Sunday, August 31, 2014

SF Symphony Fall 2014 Preview

In olden San Francisco, the 1970s to be exact, the end was near for the concept of first-run and second-run movie theaters. At that time the Embassy, a 1905 vaudeville house turned movie palace at 7th and Market, was an ancient throwback which still hosted Depression-era cash prize drawings from the stage between double features of films so dissimilar it was often a surreal joke. My favorite weird pairing was Ken Russell's lurid, X-rated 1971 film, The Devils with Vanessa Redgrave as a nun being exorcised by Oliver Reed, followed by the black-and-white 1954 Hollywood boardroom melodrama, Executive Suite, with an all-star cast including Barbara Stanwyck and William Holden. On what alternative planet were these two films supposed to have any kind of aesthetic correlation?

This memory is prompted by the opening of San Francisco Symphony's 2014-15 season this Wednesday, which has wonderful music scattered throughout the year, but quite a few bizarre juxtapositions on single programs. Take the concerts of September 18th through the 21st, which start with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. This is followed by a wildly inventive "spatial music" piece by Henry Brant written specifically for Davies Hall in 2001, where an organist wails and improvises away while the orchestra is broken up and stationed throughout the entire large concert hall. I heard the premiere with the composer playing the organ himself, and it was stimulating fun, but how does it correlate in any way with a chamber concerto by Bach? After intermission, the full orchestra will reassemble on stage and play Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Executive Suite, meet The Devils.

The following week, from September 25th to September 29th, Tilson Thomas above conducts a program that features music from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, including Ligeti's Lux aeterna, R. Strauss's Also sprach Zarathustra, and J. Strauss, Jr.'s Blue Danube Waltz. However, the first half of the program is a short piece by Lukas Foss and Charles Ives' Three Places in New England. That's some serious Embassy Theater eclecticism. There's also a number of instances where a piece I really want to hear, such as the Britten Violin Concerto on October 15th to October 18th, is bookended by pieces I really don't want to hear live again, such as Barber's Adagio for Strings and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances. In fact, I am taking a sabbatical from Rachmaninoff for the indefinite future because the composer was not all that prolific and the same damned pieces of his are performed repeatedly every year at the San Francisco Symphony.

So, enough with the whining and on to a few recommendations, starting with that Bach/Brant/Tchaikovsky program just because Brant's Ice Field, which managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for music that year, is such a rare, interesting bird and can only be heard as intended in Davies Hall. On October 29th to November 1st, there will be three performances of Mahler's massive Symphony No. 7, a relative rarity in the context of Mahler performances with Tilson Thomas conducting music at which he and this orchestra usually excel. On November 8th, you have another chance to hear Samuel Adams' Drift and Providence, Gil Shaham (above) as soloist in Prokofiev's Violin Concerto NO. 2, and Ravel's complete Daphnis et Chloe.

The great, dynamic Vladimir Jurowski above brings the London Philharmonic Orchestra to Davies Hall October 12th and 13th for two programs, one with Dvorak/Prokofiev/Tchaikovsky and the second with Lindberg/Rachmaninoff/Shostakovich. The latter includes Shostakovich's wild, searing Symphony No. 8, and should not be missed, even with Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on the program.

Susanna Malkki (above right) conducts the SF Symphony November 29th and 30th in Griffes' The White Peacock, Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Jeremy Denk (above left) as soloist, and finishes with Brahms' Symphony No. 2. Both artists are great musicians and it should be interesting to hear how they and the orchestra play together.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Blue Skylight

The Veterans Building retrofit construction is becoming more colorful every day.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Palm Springs in the summer without any winter tourists is quiet, hot and spectacularly beautiful.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Corporate Homeless Street Soccer Championship

On the weekend of August 15th-17th in Civic Center, there was an odd National Cup sporting championship that was welcomed to San Francisco by Mayor Ed Lee and other dignitaries on Friday afternoon. Saturday and Sunday were dedicated to the Tournament, which was divided into three tiers:
Street Soccer USA National Cup: Homeless teams from across the nation compete for the National Cup.
Street Soccer USA Corporate Cup: Businesses in the Bay Area compete in support of the SSUSA mission. Each corporate team is paired with a SSUSA team and will cheer them on all weekend.
Street Soccer USA Open Cup: Teams sign up to compete for the SSUSA 4x4 City Championship.

You have exactly one guess in which tier the people above were competing.

