Friday, August 30, 2013

The Retirement of Linda Chung

Today there is cause for both celebration and mourning. Linda Chung above, the owner/manager of Henry's Hunan Restaurant, is retiring. Linda is the daughter of the famous founding couple Henry and Linda Chung, who opened their first spicy Hunan restaurant on Kearny Street in the 1970s. After the 1989 earthquake knocked that building down, the restaurant moved to 874 Sacramento Street between Kearny and Montgomery, and they have been feeding me healthy, delicious food for over half my life.

The constant work and stress finally got to Linda, so this Labor Day Weekend is her official retirement, which is good news for her and unsettling news for her customers since she was the heart and soul of the place. Thanks, Linda, for decades of kindness and great food.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tropical Storm Ivo in Palm Springs

The remnants of Tropical Storm Ivo which has been barreling through Baja California this weekend is now raining down on Southwestern Deserts, including the Coachella Valley where the San Jacinto Mountains surrounding Palm Springs are shrouded in mist.

Though more humid than usual, it is also the first time in anyone's memory that the temperature was in the high 70's in August during the day.

It was a perfect excuse for an impromptu pool party.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Let Our Federal Rooftop Garden Grow

The Beaux Arts Federal building at 50 United Nations Plaza above is being newly rehabbed after standing empty for the better part of the last decade. The building used to house Health and Human Services offices, which is why there was an AIDS tent city in the early 1980s protesting the government's inaction on the epidemic. Its new incarnation will be as headquarters for the Pacific Rim region of the General Services Administration, which stretches from Arizona and Nevada to Guam, and there will be a ribbon-cutting ceremony this October.

As part of the redesign of the building, a "green roof" has been installed complete with sod, grass and wildflowers to capture stormwater...

...along with a large array of solar panels.

Last Wednesday a small group of journalists were invited for a press conference to spread the word of this new ecological wonder. From left to right above are SF Planning Director John Rahaim, GSA Regional Administrator Ruth Cox, Green Roofs for Healthy Cities President Steven Peck, and SFPUC Assistant Manager of External Affairs Juliet Ellis.

Ms. Cox was enthusiastic and lively in her advocacy for green roofs and walls, mentioning that huge projects had already been undertaken on federal buildings in Washington, D.C., among other locations. Peck is the founder of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a trade association based in Toronto, Canada. Their annual conference, CitiesAlive, will be held in San Francisco this year from October 23rd-26th at the Marriott Marquis, in partnership with the SF Planning Department and the SF Public Utilities Commission.

Peck brought up the example of World War Two Victory Gardens as a model for urban food production on rooftops, though he probably didn't realize that San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza already hosted a huge Victory Garden in 2008. It was installed by Chez Panisse's Alice Waters and then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, and it involved tearing out a perfectly lovely lawn which has never reappeared, replaced by hard packed dirt for the last five years.

Speaking of San Francisco municipal waywardness, SFPUC External Affairs Assistant Manager Juliet Ellis, above left, is the $195,000 per year bureaucrat who this spring was discovered funneling San Francisco taxpayer funds to a nonprofit in Oakland where she was a paid member of the Board. Her boss, Harlan Kelly, just announced that the $200,000 grant had been refunded and that Juliet's heart was in the right place, so that everyone should move on and not look at this train wreck. (Click here for a Matier & Ross post and here for the Ethics Alarms blog detailing her behavior.)

SF Planning Director John Rahaim, above right, has been involved in his own share of controversies (click here and here), but so far he hasn't been accused of enriching himself personally through his job. Rahaim's presentation on Wednesday was refreshingly honest about how San Francisco is behind the curve when it comes to the green roof and walls movement, with our only real example being the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

The rooftop at 50 United Nations Plaza will unfortunately be off limits to both the public and government workers in the building, but it will make for some lovely views for neighbors, and there is a huge, newly redesigned outdoor courtyard in the center of the building.

May a thousand rooftops bloom.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Seasons in Pacific Heights

The San Francisco Choral Society sang Franz Joseph Haydn's last, monumental oratorio, Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons), in two performances this weekend at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Pacific Heights. The results were beautiful, magnificent and fun. (The above photo is of the performers in a glass-enclosed warmup room viewed from an outdoor garden at the church.)

The libretto to the three-hour oratorio from 1799 was based on poems by the Scottish poet James Thomson about the annual cycle of seasons from Spring to Winter as experienced by rural peasants. These were then loosely translated by Haydn's wealthy patron/librettist Gottfried von Swieten in Vienna after they successfully collaborated on The Creation.

Though the piece ends with praise for God Almighty, the spirit of the oratorio is almost entirely pagan, with paeans to young love, the fertility of nature, hunting, drinking wine, and the pleasures of community. Even the final Winter section, which threatens to turn gloomy when a traveler in the icy cold confronts his own mortality, has a happy ending when he comes across a cottage with a "glimmer of a light nearby." The moment is like an "up" Winterreise.

