Thursday, July 31, 2014

Windows on Hayes Street

A residential building on Hayes Street between Gough and Octavia is finally getting some windows on its western facing wall.

Unfortunately, it looks like they are arriving just as a new development goes up next door in one of the few empty lots left from the removal of the doubledecker freeway that ran through the Hayes Valley until the early 1990s.

Update: Gosh, did I ever get that one wrong. The residential building just lost their existing western facing windows in advance of the new development.

Meanwhile, directly across the street a narrow little condo complex has wedged its way in between an existing building and the Aether clothing shop yards away.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Turkish Slave

A new set of eyes is looking inside my bedroom windows from banners on Franklin Street.

They are advertising the three-month visit of Parmigianino's Schiava Turca, a famous 16th century painting from Parma, Italy which stopped for a visit at New York's Frick Museum in Manhattan before settling in at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco until October 5th.

Her official unveiling was on Saturday where there was a concert and a lecture by Aimee Ng below from the Frick museum.

She explained that the "Turkish Slave" of the title is a misnomer, since it's undoubtedly a painting of an upper-class Northern Italian woman wearing a balzo, which was a fashionable headdress of the time that looked like a Turkish turban.

The Italian Consulate and the Italian Cultural Institute helped sponsor a lovely welcoming party with prosciutto, Parma cheeses, Italian wines, and museum curators such as Melissa Buron above...

...but my favorite moment of the afternoon was watching a wedding party in the courtyard going gonzo before the security guards told us all to get the heck out of there and stop having fun.

Monday, July 28, 2014

American Bach Soloists and Mary Wilson

The fifth annual summer festival by the American Bach Soloists wrapped up at the San Francisco Conservatory a couple of Sundays ago with their traditional survey of Bach's Mass in B Minor performed by teachers and students side by side. The previous evening they gave a "Distinguished Artist" concert with the teaching staff along with soprano Mary Wilson singing Handel and J.S. Bach.

Unlike the very lively opening concert of the festival called Bach's Inspiration, this evening got off to a bit of a placid start. Wilson sings everything perfectly but without much dramatic variety, and the most expressive sounds came from Sandra Miller on flute above during Bach's Non sa che sia dolore which played like a duet for Baroque flute and soprano.

The evening exploded with energy after intermission in a performance of Vivaldi's Concerto in B minor for 4 violins, with soloists (above, left to right) Elizabeth Blumenstock, Robert Mealy, Katherine Kyme, and Noah Strick.

In fact, at this particular concert, Vivaldi won the Battle of the Baroque Composers by a landslide.

Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas (above left) came out for the final number to conduct the chamber orchestra in a Vivaldi solo soprano cantata, In furore iustissimae irae.

The performance was splendid, and Mary Wilson got into the vivacious spirit of the music, though she reverted to perfect form for her two Handel opera aria encores.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Gray Brechin and The Rincon Annex Murals

The historical geographer Gray Brechin (above) wrote the powerful history book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. It was published in 1999 by UC Berkeley Press which demonstrated some courage because the book ends with a damning, detailed chapter about the university's own history of intellectually rationalizing and fostering war through most of the early 20th century. The book is eye-opening in many ways, starting with its illustrations of a few of the outrageously racist, warmongering public statues that are dotted throughout San Francisco.

In a foreword written for a 2006 reprinting, Brechin wrote that "I was gratified by the popular response to Imperial San Francisco, but stymied as well by the horrific worldwide events that followed its publication and seemed to bear out my thesis. Seeking a way out of my own paralysis, I began to investigate the accomplishments of the New Deal...[In his 1944 State of the Union Speech] Franklin Delano Roosevelt pondered the forces that had turned so many cities to ashen wastelands. Could the productive capacity of modern technology be used to abort the ancient cycle?...Future security required a new course — positive actions never before tried on anything like the scale he proposed — for “an equally basic essential to peace is a decent standard of living for all individual men and women and children in all Nations. Freedom from fear is eternally linked with freedom from want.”