In a nicely explanatory article in the SF Examiner, Matthew Snyder charts the origins of this utopian charity from a pair of brothers named Cann in South Carolina who came up with the idea that athletic structure with its mandatory practices and shared teamwork would be a good way for people at the bottom of the heap to dig their way out.

Corporate sponsor Wells Fargo Bank has been one of the worst malefactors in ushering lower-income homeowners into the homeless ranks over the last decade, so their sponsorship of a homeless soccer tournament with money and volunteer manpower registers as a bitter irony.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Merola Opera Grand Finale 2014

The annual summer boot camp in San Francisco for aspiring opera professionals finished with the traditional Grand Finale where all the young singers performed an aria and/or duet and/or ensemble with an orchestra at the San Francisco Opera House. Last Saturday's edition was one of the best I've seen, partly because of the crisp, unfussy direction by apprentice stage director Omer Ben Seadia which kept the disparate numbers moving along swiftly. It also helped that this year's crop of Merolini were mostly very good singers. (All of the press photos are by Kristen Loken, who did an especially excellent job this year.)

The most effusive praise from some critics was for Julie Adams and Casey Candebat above in a duet from Mascagni's L'amico Fritz. They both sounded lovely, though I didn't buy Ms. Adams in her sparkly concert gown as a young peasant girl picking cherries for her employer.

There were plenty of equally good performances, including Karen Chia-ling Ho as Margherita in Boito's Mefistofole, where she sang the doomed, crazy character with no holds barred and got away with it. After her performance as Donna Elvira in last month's Don Giovanni, I'd happily watch her sing just about anything.

Two other stars of Don Giovanni, Amanda Woodbury and Edward Nelson above sounded great as Ophelia and Hamlet in a duet from the dreary Ambroise Thomas operatic version of the Shakespeare play.

Shirin Eskandani and Szymon Wach sang a duet as Cinderella and her Fairy Godfather Alidoro from Rossini's La Cenerentola, and it was a particular treat hearing Wach's young, pretty, pliable bass-baritone in music that is usually assigned to gruffer, older singers.

There were three excerpts from operas that made me want to hear them done whole by the Merola program some upcoming summer, including Richard Strauss' chamber opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, which was nicely performed by Talya Lieberman as Zerbinetta seducing the serious Shirin Eskandani as the Composer.

It would also be wonderful to see Mozart's rarely performed final opera, La Clemenza de Tito, which is ripe for an interesting staging and has at least half a dozen juicy parts for young singers, as Niam Wang and Casey Candebat demonstrated, in Sesto's pleading aria for forgiveness to the Emperor Tito.

The conducting by Ari Pelto was barely adequate, especially the leaden Nabucco overture, but he must have been doing something right because the actual sound of the orchestra all evening was rich and delightful. They were also able to switch stylistically on a dime from Italian Verismo to Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress above, another perfect opera for a young Merola cast, in the above scene performed well by Benjamin Werley as Tom Rakewell and Matthew Stump as Nick Shadow.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Large Five Piece Reclining Figure

After a coal miner's son upbringing, a stint as a soldier in World War One followed by an artist's life in bohemian London in the 1920s and 1930s, the British sculptor Henry Moore started creating bronze cast sculptures in 1950 and became very wealthy. Over the next four decades before his death in 1986, he continued to refine his neoprimitive, marvelously expressive designs. Large Four Piece Reclining Figure above dates from 1973, one of eight castings of the sculpture, and it has been reclining at the corner of Van Ness and Grove in front of Davies Symphony Hall since the building's opening in 1980.

From all accounts, Moore didn't much care much about money and luxuries, continuing to live in the same country house he moved to with his wife Irina in 1940 during the Blitz. He funneled his wealth into the Henry Moore Foundation, which runs an indoor/outdoor museum in the village of Perry Green where he lived, and gives grants to contemporary [one would hope starving] artists.

The outdoor sculpture garden even has an identical Large Four Piece Reclining Figure, but it's doubtful they allow street people (possibly young starving artists) to sleep on their sculpture bases like San Francisco does on a Saturday afternoon.

In truth, the tired, human reclining figure sheltering in public against the bronze reclining figures was a perfect interactive piece of art all of its own. If Marina Abramović had paid a homeless person to do the same for $2 an hour, the work would probably be acclaimed internationally.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Hayes Valley Artists: plus one

Last weekend on Hayes Street between Octavia and Laguna, a woman was scrawling a welcome in chalk to a local art show.

