Octavia, four separate mixed-use retail/apartment buildings are also under construction.

For decades, the site was occupied by the Oak Street freeway onramp to Highway 101, and more recently it was the plant-filled Hayes Valley Farm. It will be interesting to see what the new neighbors are like, though the signs are not particularly encouraging.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Vajradhara Sends Buddhist Christmas Birthday Wishes

Before trying to destroy it in the second half of the 20th century, China used to worship Tibetan culture. The wooden statue of the Buddhist deity Vajradhara above was created in China in the 18th century in the Tibetan style and currently blesses us at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. He sends best birthday wishes to Christmas babies Heidi Seward and Christopher Nishimoto and baby Jesus too.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Hussain's Christmas Tree

Surreal sights in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza are not uncommon, but dozens of Muslim women dressed in black standing around the city-sponsored "holiday tree" on Sunday afternoon felt like a first.

They were part of a group celebrating Ashoura, which commemorates the murder of Muhammed's grandson, Imam Hussain, at the Battle of Karbala in what is now Iraq.

Sunni Muslims spend the day fasting, while Shi'ite Muslims traditionally marked Hussain's martyrdom with various forms of public mourning, including self-flagellation.

Last year a group in London decided to rebrand the holiday with PR friendly blood bank donations instead of dramatic self-abuse...

...and they have embarked on a slick series of publications and a website called Who Is Hussain spreading the word about him among the larger world, both Muslim and otherwise.

Young people were handing out bottles of water to passersby with packaging which read, "MARTIN LUTHER KING, ALEXANDER THE GREAT, ARISTOTLE, JESUS CHRIST, CONFUCIUS, CHE GUEVARA, MOSES, ROSA PARKS, HUSSAIN..."

The campaign seems to be spreading quickly among young Muslims living in the English speaking world (click here for an article in the Lebanon Daily Star), and it was charming seeing them in an American public space championing an ethical hero. It felt new.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

12 Memorable Musical Moments in 2013

As part of a completely subjective and unscientific survey, here are 12 favorite musical moments of the last year. The San Francisco Symphony offered a few great concerts in 2013, many of them involving the Symphony Chorus under Ragnar Bohlin. The evening that made me seriously delirious with pleasure back in February was Charles Dutoit conducting the orchestra and chorus in Poulenc's Stabat Mater and Berlioz's monumental Te Deum. Honorable mentions to pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi in his Symphony debut as a soloist playing Poesis with Herbert Blomstedt, pianist Jeremy Denk playing an exquisite Mozart 25th Piano Concerto, and both orchestra and chorus performing in Britten's War Requiem.

In March at the neighborhood's new SFJAZZ Center, there was an extraordinary fusion of classical/jazz/bluegrass/raga when banjo player Bela Fleck, bass player Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussein collaborated for a three-hour set on Hussein's birthday.

Later in the month, the legendary violist Kim Kashkashian played a concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as part of their Chamber Music Masters educational series. She was spellbinding, performing Dmitri Shostakovich's final composition, the 1975 Sonata for Viola and Piano.

The Thrillpeddlers put original Cockettes composer Scrumbly Koldewyn back to work again, expanding and revising the early 1970s Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma, and Scrumbly was even recruited to sing and dance. The book was literally all over the map, but the songs were a constant reminder of how good Koldewyn's music at its best can be.

The San Francisco Choral Society under director Robert Geary pulled off three massive concerts this year, starting with David Lang's battle hymns in Kezar Pavilion above, a fine rendition of Haydn's oratorio The Seasons, and Rachmaninoff's Vespers. Three more disparate pieces could hardly be imagined, and the amateur choral group pulled them all off, brilliantly and in the case of battle hymns, audaciously.

I heard Schubert's bleak song cycle, Winterreise, live for the first time sung by German baritone Matthias Goerne accompanied by Christoph Eschenbach on piano. Goerne was astounding, making me momentarily reexamine an inborn antipathy for lieder and German Romantic mopiness.

My first visit to New York's Carnegie Hall happened soon after in a perfect concert for the auditorium. Simon Rattle guest conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in Webern, Berg's Scenes from Lulu, and the Secret Police Chief's aria from Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre, the latter two sung by the incredible soprano Barbara Hannigan above. They also played Beethoven's hackneyed Pastoral Symphony and the performance was so fresh and the hall's sound so warm that the piece got me weepy, the last thing I expected.

Mark Morris above was in charge of the Ojai Festival this year, and its virtual repeat the following week on the UC Berkeley campus. The bulk of the programming consisted of obscure and neglected pieces by the West Coast triumverate Henry Cowell and his students John Cage and Lou Harrison. The two concerts I caught were strange and wonderful, and it was a kick looking down a row in Hertz Theater and seeing Morris glowing with pleasure while listening to some of his favorite music live.

Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill holds a special place in the field of contemporary music because both composers and audiences trust her. Cahill has taste and intelligence and verve, making her a perfect guide into both the new and the undiscovered in music. When one of her concerts clicks, like her Old First Church recital in August featuring Henry Cowell and Ann Southam, you walk out with your brain buzzing, refreshed.