As he started his New Deal studies, Brechin was surprised that there was no existant database or set of records detailing the physical accomplishments of Roosevelt's New Deal get-the-country-to-work programs which dramatically shaped and improved the public infrastructure of the United States. So, with an improvised group of historians and preservationists who are fascinated by the period, they started an online resource called The Living New Deal (click here) to map the buildings and artwork across the country. FDR was a lifelong stamp collector, so many of the New Deal projects involved grandly built post offices throughout the country, many of them adorned with murals created by the finest artists of the time.

A couple of weeks ago, Brechin led a tour of the Rincon Annex lobby in downtown San Francisco, which is completely wrapped by a remarkable, politically controversial set of 27 murals by Anton Refregier called The History of San Francisco. (Author Jack London is depicted in a panel devoted to the pioneer era arts scene.)

The first panels depict San Francisco's original inhabitants, which Brechin noted were unusually respectful in their depiction of Native Americans.

The arrival of European civilization is represented by Sir Francis Drake above, ready to conquer the world.

"Note the blood at the tip of his sword," Brechin pointed out. "There are subtle messages woven throughout all of the panels which Refregier knew he couldn't make explicit."

"Refgregier, in all of these panels, puts the workers in the foreground, and the bosses, in this case the Franciscan missionaries, are usually in the background."

"Does anybody know what the red star in California's flag stands for?" Brechin asked the Labor Fest tour group, and we were all stumped. It turns out that the red star the bear is looking at stands for Texas, with the implication that California should emulate that state in its violent annexation of territory from Mexico.

Chinese railway builders figure prominently in one panel, one of many outrages to conservative political sensibilities when the entire work was finished in 1948, eight years after it was begun. Republican Congressman Richard Nixon and Senator Hubert Scudder were two of the anti-Communist demagogues of the time who wanted the work destroyed because it "defamed pioneers and reflected negatively on California's past."

There have been other threats to the murals' existence, including real estate developers wanting to tear down the entire building for office skyscrapers in the 1970s. Thanks in part to Brechin's work with the Heritage Foundation at the time, the lobby and its murals were saved and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It now serves as one entryway to the Rincon Center office/apartment complex that takes up an entire downtown block.

In a series of lectures and op-ed pieces, Brechin has been raising the alarm about other New Deal post offices from Berkeley to the Bronx which are being sold off at bargain prices that stink of insider deals by CBRE. In a December 2013 article for the San Francisco Chronicle, Brechin cited:
"In an e-book, "Going Postal," by independent investigative journalist Peter Byrne, it was found that the real estate giant CBRE, which the Postal Service has exclusively contracted to manage its leased and owned properties, has often sold them at below-market rates to buyers with direct ties to CBRE itself. Private-equity investor Richard C. Blum, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairs CBRE and has a large stake in the company. Byrne found, in at least one instance, Feinstein personally intervened in a sale that could have benefited her husband's firm."

Brechin concluded,
"The fire sale of postal properties is a textbook case of a favored few squeezing profits from a manufactured crisis. In an April 10 letter to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe claimed that e-mail's inroads into first-class mail delivery have forced him to radically downsize his workforce and sell the public's property. He neglected to add that the "reform" - read privatization - of the Postal Service has long been a stated goal of conservative think tanks. That reform could be accomplished by bankrupting the Postal Service.

Nearly all of the huge annual deficits recently racked up by the Postal Service are the result of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, passed by a voice vote of Congress at the end of 2006. The act forces the Postal Service to prepay retiree health care for 75 years into the future within just 10 years. It also hamstrings the Postal Service from providing services that would effectively compete with the private sector.

A June audit of the Postal Service by its inspector general found "poor oversight" of its contract with CBRE. The inspector general is now conducting a further investigation into the questionable disposal of historic post offices. Those properties, as well as a service guaranteed by the Constitution, belong to all Americans. They should not be corralled for the few."
On the tour, Brechin made the interesting observation that most of the WPA projects were well audited and that neoliberal corruption involving large public works projects were not the norm as they are today. "Look at the difference between the construction of the original Bay Bridge and what happened with the recent rebuild of the eastern span." Though Senator Feinstein and her greedy husband have not wreaked anything like the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake depicted above, their influence over the decades has also been essentially destructive for the general public in San Francisco and beyond.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Working on Van Ness

The Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue has been wrapped in black for its retrofit...

