Saturday, January 30, 2016

Bach's Greatest Hits with ABS

The American Bach Soloists began their repertory season this year with a tour last weekend of churches in Belvedere, Berkeley, and San Francisco performing a program called "Bach Favorites." This miraculously did not include a Brandenberg Concerto. Instead, there were two church cantatas and a pair of works for guest violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova in a completely charming afternoon at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco last Sunday.

The concert started with a rehearsal by conductor and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas of the audience who were being asked to sing as extra chorus members for the final chorale of Wachet! Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet!.

We were directed to a printed score in the program, but I abstained from vocalising, not on account of shyness so much as I can't sing on pitch to save my life.

The small, original instruments orchestra played splendidly all afternoon, surpassed only by the American Bach Choir that included alto Celeste Winant below.

The first cantata was stormy and intended to frighten the sinners in the pews, with the opening chorus translated as "Watch! pray! pray! watch!/Be ready/all the time,/until the Lord of glory/brings this world to an end."

The concluding cantata of the afternoon, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, was much sweeter and featured the soloists soprano Mary Wilson, tenor Derek Chester, countertenor Jay Carter, and my favorite voice of the afternoon, baritone Mischa Bouvier above (with Carter on the left).

In between the cantatas, Jeffrey Thomas Award winner Tatiana Chulochnikova played a violin transcription of the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for organ. This music never fails to prompt a flashback to waves of color crashing into my LSD-buzzed, teenaged brain while watching Disney's Fantasia with Stokowski's gargantunan transcription for full orchestra on the soundtrack. Tatiana played the piece cleanly, with a restrained sense of virtuosity.

She returned for the Concerto for Violin in E Major, and it was a lovely performance by all, including perennial original instrument violin principal Elizabeth Blumenstock above.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

New SF Art Commission Gallery Opening Party

The San Francisco Art Commission invited the public to the opening of their expanded art gallery on the ground floor of the newly restored Veterans Building last Friday evening.

The expansive galleries that cover most of the north side of the first floor was jammed with people who made their way carefully through the crowd to a long line at the back for free beer and wine.

There was even one employee or volunteer whose job was to protect a figurative sculpture that was laid out on the floor, which she accomplished with remarkable charm.

The exhibit included a handful of artists, local and not, and it was burdened with one of those ridiculous artspeak titles that tend to give me the giggles. It also prompted the question of why taxpayers in San Francisco are expected to subsidize an art gallery run by an historically inept and corrupt city commission who can't keep track of the art they own or competently oversee the street artist program they license. It's one of many things I don't understand about our city government.

Still, the galleries are lovely and an improvement over the veterans' groups offices which were underused and musty with age. The veterans have been exiled to a row of cubbyhole offices in the back of the second floor, with a face-saving cement sculpture dedicated to their service and sacrifice on the lawn between the Opera House and the Veterans Building.

My favorite artworks on Friday were Baring it All (Machismo), made with gold, acrylic and ink on cotton... Nepalese artist Tsherin Sherpa above from Khatmandu...

...along with his huge 54 Views of Wisdom.

The crowded gallery was too claustrophobic, so I drank my beer in the Veterans Building lobby, which had been outfitted with divans and stand-up cocktail tables, along with a surprisingly wonderful accordion player specializing in what sounded like French pop.

Even though the galleries are free and open to the public, their operating hours seem more geared to the schedule of rich people who don't have to work: Tuesday through Saturday 11AM to 6PM. Check it out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Handmaid's Children March Against Abortion

On Saturday morning, I heard chants of "Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé" outside my apartment and wondered what European sports victory had just occurred...

...but the singing turned out to be "pro-life" marchers making their way to Civic Center Plaza before continuing downtown on Market Street.

The march, with people arriving in buses from as far as the Midwest, has become an annual commemoration of the Roe v. Wade decision by those opposed to legalized abortion. The choice of San Francisco for this huge demonstration seems to be an intentional poke in the eye at the fabled Sodom and Gomorrah of the West.

Seeing the young crowd march by felt like watching a real-life prequel to Margaret Atwood's chilling 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which takes place in a near-future North America after Christian fundamentalists have taken over.

The great sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany recently posted a memory on his Facebook page remembering those recent times before Roe v. Wade, and it's worth reprinting:
My novel DARK REFLECTIONS will be returned to print by Dover Books later this year. The middle section, "Vashti in the Dark," is, among other things, a horror story of what could happen to young women conflicted over getting an abortion as little as six months before this decision went on the books. (And for quite a while afterward, as things only improved slowly.) The story was based on events I'd observed in a New York mental hospital back in 1964, and several others which I saw afterward. When my own wife in 1961 had a perfectly legitimate miscarriage, she was treated like a criminal at the hospital, and pain relievers were withheld (so she wouldn't "choose" to do it again, just in *case* she had broken the existing law), because the assumption at the time was that any woman, married or unmarried, who came in after a miscarriage, had just left an illegal abortionist (because that's all there were) who had started the process and sent her to the emergency room to avail herself of the relatively sterile conditions there for the D&C (dilation and curettage) needed to finish up the process safely. It was painful, humiliating, and cruel--and a huge factor in what poor women were trying to avoid during those times, either by having unwanted babies they couldn't afford materially or emotionally, or by not having them, or being treated as criminals if they were unlucky enough to miscarry. (We wanted our baby, both of us.) Having seen women friends that I knew and loved go through this, until I was thirty, *I* don't want to go through it again and I damned well don't want my friends and acquaintances and their friends and families to. Anyone who's seen its devastating effects has to be a moral imbecile to condone it.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Noirvana at the Castro Theater

The 14th annual Noir City Film Festival opened on Friday at the Castro Theatre for ten days of movies having something to do with the arts.

