Thursday, January 31, 2013

Take Me Away

A City Hall basement art opening party on Wednesday evening featured another "juried" collaboration between the SF Art Commission and Photo Alliance in another nebulous thematic photo exhibition called Take Me Away, described on the city webpage thusly: "...over 100 works by regional photojournalists and fine artists. Eighteen artists were selected through an open call for submissions that encouraged photographers to reflect on both real and imagined spaces one might visit in order to leave the everyday. The chosen works represent a myriad of places to escape, ranging from virtual space to locations as close as home."

There are two artistic highlights in the exhibition, one that applies to the stated theme and one that has absolutely nothing to do with it except in the most tenuous artspeak sense.

David Gardner (above left, with multimedia guru Chris Okon on the right) has a series of photos of people with their trailers and campers...

...that are beautiful and sensitive.

Further down the hall, Alice Shaw above executes a variation on Cindy Sherman...

...photographing herself with people who "look like me"...

...with sometimes funny and surprising results.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Super Bowl Symphony

In the Civic Center neighborhood, it is not only City Hall which has been dramatically lit in some approximation of San Francisco 49ers red and gold.

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall across the street has also started glowing with the team colors. It is a good scheduling accident that most of the orchestra has Super Bowl Sunday off.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Peggy Cummins and Gun Crazy at Noir City 11

The eleventh annual edition of Eddie Muller's great 10-day Film Noir festival at the Castro Theatre had a sensational opener last night.

The legendary 1950 B-movie, Gun Crazy, about the love affair on the run between two gun fetishist sharpshooters, the male being a sweet, troubled pacifist, and the female a British blonde bombshell sociopath who likes to kill people "when she gets scared."

The boy is played by the troubled John Dall who died at age 52 in 1971, and the girl by Peggy Cummins above in what Muller called "the most ferocious female performance ever captured on celluloid," and he might be right.

Peggy Cummins is still going strong and and looking remarkably attractive at age 87, as you can see in the photo above. She was flown out from her home in England for a personal appearance and interview onstage, and the standing ovation she received from the full house of the Castro Theatre seemed to move her deeply. "When I return home in three days, and I'm at my sink washing the potatoes, doing the everyday things in life we all do, and my son asks me, 'so, how did it go in San Francisco, mum?', how on earth will I be able to describe all of this and the reception you have given me?"

Much of the audience not only dresses up for Noir City, but they are also seriously attentive, with not a single cell phone going off during the showing of Gun Crazy, as poster artist Bill Selby pointed out. In an introductory speech, Eddie Muller claimed that the festival is as much about a group of people "getting out of their houses" and attentively watching a film together on the large Castro Theatre screen, as it is about the movies themselves. A rich community has formed over the last decade around Noir City, and has started including bus tours and a period nightclub party.

The party is taking place next Saturday at the Regency Ballroom on Van Ness and Sutter, and one of the half-dozen acts will be Erin Brazill and the Brazillionaires above, who played a fun, wild set onstage at the Castro before the movie began.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Aether in Hayes Valley

An amusing new structure has appeared on Hayes Street near Octavia Boulevard...

...which consists of three metal and glass shipping containers...

...stacked on top of each other as if a child was playing with building blocks.

It is the home to AetherSF, a branch of the high-end sporting goods clothing store in Los Angeles on Melrose Avenue.

The people working in the tall, narrow space couldn't have been more pleasant on opening day...

...and the second floor glass "atelier" has instantly become the coolest spot in the neighborhood.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

MLK Day 2: Golden Gate Park

We spent much of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day walking down Martin Luther King Drive on the south side of Golden Gate Park from the Haight to the Pacific Ocean.

We detoured through the controversial Botanical Garden, with its new admission kiosks for out-of-towners, and used our San Francisco Golf ID cards to walk through for free.

Even though I was opposed to charging admission for a space that had long been free for all, I may have changed my mind. It was lovely being in a pretty place with such few people and without the suburban riff-raff and tourists who didn't want to throw away $7 for admission to a botanical garden.

Since it costs so much to live in San Francisco, this has became one of the few economic perks of urban citizenship.

