Monday, April 29, 2013

Bombers in Boston and Pakistan

Early Sunday afternoon, a group of Shia Muslims from Pakistan arranged for a demonstration in Civic Center Plaza offering condolences over the Boston Marathon bombing while pointing out they have been dealing with the same problem "for centuries."

According to the Canadian exile Murtaza Haider, the radicalized Muslim fighters from the Afghanistan war stirred up violence in Kashmir when they returned to Pakistan a decade ago, but this time around they are taking it out on Shia Muslims in Southwest Pakistan. There have been a trio of absolutely horrendous public bombings in Shia markets, mosques and neighborhoods this year that make Boston look like kids' stuff. For more info, click here for an article in The Telegraph, here for a post at The New Yorker, and here for an article by Kathy Gannon of AP.

The Shia/Sunni divide is best understood as a Protestant/Catholic split of the same basic religion, but except for the Irish, the Prots and Catholics are no longer murdering each other in sectarian violence, something they specialized in for centuries. Of course, part of the escalating problem for Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Mideast is that the Western imperial powers have been playing divide and conquer between the two sects forever, so that everyone has an authentic narrative to tell about the other side selling out like traitors to the conquerors. The Shias, for instance, are the minority ruling power in Syria who have been responsible for the death of tens of thousands of their Sunni citizens, who they conveniently brand as tools of Western imperialism.

In any case, the situation in Pakistan for the Shia minority right now is dire, and it was a pleasure to see that these Bay Area exiles felt confident enough to display their position in a public forum. The real subtext is that the West needs to get the hell out of the Mideast and let the two sides figure out peace on their own, but capitalist global energy politics make that impossible right now.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

battle hymns at Kezar Pavilion

Kezar Pavilion is a huge, decrepit old gymnasium on the Haight-Ashbury side of Golden Gate Park. This weekend it has been the apt setting for four monumental, ambitious choral performances of David Lang's battle hymns in its West Coast debut after a 2009 premiere in Philadelphia at the 23rd Street Armory. The final performance is this Sunday afternoon, and if you have $30 to spare, the hour-long show is very worthwhile.

There are three choruses involved in the production, all under the direction of local choral powerhouse Robert Geary, adding up to approximately 200 performers. The largest contingent, dressed in grey shirts and caps, was the San Francisco Choral Society.

They were joined by a large contingent from the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir above and the professional contemporary music chorus Volti below who doubled as occasional soloists. The Saturday afternoon performance, both musically and in complex, choreographed movement and group formations, was astonishingly good. I have participated in enough large-scale productions at the opera to know how difficult it can be to move herds of musical performers about smoothly and skillfully. This was a triumph for everyone involved.

The piece is in five movements, starting with the children's choir suddenly appearing from hiding places in the bleachers around the gymnasium while singing layers of ethereal a capella music that reverberated throughout the whole space.

The long first movement that constituted the first half, a father's love, was an alphabetical rearrangement of phrases from the famous Civil War letter by Sullivan Ballou to his wife which was to be sent to her if he did not survive the conflict. Joining the children's and then the adult chorus was tenor soloist David Kurtenbach (above left, talking to James Parr), whose exquisite voice resonated through the entire gymnasium as he slowly walked the perimeter of the space. Four soprano soloists also joined the fray, as did nine dancers from the Leah Stein Dance Company below who were among the original commissioners in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, the dancers felt extraneous and distracting as they wound in and out of the choral forces. battle hymns is Minimalist Music with a capital "M," simple phrases and musical progressions layered into a complex whole, and all the dancers' writhing to Twyla Tharp type movement interfered with the austerity of the simpler movement already required of the chorus. In an interesting interview with the composer by Cedric Westphal, Lang states: "The commission was for a chorus. I wrote a piece for chorus. Part of the commissioner was also a choreographer, who then took my music and added choreography to it. I never told the choreographer what to do, and she never told me what to do. The piece has been done with the choreography, and without the choreography. They're not tied together."