Every year the San Francisco Opera runs an intensive summer camp training program for young singers on the cusps of professional careers. This year's crop was not only one of the best in memory, but their two staged productions of Britten's The Rape of Lucretia and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro were two of the best versions I have ever seen of those two operas. Conductor Xian Zhang above right in the Mozart pulled off a miraculous performance with no orchestra pit and probably very little rehearsal.

On the big stage of the San Francisco Opera, the September world premiere of Tobias Picker's opera taken from Stephen King's potboiler, Dolores Claiborne, gave every indication that it was headed for disaster, and instead was a surprising, considerable success on a number of levels. Filling in at the last minute for Dolora Zajick who bailed out of the difficult title role with three weeks to curtain, soprano Patricia Racette saved the day in one of the great operatic coups of all time. Honorable mentions to the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Mefistofole and Bryn Terfel, Meredith Arwady and the SF Opera Orchestra under Luisotti in Falstaff.

The SFJAZZ Center has been used by a handful of classical music organizations this year while the Herbst Theatre is retrofitted, including San Francisco Performances. In November, they presented The Pacifica Quartet with pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin performing the long, modernist, insanely difficult and thoroughly mind-blowing Quintet for Piano and Strings by Leo Ornstein from 1927. It helped to immunize me from all the public Christmas music soon to come.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Noir City Xmas: Blast of Silence

For the first time in my memory, the Castro Theater marquee is fully functional, with progressive lights spelling out C-A-S-T-R-O before blinking once and starting all over again. It's a veritable Christmas miracle.

Adding to the blessings Wednesday evening was Noir City Xmas under the directorship of Eddie Muller above, a new annual tradition that's a seasonal warm-up for late January's 10-day Noir City Film Festival.

Muller shared his excitement about this year's edition of the festival which is specializing in foreign films, including a pair of Argentine classics that have never been projected onscreen in the United States. He also put in a plug for Castro organist David Hegarty, above left, who is spearheading a rescue and restoration effort for the theatre's grand old Wurlitzer organ. (Click here for the SFCODA website.)

Muller apologized for stretching the definition of noir in recent Christmas programming to include a Deanna Durbin film two years ago, "but tonight, I promise, we are showing a film that is relentlessly bleak, brutal and noir." The film was the 1961 Blast of Silence, made for about $23,000 and a few prayers by Allen Baron above, who appeared in person at the Castro last night.

Baron wrote, directed, produced and starred in the cinema verite style film, after a young Peter Falk dropped out of the lead "for a paying job with a real salary." It was Baron's second movie acting job after a bizarre 1959 entry into the movie biz filming the washed-up Errol Flynn's last movie, Cuban Rebel Girls, with Fidel Castro's permission while the fighting was still going on. Baron isn't bad as the hit man from Cleveland whose last job in New York City spirals out of control. The striking film got him noticed in Hollywood which led to a television directing career that stretched for decades.

Because Baron had no money, the film was forced to use real locations around New York during the Christmas season, everything from the Village Gate jazz club to snowy tidal basins in Long Island. It was fascinating to see how much has and has not changed since 1960. The character who swipes the movie is the very strange Larry Tucker above playing a low-level criminal fixer, who lives in a tiny dump of an apartment filled with cages filled by rats. Tucker, who died in 2001 in Los Angeles, went on to write comedy for The Danny Kaye Show where he met Paul Mazursky. The two of them collaborated on scripts for two of the essential comedy films of the 1960s, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. With earlier acting cameos in Shock Corridor and Advise and Consent, that was one weird career.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Proximities to Buddha

Last week the front of the Asian Art Museum was covered with signage for their Korean Royals exhibit and for Proximities 2, the second installment of a year-long trio of shows curated by local artist Glen Helfand.

The disappointing Joseon Dynasty Korean exhibit is still there, but Proximities 2 (above) has already been taken away, which is not a great loss. Poor Mr. Helfand was given an impossible task: to do Something Contemporary as an Artistic Reaction to Asia. Still, the two exhibits so far did not need to be this underwhelming. Part 3 will be installed on December 20th in the same, small room wedged between Japan and Korea's permanent collection galleries on the second floor.

In those Japanese galleries, there is the ever present joy of the whimsically beautiful baskets collected by Lloyd Cotsen, including Red Verse above by Maeda Chikubosai...

...and the 1975 Wave by Higashi Takosonosai.

In the nearby Japanese Screens gallery, there is a new installation of Boxing Painting, Feb. 16th, 2009A by Ushio Shinohara.

The old Japanese painter, who has been based in New York since 1969, has completed a recent series of paintings that involve punching a canvas with fists, gloves and color. A documentary called Cutie and the Boxer about Shimohara and his artist wife Evie was released this year, and he is quoted advising, "Be speedy, beautiful and rhythmical."

This visit's favorite Buddha, for some reason, was in the Himalayan galleries, where there was an 18th Century, Qing Chinese Dynasty sculpture of The Buddha Amitayus, who symbolizes infinite life and longevity. May my Buddhist friend, Heidi, enjoy her Christmas birthday for many years more.