The San Francisco Choral Society is composed of amateurs, in that they don't get paid for their efforts, but in every other respect they are astonishingly professional. In the last year I have seen them perform Orff's Carmina Burana in Davies Hall, David Lang's battle hymns in Kezar Pavilion, and Haydn's Die Jahreszeiten. Three more different pieces of choral music would be hard to imagine, but they sang all of them with stylistic grace and beautiful sound. The acoustics in Calvary Presbyterian, by the way, are bright, warm and clear, though the sightlines from most of the pews leave a lot to be desired.

The oratorio featured the three soloists above as individual peasants Hanne (soprano Marcelle Dronkers), Lukas (tenor Brian Thorsett), and Simon (bass-baritone Eugene Brancoveanu). Dronkers was a fine musical performer, but I didn't particularly care for the timbre of her voice which is completely subjective on my part. Brancoveanu has a huge, ringing baritone that can be lovely, but on Sunday he was pushing his voice and oversinging in the small church, which didn't suit Haydn at all. Brian Thorsett, on the other hand, was exquisite, modulating his volume depending on the moment, and his German diction was so good that it felt as if you could understand every word whether you spoke the language or not. Thorsett has been specializing and excelling in performances of Benjamin Britten recently, and it was a joy to hear him sound this good in different music.

In the wrong hands, Haydn can quickly become a bore, but Artistic Director Robert Geary above turned out to be a wonderful conductor for this music, keeping the long piece lively, textured, and full of humor. The orchestral accompaniment by the professional California Chamber Symphony was superb, highlighted by solos for almost every instrumentalist.

The Choral Society's next concert is at the huge St. Ignatius Church in November where they will be performing Rachmaninoff's Vespers. If the recent past is any indication, the concerts are not to be missed.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Construction and Deconstruction

The skinning of the skyscraper on 100 Van Ness continues apace.

The partially disassembled tower looms over the neighborhood like some warning totem of impending disaster ahead.

Meanwhile, a new set of luxury condos is being assembled near the corner of Ivy and Gough Streets in the Hayes Valley. Its shingled facade looks charmingly old-fashioned in the context of the cookie-cutter, modernist steel and glass lofts rising all around it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Six Tenors at the Merola Grand Finale

This year's group of aspiring opera stars in the Merola summer training program may have been the strongest and most consistent crop in the program's long history. The proof was in a concert last Saturday at the San Francisco Opera House where a couple of dozen singers performed arias both famous and obscure, along with various extended operatic scenes over the course of three hours.

There always seem to be plenty of decent baritones and sopranos in the program, but tenors are a rarer and more problematic voice type for some reason. What was freakish this year were that the six tenors this summer ranged from very good to ready-for-stardom. Casey Finnegan (above left), who performed the small role of a foppish Don Basilio in Le Nozze di Figaro earlier this summer, sang a long aria on Saturday from Weber's Der Freischutz and he brought down the house with a strong, supremely musical rendition. Pene Pati (above center), performing a scene with the excellent Maria Valdes as Manon in Massenet's opera, confirmed that he is ready to be a superstar tenor at the age of 25 in any opera house in the world right now. Robert Watson (above right), who was my favorite voice in this summer's The Rape of Lucretia as the Male Chorus, confirmed his Benjmamin Britten credentials while passionately singing Captain Vere in a scene from Billy Budd with the fine Alex DeSocio as Billy and Thomas Richards as Claggart. (Every year one or two participants get the shaft in terms of performance time, and this year it was Richards who seemed to be treated as Merola's poor relation.)

The Tenorthon continued with Efrain Solis (above left) flexibly singing a funny duet with baritone John Arnold from Rossini's La Cenerentola. His fine performance was marred only by what seemed to be an extended, archaic fag joke from apprentice stage director George Cederquist that was borderline offensive. Issachah Savage (above center) sang Mein lieber Schwann from Wagner's Lohengrin in a huge, ringing voice that is probably going to be seeing a lot of work because voices this big are rare. Finally, Matthew Newlin (above right, with Kate Allen), performed a fleet footed duet from Offenbach's La belle Helene in a light, beautiful tenor.

All the performances were on a set borrowed from this fall's upcoming Falstaff production, and La Cenerentola aside, the simple direction by Cederquist was fine. The conducting by John DeMain was consistently mediocre, and though there probably wasn't a whole lot of rehearsal time, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra is a much better ensemble than we heard on Saturday. It didn't matter, because the Merolini more than compensated musically. (All photos by Kristen Loken.)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Center for New Music in the Tenderloin

The Center for New Music, a visionary new arts space, opened last fall in the heart of the Tenderloin District.

The two-story Center at 55 Taylor, a few doors down from the Golden Gate Theatre on Market Street, has been under construction since its inception...

...while still managing to offer 53 different concerts in its small performance hall.