...while construction workers climbed around the rooftop on Tuesday.

Down below, there was a small army of teenagers recruited by the Department of Public Works to work on the planted medians of Van Ness Avenue between Grove and Turk Streets.

It was good seeing the city offer summer jobs to "disadvantaged youth" for a public works project rather than the usual lip service.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Free SF Symphony Concert in Civic Center This Sunday

This Sunday, July 27th at 2 PM, there will be a free concert given by the San Francisco Symphony.

The program includes the Mendelssohn violin concerto played by the baby-faced 24-year-old soloist Benjamin Beilman above left, along with Edwin Outwater conducting a few musical bon-bons by Mozart and Tchaikowsky. If you are thinking of attending, my suggestion is to bring a blanket and/or beach chairs because the hard-packed dirt seating area is uncomfortable.

The quadrangle was a lawn for decades before then-Mayor Gavin Newsom had it ripped out in the summer of 2008 for Alice Water's "Victory Garden," and the grass was never replaced for some reason. Newsom is the binge thinker who gifted the city with a $15 million debt via his embrace of the America's Cup races, gave us the disastrous Ed Lee as his successor "caretaker" Mayor, and is currently suing San Francisco to overturn the recently passed Proposition B. In his role as one of three members of the California State Lands Commission, Newsom doesn't believe voters should have any say in local land use decisions. If his casual destruction of the Civic Center lawn is any indication, he's the one who should be restricted from those kinds of decisions.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bach's Inspiration

The American Bach Soloists opened their annual fortnight summer Festival & Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory on Friday evening with a concert entitled Bach's Inspiration that consisted of one unexpectedly beautiful musical treat after another.

The concert started with a short, wild cantata by J.S. Bach's older cousin, Johann Christoph Bach, taken from the Book of Revelation entitled Es erhub sich ein Streit im Himmel about the war in heaven between Michael and his angels and Satan and his dragon, complete with drums, brass, five soloists and an exquisite chamber chorus. Leading the energetic violin section was Elizabeth Blumenstock and Robert Mealy above.

This was followed by Jesu, meines Lebens Leben, a chorale for four soloists and the same chorus from one of J.S. Bach's composing heroes, Dieterich Buxtehude, that was similarly expressive.

Derek Chester above was the tenor soloist for Johann Kuhnau's early 18th century cantata Wie schon leutet der Morgenstern, with Chester weaving in an out of the chamber orchestra and chorus quite elegantly.

The only dull spot on the program was Frederick the Great's Concerto for Flute in C Major (#3), which brought to mind Gordon Getty's subsidized compositions, though at least Frederick mostly confined himself to composing tranverse flute sonatas, which was his own instrument. Sandra Miller performed her best on Friday, but after the great choral music, it felt like a letdown. There was no such problem with Alessandro Marcello's 1717 Concerto for Oboe in D Minor, dispatched by the small orchestra and soloist Debra Nagy above with stylish energy, helped by the fact that the piece is one of the best Italian style concerti ever written.

The wonderful capstone of the evening was J.S. Bach's rewrite of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, which is called Tilge, Hochster, meine Sunden in German. Possibly because good Lutheran Protestants are not Mary worshipers like Holy Roman Papists, the text has been changed from a Latin lament by the Virgin Mary standing at the cross under her crucified son, and becomes an entreaty from a sinner to God. Although slightly reorchestrated by Bach, it's essentially the same music, and the performance by countertenor Eric Jurenas and soprano Mary Wilson above on Friday was simple and moving, and the blending of their two contrasting sopranos was often miraculous. At times, you couldn't make out which soprano was starting a musical phrase and who was finishing it. Really, really lovely.