It was being held in the old grocery store building which is about to be replaced in a month by more condos and retail in a new complex at the corner of Laguna and Hayes.

For its last two months of existence, the space is hosting an art market...

...for Hayes Valley resident artists.

This edition closes this Sunday and a new set of artists and work will be going up for the following month.

So if you want to buy a reasonably priced painting or print from Rhonel Roberts above, now is the time to do it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Stop Suing San Francisco, Gavin Newsom

There was a photo-op in front of the San Francisco Ferry Building at lunchtime in anticipation of a meeting between the California Lands Commission and the San Francisco Port Commission. The confab was presumably about the lawsuit the State Commission recently filed against the people of San Francisco for voting to have a say in waterfront height issues with Proposition B. For a very good explanation of the absurdity and ugly backroom deals that led to this lawsuit, click here for a link to former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos' op-ed in this morning's San Franciso Chronicle.

Gavin Newsom is on the California Lands Commimssion and is the public face of the lawsuit. The former San Francisco Mayor and currently useless California Lieutenant Governor currently lives in the Marin Multimillionaire village of Ross. He deserves to be mocked and heckled every time he shows his photogenic face in San Francisco from this point forward. It takes a heaping amount of arrogance and hypocrisy to dun the taxpayers of San Francisco on behalf of waterfront developers, just because they are friends of Brown/Pelosi/Feinstein, the real old powerbrokers in this provincially corrupt city.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


In the recent near-futurist movie Her, one of the more amusing details is that in every scene which involves background extras, they are all staring at mobile devices. On a 5-Fulton Muni bus last week, I noticed that every person in the back of the vehicle was mesmerized by their cell phones. Most of them would look up occasionally, but the young man above sitting across from me never moved his eyes from the screen during the entire trip from Civic Center to the Financial District. Watching the newly addicted masses, my resolve never to obtain a cell phone grows stronger every day.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Habit of Art

The gay, leftist, British poet W.H. Auden (above left) and the gay, leftist, British composer Benjamin Britten (above right) enjoyed a brief, intense, sexually platonic friendship from 1935 to 1942, with the seven years older writer the bullying intellectual mentor to the young, supremely gifted musician.

They "met cute" at the Film Unit of the General Post Office which were making documentary shorts, the most famous being Night Mail (credits above) with a rollicking poem by Auden, music by Britten, and sound direction by the eccentrically talented Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti. Click here for the movie on YouTube, with its valorization of the British railroad workers transporting the overnight mail to Scotland. The Auden poem for the film's finale begins at 19:27:
This is the night mail/crossing the Border,
Bringing the cheque/and the postal order,

Letters for the rich/letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner/the girl next door.
Meanwhile, the young Benjamin Britten wrote a beautiful, rhythmic chamber orchestra accompaniment with yet another amazing horn solo.

Their friendship foundered in America, where they had both emigrated in 1939, pacifists turning their back on another European War. Auden stayed in New York while Britten became too homesick and returned with his partner Peter Pears to England in the middle of World War Two. During their time together, in Auden's notorious Bohemian household in Brooklyn that had lodgers ranging from Carson McCullers to Gypsy Rose Lee, the two collaborated on a strange hybrid musical/opera called Paul Bunyan that was not a success. Their final collaboration was a poem Auden had written for Britten, the Hymn to Saint Cecilia for a capella chorus, which Britten completed while on his dangerous return trip across the Atlantic in 1942. After that, the friendship was over, a recurring pattern for Britten who thoroughly enchanted a number of collaborators before casting them out forever from his inner circle.

Auden wrote his friend a famous letter soon before Britten's return to England. From the frank, groundbreaking 1991 biography by Humphrey Carpenter:
"I have been thinking a great deal about you and your work during the past year," Auden told Britten. He said he regarded Britten as "the white hope of music," and so was especialy anxious about "the dangers that beset you as a man and as an artist." All great art, he declared, was the result of "a perfect balance between Order and Chaos, Bohemianism and Bourgeois Convention. Bohemian chaos alone ends in a mad jumble of beautiful scraps. Bourgeois Convention alone ends in large unfeeling corpses. Every artist except the supreme masters has a bias one way or the other...Technical skill always comes from the bourgeois side of one's nature.