At the entrance to Kezar, James and I were asked if we wanted to be "Active Audience Members," and we replied, "Of course." What this meant was being led into the middle of the gym for the central movement, I'll be a soldier, taken from a Stephen Foster song, while surrounded by the standing adult chorus and the crawling, standing and dying children's chorus. The sound was pure bliss, and it was disappointing having to return to the bleachers for the final two movements.

The percussionist in the balcony above, by the way, was Toshi Makihara. He and everyone involved deserves congratulations for a difficult job superbly done.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Blue and Gold City Hall Warriors

San Francisco City Hall has been lit blue and gold this week, and the reasons were mysterious. "Is UC Berkeley in the football playoffs?" my partner Tony asked, and I told him no, it was not football season and they wouldn't be lighting it for Cal anyway.

According to Jim Herd at SF Citizen, the lighting is all about the Golden State Warriors making it to the first round of the NBA playoffs. He thinks it's a presumptuous, in-your-face gesture since San Francisco is "stealing" the Golden State Warriors from Oakland, and putting the team into a controversial new arena on the Embarcadero waterfront.

In any case, it's a pretty color scheme for City Hall, and since the NBA playoffs can stretch for many weeks, it may become the de facto decorative scheme of Civic Center. For those who would like to join the Warriors bandwagon in their first playoff games since 2007, Peter Hartlaub has a funny guide at SFGate.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Robin Sutherland at the SF Conservatory

The tall, gangly, pony-tailed pianist Robin Sutherland above has been a fixture at San Francisco Symphony concerts for the last forty years as their Principal Chair in Keyboards, a position created for him in 1973 by music director Seiji Ozawa. The appointment was unusual in that he was still a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, which he had entered the year before after stints at Colorado colleges and The Juilliard School. The program for last night's Alumni Recital at the Conservatory featuring Sutherland explains:
"In November 1972, the San Francisco Symphony was rehearsing Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 when the piano soloist, faculty member Mack McCray, fell ill. In a panic, the Symphony contacted Milton Salkind, then president of the Conservatory to see about a possible replacement. Quite by coincidence, he dispatched Sutherland. Evidently things went well..."

At last night's concert, Sutherland was joined onstage by new and old musical colleagues and teachers, not to mention a sold-out house filled with friends and admirers. This included at least a dozen San Francisco Symphony ushers such as the pair above, who I was seeing in civilian clothes for the first time.

The first piece on the program was a fabulous stunt, Rachmaninoff's Suite #2 for Two Pianos, where a different pianist joined Sutherland for each of the four movements. I had never heard the music before, and was thrilled by the composer at his wildest and loudest, at times sounding like a full orchestra. "Truly a joyful noise," Sutherland quoted Michael Tilson Thomas about the music. The pianists were all Conservatory alumni, from left to right Nicholas Pavkovic (2011), Christopher Basso (2004), Keisuke Nakagoshi (2006), Scott Foglesong (1979), and Robin Sutherland (1975).

Though comparisons are odious, there was an unavoidable element of Battle of the Bands in this performance, and Keisuke Nakagoshi above right won hands-down. Possibly because he is already part of the ZOFO four-hand piano duo, his playing fitted sensitively and seamlessly with Sutherland, and it was often impossible to tell where one pianist started and the other left off. Keisuke's musicality and the crystalline clarity of his touch in the second Waltz movement were exquisite and inspired Sutherland to some of his most beautiful playing of the evening.

This was followed by the West Coast premiere of Volante by Nicholas Pavkovic, who was performing double-duty as pianist and composer during the first half. It's a three-movement duet for piano and clarinet commissioned by Sutherland, and played with Carlos Julian Ortega above. According to Pavkovic's program notes, he was attempting to integrate Brahms, Poulenc and modal jazz. It didn't work for me at all, sounding conservative and dull, which was a surprise since Pavkovic's music is usually so lively.