The Festival continues through next Sunday, and there are free seminars during the day, $10 student concerts in the evening, and performances by a commingling of students and teachers throughout next weekend. Highly recommended. Click here for a schedule.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

World Cup Final in Civic Center

A huge crowd showed up for the Sunday noontime live broadcast in San Francisco's Civic Center of the World Cup Final from Brazil.

There were a pair of screens set up at the corner of McAllister and Polk where the Argentine fans congregated...

...while another pair of screens were set up in front of the hard-packed dirt in the center of the plaza...

...which is where the Deutschland fans had set up camp.

The Argentine crowd was enthusiastic and enormous fun to watch, and their team performed valiantly...

...but the heavily favored Germany triumphed in extra time for a thrilling finish.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlie Takes a Streetcar Named Desire

The summer-long Merola Opera training program for young professionals started its public performances last Thursday with a reduced orchestration version (in a nice job by Peter Grunberg) of Andre Previn and Philip Littell's 1998 opera, A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the famous Tennessee Williams play. I was having problems with a persistent cough, so ducked out after the first act, but was impressed with the production while reacting to the opera in the same way as during its starry Renee Fleming debut. The music and the libretto don't add a single thing to the beautifully written original play, and in fact tend to obliterate the natural musicality of Williams' writing genius.

My concert companion Charlie Lichtman sat through the entire three acts on Thursday and wrote me this report:

When I saw the original opera ’Streetcar’ in the Opera House, I didn’t particularly care for the piece, but on seeing the broadcast of the same production on PBS TV, I liked it better. It didn’t work for me in the Opera House because the story is so intimate, to be viewed close-up rather than at a distance, and I hoped that a smaller venue would help. The junior high school Everett Auditorium is a much cozier room than the the Opera House, and I was hoping for the best, but overall the evening was a disappointment. The individual elements of the performance were mostly quite good, but the sum of the parts did not add up to a particularly memorable whole.

Steven Kemp’s static set of the Kowalski apartment was visually interesting, and integrated intelligently with the action of the story. Eric Watkins’ lighting was, for the most part, well conceived, except for the Act Three ‘what time is it?’ sequence, when the lights were brought down and back up again too often to represent the passage of time, and became annoying. Kristi Johnson’s costumes were true to the period, location, and characters.

The singers were all in fine voice. There were a couple of stand-out moments, including the extended arias of Julie Adams (Blanche Dubois) and Casey Candebat (Mitch) in the second and third acts, which were much appreciated by the audience. The second act scene with the young newspaper collector (Mingjie Lei) and Blanche almost worked. Upon realizing that he was being seduced, the collector had a look on his face as if he was surprised about nearly getting lucky, instead of appearing genuinely embarrassed. That relatively small directorial touch ruined the otherwise well-performed scene.

Thomas Gunther presented a convincing Stanley Kowalski. Although admittedly not as physically flawless as his iconic predecessors (Marlon Brando and Rod Gilfrey, among others), he certainly looked working-class enough for me. His actions in the later scenes of the opera, especially when drunk, convincingly exposed the more brutish side of his character. Unfortunately, and this has nothing to do with Mr. Gunther, both the love scene with Stella and the rape of Blanche were accomplished in less than thirty seconds each, which rendered both scenes silly.

After seeing the debut of the opera, I realized that none of the music stayed with me. Seeing it again Thursday evening, Stella’s post-coitus humming music was the only moment that was immediately recognizable, where the orchestration got down to a more primal level, and it made me realize why I didn’t like the opera overall – it was the music. Previn was attempting to approach some kind of New Orleans jazz sound, but it seemed more jazz for the upper class, not working class. George Gershwin “got it” with Porgy and Bess, even Leonard Bernstein “got it” with West Side Story. Previn composed a whole lot of music for Streetcar, but it wasn’t the right fit.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Meditating Under The Palms

Staring up at the 51 palm trees surrounding our little condo complex in Palm Springs...

...while lowering one's core temperature in the pool... a perfect way to meditate on the purposes of the universe.