Britten's bias, he went on, was towards Bourgeois Conventions: "Your attraction to thin-as-a-board juveniles, i.e. to the sexless and innocent, is a symptom of this. And I am certain that it is your denial and evasion of the demands of disorder that is responsible for your attacks of ill-health, i.e. sickness is your substitute for the Bohemian."
It's little wonder Britten eventually cut off all ties.

In 2009 Alan Bennett (above), the British actor and writer of novels, stories, plays, memoirs, and essays wrote a play called The Habit of Art. The piece imagines a reunion between Britten and Auden in 1972 at Auden's quarters in Oxford University where he had been offered modest retirement quarters in exchange for hanging about and sharing his wisdom. From most accounts, it wasn't a happy arrangement for either the university or the old and ill poet. The play posits that Britten made the imaginary visit to his old friend because he wanted advice about the touchy subject matter of his final opera based on Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, which is fairly absurd since the only thing Britten was worried about was the quality of the music, "either the most horrible or the most wonderful I have ever written." In reality, it was his esteemed composer colleague Dmitri Shostakovich who read through the score and admired it unreservedly.

To make things livelier and infinitely more complicated, the setting of The Habit of Art is at the National Theatre of London where a rehearsal of a half-good, half-ridiculous Britten/Auden reunion play called Caliban's Day is taking place, with actors forgetting lines or demanding, "Do I really have to say that? Can't I substitute this speech instead?" Meanwhile, a hypersensitive playwright watches and intervenes throughout. The Habit of Art debuted at the National Theatre of London under Nicholas Hytner's direction with a cast headed by Richard Griffiths and Alex Jennings above as Auden and Britten, and it must have been marvelous, with insider theatrical jokes galore and judging by the London reviews, superb acting throughout.

Unfortunately, in the play's San Francisco premiere by the Theatre Rhinocerous troupe, the acting is mostly amateurishly wooden, so that moments where one should be watching a brilliant actor playing a bad or mediocre one are instead simply puzzling. Are the actors supposed to be this flat, or is it just an unfortunate coincidence?

There are a few notable exceptions. Donald Currie above as Auden is wonderful throughout, though he was so much better than the rest of the cast that it was hard to believe his actor and Auden characters were both supposed to be dealing with senility. Justin Lucas as a male prostitute was also very good, underplaying what could have been a buffoonish character. The cluttered set by Abe Lopez is also worthy of high praise.

The basic dislike playwright Bennett felt for the historical Britten's character, which the writer was the first to admit in a London Review of Books essay, also becomes a more pronounced liability in this production. This is particularly true since the performance by director and Theatre Rhino artistic director John Fisher (above right, with Craig Souza as the biographer Humphrey Carpenter) is enervated and terrible. I never saw any of Fisher's local theatrical hits from the early 1990s such as Medea: The Musical or The Joy of Sex, but did see the 2007 Theatre Rhinoceros Special Forces which Fisher wrote, directed and starred in, and which struck me as so bad that it made me want to avoid small theater in San Francisco forever after. Thank goodness for the Thrillpeddlers, who provided a corrective tonic.

If you are a Fisher fan, the production runs through this weekend at the Eureka Theatre in the Embarcadero Center complex. Click here for more details.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Saturday in the Hood 3: Pistahan Parade

Across the street from the Falun Gong, in the parking area between the Asian Art Museum and the Main Library, the Pistahan Parade was assembling.

The small Filipino cultural pride parade makes its way from the Civic Center down Market Street to Yerba Buena Gardens where a two-day festival takes place. If you're in the mood, you can check it out on Sunday.

Musicians were dancing and drumming in flatbed trucks...

...old friends were gossipping...

...and an official beauty queen towered above it all.

The only politician to show up that I saw was Ross Mirkarimi with his son Theo in tow, posing with his San Francisco Sheriffs.

Saturday in the Hood 2: Public Meditation

Falun Gong adherents were in Civic Center Plaza this morning practicing their exercises together.

These are accompanied by recorded music that sounds like Chinese pop versions of Western New Age music, which is fairly ghastly and does not seem very conducive to spiritual meditation, but to each their own musical taste.

Somehow I have ended up on an email list from the persecuted religious group where movement founder Li Hongzhi is usually extolled as the only leader who will be of any help in the imminent global apocalypse. Homosexuals are also singled out as particularly pernicious influences in modern culture. This doesn't make them any different from plenty of Christian denominations, but it is still discouraging that a new spiritual tradition has embraced such rancid garbage.