After intermission, Sutherland introduced the Faure Piano Quartet #1 by telling the audience that it was scheduled to be played by pianist Mehahem Pressler last year with faculty members (left to right) Ian Swensen on violin, Paul Hersh on viola, and Jennifer Culp on cello. "They didn't play it for whatever reason then, so we're going to do it now with the same scheduled performers as it's one of the most beautiful pieces in the chamber music literature." Unlike Pressler, who performed with the Beaux Arts Trio for over 50 years, Sutherland has been playing his piano over a full orchestra for the last four decades, so it was a very different kind of performance, long on passion but short on subtlety. Ian Swenson, as usual, was awesome.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Trinity Plaza Teardown

After years of controversy and political haggling, the Trinity Plaza apartment building at 8th and Market is finally being torn down.

The original block-long structure was called Del Webb's TowneHouse (see illustration above), built in the 1960s like an alien structure from Phoenix plopped onto a sketchy area of Market Street. The motel was something of a disaster and soon became an apartment complex owned by infamous San Francisco landlord Angelo Sangiacomo. For an incisive and funny history of the place, click here for Willie Morrissey's takedown of both Del Webb who got rich building the Japanese American internment camps and Sangiacomo who's a local, ruthless real estate developer.

The building's loss will not be greatly lamented. In a very funny Yelp review by a recent tenant, they reported: "Trinity Plaza really is the worst apartment ever. Sketchy area, annoying management, really expensive rent prices. Also, we got bed bugs while we were there, and so did a bunch of our neighbors (on the third floor), so it clearly wasn't our fault. Don't move here unless you hate yourself and everything good in life."

In 2005, the former Supervisor Chris Daly worked out a deal where the tenants would not be thrown onto the street but would instead be housed in the fancy new high-rise housing planned by Trinity and its owners, the Sangiacomo family. Say what you will about Daly, at least he didn't publicly worship the local gentry like our present Mayor Lee and the current crop on the Board of Supervisors.

In truth, it does not much matter. Sangiacomo won, and his huge, rather brutal housing structures above are turning a major block of Market and Mission into something new. Maybe it will be better for everyone, and not another misguided disaster dictated by greed.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cherry Blossom Parade Photo Ops

The annual Cherry Blossom Parade uses Civic Center for its staging ground before marching up Polk Street and then taking a left on Post on its way to Japantown.

It's always a pleasure seeing what the anime girls are up to, and each year they have a devoted group of photographers capturing their every mood.

The gentleman sitting on top of a truck above was quite a sight...

...but the hat ladies definitely won the weird fabulousness prize this year.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The 420 Line at SPARC

After an early morning flight from Palm Springs this morning, I took BART into the Civic Center station, and stopped by the medical marijuana dispensary SPARC. In honor of what has become a national holiday for marijuana enthusiasts, the dispensary was offering free lighters, discounted dope, and hourly raffles for its members.

The only problem was that the queue at 9:15 AM was already snaking down Mission Street and rounding the corner at 8th Street. Add in the fact that most shoppers at SPARC tend to be ditherers, and you are looking at a long day in line for bargain hunters.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pedestrians and Passion Pit at Tachevah

Tachevah, a Palm Springs Block Party, had its debut on Wednesday evening in downtown Palm Springs on a vacant lot adjacent to the Spa Resort Casino. The mammoth Coachella Music Festival takes place over two weekends in Indio on the other side of the Coachella Valley, and this year the festival promoter, Goldenvoice, joined with the the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and the local newspaper to offer a free outdoor rock concert in Palm Springs.

Part of the promotion was an online vote by the public to choose four local bands to front for a Coachella headliner who would play at Tachevah. The winning bands included The Pedestrians above, who sounded like a hip-hop Tower of Power. According to the Desert Sun, "The seven-piece Pedestrians co-leaders Mike Lewis and Rob Peterson go back to the Coachella Valley generator parties in the middle of the desert 20 years ago."

In an amusing interview with Robbie Waldman in Palm Springs Life by Caroline Ryder, the musician and producer explains the genesis of the Low Desert sound:
"Palm Springs is a small town with a lot of rich kids, a lot of poor kids, and a lot of talented kids with time on their hands -- many of whom started playing guitars."