In an explanatory post on their well designed website, Executive Director Adam Fong writes:
The phrase “radical collaboration” has been more frequently used in projects aiming to protect nature and its scarce resources. At the Center for New Music, what we’re proposing is protection for a different kind of endangered species: the creative musician...Here in San Francisco, I’ve felt a strong need for collaborative workspace, affordable rehearsal space, a small performance space for new music, and a platform for administrative support and collaboration. About two years ago, I posed a simple question to my friend and fellow composer Brent Miller: What would we do if we had a space that was all about new music? We started asking other musicians and music presenters the same question. In the fall of 2012, the Center for New Music was born.

Managing Director Miller above and Fong did their homework and planning, but essentially opened the space on a wing and a prayer, with a little startup assistance from public mid-Market improvement funds. After much coaxing over the last year, other arts groups have been moving their offices into the building. The tenants so far include the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the venerable San Francisco Cinematheque experimental film/video organization, and the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

In the same post by Fong below, he concludes:
As a new non-profit with a street-level space and mighty-big windows, we’re asked almost daily, “so what is this place?” We usually talk about the daytime co-working, the rehearsal studio that’ll soon be built out, evening performances, and member workshops. We talk about the incredible display in the window of experimental musical instruments [currently Invented Instruments by David Samas above]. We talk about being musicians and composers ourselves, about learning, and about sharing lives in music.

What I hope we convey, though, is that we are offering a space for radical collaboration. Why should there be barriers between organizations and individuals? Shouldn’t it be easy for a young performer to meet and learn from a more established one? How else can we possibly learn from each other? This is why our mission statement uses the words “efficiency,” “integration,” and “community.” Yes, what we do in here is about music, but our purpose does not stop there. Our purpose is to build and improve the system that makes the music possible.

The programs we’re implementing are intended to bring in a spectrum of users: we have curated concerts, but anyone can join as an individual member and put on a show. There are private offices for established organizations, but there’s also co-working options for part-timers, and drop-in benefits if you just need to have a meeting or work for a few hours near a bunch of other musicians and producers.

Over time I believe the ethos behind all of this will become more apparent. Our theory is that all of this sharing and collaboration will build a stronger and more inviting new music community, a stronger new music scene, and ultimately more opportunities for everyone.
The philosophy sounds a bit like an updated Henry Cowell, who in his own time helped and encouraged more fellow composers than any other American.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Cyrus Cylinder at the Asian

For the next two months, the Asian Art Museum is hosting the Cyrus Cylinder above, along with a dozen rare treasures from the Persian Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE) that was centered in ancient Babylon.

Cyrus the Great conquered the ancient city without bloodshed in 539 BCE and instituted religious freedoms and humanistic reforms which were inscribed into Babylon cuneiform writing and distributed on plaques, tablets, parchment, and sealed cylinders. The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered during a British Museum excavation of Babylon in 1879 and has become a much-studied and revered artifact. (Guest hand model in the above photo is Axel Feldheim.)

In 2010-2011, the cylinder went on tour to Tehran, where half a million people saw the exhibit, which brings up the question of why the cylinder resides in London rather than in Iraq, home of ancient Babylon, or Iran.

As usual, Britain's centuries-old history of worldwide colonial exploitation, theft, torture and murder goes unexamined while we wallow in Downton Abbey worship instead.

The cylinder and accompanying objects are in a small room on the second floor of the Asian Art Museum, between the Japanese and Korean wings, and are beautifully presented.

Strangely, the exhibit transported me to the imagined ancient world conjured by sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany in his Return to Nevèrÿon series. According to a quote from the author on Wikipedia:
In discussing the relation between sword and sorcery and science fiction, Delany notes: “sword and sorcery represents what can still be imagined about the transition between a barter economy and a money economy,” while “science fiction represents what can be most safely imagined about the transition from a money economy to a credit economy”. He goes on to redescribe this relationship in terms of a mathematical theory, put forward by G. Spencer-Brown, having to do with content, image, and reflection, which basically holds that when one moves from a content to an image to a reflection, one reverses the form of the content.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pistahan Parade 2: Working It

The Philippines have been conquered by many cultures over the centuries...

...from Muslim tribes in Borneo to Spanish explorers starting with Magellan... the United States at the turn of the 19th-20th century after the Spanish-American War.

It was World War Two Japan that finally installed an indigenous modern government...

...and their first real independence arrived in 1946.

Filipinos in turn have been emigrating to countries worldwide, working as nurses, firemen such as the above...

...and even striking BART employees.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Pistahan Parade 1: Dancing in the Streets

Pistahan, the 20-year old San Francisco weekend party celebrating all things Filipino, started with a parade on Saturday from Civic Center down Market Street to Yerba Buena Gardens.

Every other group in the parade seemed to be dancing and singing...

...bringing a welcome dose of good energy to the usually grimy corner of Grove and Market.

The Westlake School for the Performing Arts contingent was one of the more delightful groups...

...singing a song about going to the beach and jumping to the sky...

...while a dozen kids of every size...

...performed a choreographed routine that was infectiously fun.

Even the Kaiser Hospital nurses were doing an aerobics dance routine... an instructor on the back of a float led them through their paces.