We walked around Stow Lake and saw a woman with a headscarf steadily holding an iPad as she captured her children/grandchildren playing at water's edge on her digital device.

It was another reminder, as if Obama's second inauguration day was not enough, that we live in a new world.

Monday, January 21, 2013

MLK Day 1: SFJAZZ Center Opening

The back of the crumbling San Francisco School Board building on Franklin Street was newly decorated this morning with large photos of jazz figures...

...just in time for the Grand Opening of the SFJAZZ Center across the street on Martin Luther King, Jr. morning.

Fell Street was blocked between Franklin and Gough, and a New Orleans style band was playing in the middle of the crowd with a few dancers to liven up the proceedings.

This was followed by a performance of two movements from The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album, composed and conducted by the San Francisco born, New York City based trombonist Jacob Garchik above.

There were horns playing from balconies on every floor of the new SFJAZZ Center...

...along with a quartet on the street led by Garchik himself.

The performance, which sounded a bit like Henry Brant's spatial music, was amazing, and Tony Hurd captured one of the movements on his phone (click here, and note the steady hands).

Everyone was enchanted, including the girl above.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Peer Gynt at the San Francisco Symphony

This week the San Francisco Symphony and its Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas offered a two-hour multimedia condensation of Ibsen's monumental verse play Peer Gynt from 1876. Short scenes played by amplified actors at the front of the stage were bracketed by the original incidental music written by Grieg, along with a few sinister sounding selections from a 1980s ballet version by Alfred Schnittke, and a 20-minute "Ocean Voyage" excerpt from a much longer version of the Peer Gynt tale by British composer Robin Holloway above.

The video projections on the sculptural cloud above the orchestra by Adam Larsen and Cameron Jaye Mock were marvelous and evocative, and the musical performances by orchestra and Symphony Chorus were superb. Though most of the acting was a bit too hearty in a Broadway style for my taste, it wasn't bad, even though the amplification of their voices was tinny and awful. One kept expecting the actors to burst into song, and when soprano Joelle Harvey (below) as Solveig did just that, exquisitely, it was one of the most pleasurable moments of the evening. The event had something of a schizophrenic feel because of the jarringly different stylistic elements, and reactions to the performances have been all over the map, from enthusiastic (Gereben) and appreciative (Vaz) to irritated (Kosman) and semi-appalled (Hirsch).

In 1975, back when A.C.T. was still an interesting theater company, Allen Fletcher mounted a simple, Story Theater style production of the play that was successful enough that it was brought back for a second season in 1976. Stylistically, the play about a rake's progress through life is modeled on Goethe's Faust, which means it's a long, ambitious mixture of low comedy, high philosophy, picaresque adventures, and a host of supernatural elements.

The revelation of these Symphony performances for me was how extraordinary the Grieg music is in its original context, before the composer put together his top tunes into a pair of short suites which have been incessantly played worldwide ever since. It made me wish we were seeing the entire play accompanied by the 90 minutes of Grieg's original score rather than just snippets. The Schnittke and Holloway excerpts were fine, but as my friend Andrew Melomet said in the lobby afterwards, "I really wanted to hear Grieg's 'Arabian Dance' instead." If ever there is money in my life before the button-molder melts me down, a trip to rural Vinstra, Norway has just been added to the bucket list. An annual, August outdoor festival there produces the complete play with Grieg's original music framed by the lake and mountains where most of the story takes place. Now that would be something. (Photo of Joelle Harvey above is by Kristen Loken.)

Friday, January 18, 2013

The SFJAZZ Center 2: The Builders

Wednesday morning there was a press preview at the new SFJAZZ Center, with SF Chronicle writer Spud Hilton above left being shown around the second-floor performer dressing room areas by publicist Marhsall Lamm.

A panel discussion among the designers, builders and visionaries was held on the auditorium's stage. It was moderated by SFJAZZ Executive Operating Director Felice Swapp above and proved to be unexpectedly moving and entertaining.

This was because (from left to right above) the architect Mark Cavagnero, the theatre designer Len Auerbach, and the acoustician Sam Berkow were so obviously proud of their collaboration and the results.