Waldman continues:
"In the early '90s, I was only about 14 or 15, but the desert generator parties were happening, and they were unbelievable. Bands would play all night in different spots -- out in Sky Valley, Indio Hills, or some secret High Desert spot -- and they'd play until the generator ran out of gas. You got the sense that your mom and dad didn't do this. Maybe they had Woodstock or something, but they didn't have this."

"Kids didn't have cell phones or computers in those days, so word of the parties would spread around the Low Desert high schools, and then everyone would head out in a gigantic caravan, 60 cars all following each other to the same spot. And that's how the whole desert rock scene came about."

The Coachella headliner turned out to be Passion Pit, a hugely successful synth pop band out of Boston fronted by the magnetic Michael Angelakos above. He would often turn his microphone towards the large crowd of teenagers, who seemed to know all the lyrics by heart, and they would sing the refrains with him.

The band's tour was canceled last year soon after the release of their second album, Gossamer, when Angelakos announced that he needed to be hospitalized for bipolar disorder. He's doing better, and according to Billboard, is even being honored this evening at the Beverly Hilton with an "Erase The Stigma" award for being open about his mental health issues, after which he returns for Weekend Two at Coachella.

The crowd of about 6,000 was mostly sweet, charming high schoolers, with a few older Coachella Festival hipsters like the Japanese couple above sprinkled in. A friend is working this year as a substitute teacher in the Coachella Valley, and he related how pleased he was with the kids. "They are a very mellow bunch. Even the ones out in Desert Hot Springs who come from messed up, meth-head families are surprisingly together."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Downtown Teardown

A huge, block-long, downtown Palm Springs shopping mall built by the DeBartolo family in 1986 is currently being torn down.

There was a close election in November of 2011 authorizing a sales tax increase for the project, with much of the money going to local real estate developer John Wessman.

Unfortunately, Wessman is building a new shopping mall on the site, with plans that include a six-story hotel that will be grotesquely out of place in the low-lying downtown.

Tourists don't go to Palm Springs for a hip, happening, city feel which is how this is being sold. Most of them are trying to escape the freeways and shopping malls that already blot the California landscape. The photo above, by the way, is across the street from the proposed new shopping mall.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Teenage Inspirational

The Palm Springs Art Museum, during its monthly 2nd Free Sunday, was offering lectures, a special film program, and even a classical piano recital of student winners from a Steinway competition.

There were two special exhibits: Beg Borrow and Steal which was an assemblage of contemporary "appropriated" art from the Miami Beach power couple Don and Mera Rubell. There's also a Robert Rauschenberg exhibit of prints he made with the Los Angeles art print house, Gemini.

Neither show did much for me, the Rubell exhibit being brashly confrontational in ways that canceled each other out, and the Rauschenberg felt like the work of a mature artist cashing in on his celebrity. The most interesting temporary exhibit was a competition held for local students, complete with scholarship cash prizes.

The ratio of interesting pieces to outright duds was impressive, and in a nod to the reality that the Coachella Valley is half Mexican, all the signage was bilingual. So Shadow Hills High School student Cecelia Villalobos's photo above is entitled Los amigos te respalden, or Friends Have Your Back.

Victor Huante from Cathedral City High School won a prize with the drawing of the Indian Woman above... did the pencil drawing of an accordion by Mt. San Jacinto High School's Angel Figueroa.

There was the occasional pointed social commentary, too, with Thinspiration or Inspiracion de la delgadez by Palm Springs High School's Andrea Abbas Carrasco. There are handwritten words on the measuring tape spelling out "Cow" and "Useless" and "Obese."

Johnny Galvan from the College of the Desert offered the beautiful and shocking bathroom photo above and called it The Smell or El odor.

A favorite piece was a small ceramic by Ruby Gomez and Melissa Miranda entitled Para que encajar cuando naciste para sobresalir? or Why fit in when you were born to stand out? Why, indeed.