One of them explained, "I usually ask clients what they want in terms of car analogies. A Ferrari, a VW van, a family station wagon? Who is this for and what do you want? Of course, the answer from Randall Kline (below), whose vision this has been for the last 30 years, was ALL OF THEM!" Cavagnero mentioned that even though the entire process had been very challenging, in terms of space, budget and schedule, Kline had also been a dream client because he was open to anything and everything, starting with architectural ideas from various Unitarian and Quaker churches across the country.

Kline interrupted with, "You know I wanted it to be mostly a Ferrari!" before giving an emotional account of how the small, itinerant jazz festival he had co-created had grown over the last 30 years into a thriving institution with its own permanent building.

They discussed the fine details of acoustic decisions and how it related to the architectural decisions, along with how the chairs were fabricated in Finland by specialists who could create curved seats with comfortable upholstery. "We didn't want them too plush," Kline explained, "we wanted people up in their seats with energy. Also, they needed to have cup holders so people could bring in drinks and be relaxed, and they also needed to be easily removable so the stage can be enlarged or the main floor can be used for dancing."

Percussionist John Santos above gave an eloquent speech about the sacred nature of the space, and how it needed to be fueled by the various communities it was serving, many of whom don't usually make it to the Performing Arts Center neighborhood. Santos is one of the five Resident Artistic Directors this year for SFJAZZ in the Center's debut year, along with Regina Carter, Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, and Miguel Zenon.

Santos mentioned how jazz artists are used to crappy sound systems and layouts in various clubs, so that this space was going to be an acoustical dream come true. He was joined by a quartet of other musicians for a short concert, and we were encouraged to wander around the entire theater, checking out the sound from different locations while they played.

In a word, the sound is great, and the huge banks of speakers were subtle in their ability to make the audio even in every nook of the auditorium, including the two balcony rows with their swivel chairs above.

Also on the panel was celebrity chef Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame above. He's putting away his Vietnamese spring rolls for a bit and is creating a bar/cafe called South, specializing in cocktails and New Orleans influenced bar food (photo of the space on Fell Street is below). "I wanted to start with breakfast, but then had to figure out how to transform a Southern cafe to a fast-paced bar and dinner restaurant serving people quickly before a performance in a limited space. It's been quite a challenge."

Phan looked genuinely thrilled to be part of the SFJAZZ Center, and talked about coming to San Francisco as a busboy in the 1970s from Vietnam via Guam. His tale highlighted the fact that, other than the New York based Berkow, all these celebrated architects, designers and artists, with projects around the world, were actually based in San Francisco. That hire local ethos is unusual for most local cultural institutions, and probably contributes to the very good energy the SFJAZZ Center projects.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

SFJAZZ Center 1: The Building

The new, $63 million SFJAZZ Center has just arisen at the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets where the modestly scaled three-story building glows in the morning sun.

That stretch of Franklin Street from Hayes to Market has long felt barren, so the glass-and-concrete modernist building already feels like a major transformer in an increasingly lively neighborhood.

Though the 750-seat Robert N. Miner auditorium that is the heart of the Center is virtually complete, some of the public spaces on the first floor are still being worked on by a small army of construction workers in anticipation of the Opening Day ribbon cutting on Monday the 21st. A Grand Opening Concert, emceed by Bill Cosby with an impressive roster of jazz superstars, follows on Wednesday the 23rd.

The philosophy behind the building is to make it as open and welcoming to the surrounding community as possible. Part of that mission involves the glass-walled rehearsal and performance space along Franklin Street above called the Joe Henderson Lab. The sights and sounds coming from the very public room should be an exciting addition to the neighborhood.

In addition, SFJAZZ is offering low-priced courses in digital music production to the public, divided into classes for adults and teens.

There are three wraparound lobbies encircling the single auditorium, and the ground floor is attached to the second level by a striking modernist stairway.

There you are greeted by one of three hand-painted ceramic tile murals which are a collaboration by California artists Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet.

On the second level, there are pair of bars and balconies at either end...

...and the main entrance to the auditorium...

...with its steeply raked stadium seating surrounding a powerful and extraordinarily refined speaker system and a flexible stage.