Saturday's matinee double-bill from 1946 featured "Curators and Critics," which included Clifton Webb basically reprising his celebrated role from Laura as an epicene, cultured art dealer up to no good, in The Dark Corner. The film also starred Lucille Ball as a glamorous, tough-talking, soft-hearted secretary to a private eye who has left his shameful past in San Francisco to make a new start in New York.

One of the greatest joys of the festival is sharing a hop in time with an attentive, smart audience, involving communal laughter over changed customs, such as our hero nonchalantly striking his wooden matchsticks to light a cigarette on just about any surface imaginable. (The Dark Corner has as much smoking as To Have and Have Not, whose plot is essentially Bogie and Bacall lighting cigarettes together for 90 minutes.)

San Francisco's Eddie Muller, the Czar of Noir above, has been all over the place lately, hosting a Noir Festival on Turner Classic Movies, having a book on Gun Crazy published in France, recording audio tracks for DVD reissues, establishing at least eight satellite Noir City film festivals around the country, and restoring lost films to posterity through The Film Noir Foundation. Muller introduced The Dark Corner on Saturday, explaining why it was quintessential noir and also the worst professional working experience of Lucille Ball's career (the blunt director Henry Hathaway was the problem). "The pairing in one movie of tough guy William Bendix and 'interesting' Clifton Webb is some kind of noir nirvana, or noirvana," he said. "Oh, jesus, I really did just make that up, and I think I'm keeping it."

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Art of The Chaconne

Pianist Sarah Cahill (above, with composer Danny Clay) performed a fascinating recital last Sunday which consisted completely of chaconnes, a disreputable dance imported from Mexico to Spain and Italy in the 1600s, and then domesticated by French composers during the Baroque era. There was a revival of the musical form in the 20th century, which spurred the inspired programming Cahill offered, where works by Handel, Purcell, Couperin and the remarkable Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) were interspersed with music by Stefan Wolpe, Sofia Gubaidulina, Carl Nielsen and the world premiere of a chaconne written for her by Danny Clay. My favorite of the afternoon was the 1962 Chaconne of Gubaidulina, with its crashing dissonances and brilliant, moody skittering, which Cahill performed magnificently.

The concert was presented by Noe Valley Chamber Music, a neighborhood classical music organization started in 1992, which has been wandering homeless for a number of years while its longtime host, the Noe Valley Ministry on Sanchez and 23rd, was undergoing reconstruction. The results are beautiful and the warm, resonant sound bouncing off all the wood is superb. There was a large crowd for the concert and the organizers seemed to be ecstatic over being back in their old home. So was the audience, including my date who mentioned the entire concert had made her nostalgic for the Sunday afternoon concerts she used to attend there in the 1990s.

Friday, January 22, 2016

SF City Corruption Charges Announced at Hall of Justice

There was an announcement late this morning from the San Francisco District Attorney's Office that a press conference was being held at the Hall of Justice this afternoon concerning imminent public corruption charges.

A small scrum of reporters, including Luke Thomas and Tim Redmond above, waited near the third floor elevators before being ushered down a long hallway to the DA's Library for a photo op, and to find out who was being charged with what amid such fanfare.

Former Human Rights Commissioner Nazly Mohajer, former HRC employee Zula Jones, and former City College Comissioner Keith Jackson were being charged with felony bribery, money laundering, grand theft and campaign finance fraud. The charges were part of an ongoing three-pronged investigation by (left to right) SF City Attorney Dennis Herrera, SF District Attorney George Gascon, and FBI Agent in Charge David Johnson.

How long the investigation has been going on or how much longer it will continue were questions that everyone refused to answer, citing federal and state protective orders. Gascon did mention that it was "more than months." A press release offered the following inspirational words: "For public law offices like the ones George and I lead, we have no more important duty than to punish betrayals of the public trust aggressively and to the law's fullest extent," said City Attorney Herrera. "To do anything less would diminish San Franciscans' faith in the integrity of their local government, and send a terrible message to would-be scofflaws in similar positions of trust." That last sentence is a bit of a giggle, since I have only met a handful of San Franciscans in 40-plus years who had faith in the integrity of their local government.

Jones and Mohajer and Jackson were all friends of Willie Brown, Jr., the former SF Mayor and continuing political fixer. During the federal corruption investigation that ended with the ensnarement of State Assemblyman Leland Yee and Shrimp Boy, among others, the lawyer Tony Serra managed to extract some very embarrassing transcripts from the FBI. In one of them, Zula Jones explains to an undercover agent how pay-to-play works in what is still Willie's City Hall as she prepares to break down an illegal contribution amount for Ed Lee's first mayoral race into separate bundles. Still, the three indictees are small minnows in the sea of institutional corruption that is old-fashioned San Francisco city government. If Mayor Ed Lee or any of his handlers were to be indicted, it might be easier to take the prosecutors' high-minded rhetoric about public corruption a little more seriously.

For the moment, what we have are a trio of fall guys/gals who were sloppy, publicly exposed, and since somebody needs to be the sacrificial lambs for an increasingly disgusted public, it might as well be them. Joshua Sabatini at the San Francisco Examiner has been the best reporter on this story. Click here for his front-page story yesterday which may have hastened today's particular press conference.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Hidden Worlds at SoundBox

San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox presented an inventive program called Hidden Worlds this weekend that included percussionists breaking wine glasses and flower pots, a flautist singing into her instrument, and an electrified tuba cadenza. The most traditional use of instruments seemed to be in the opener, a chamber version of the Villa-Lobos Bachanas Brasilieras No. 2: The Little Train of Caipira played by Barbara Bogatin on cello and Robin Sutherland on piano.

This was the curtain-raiser for the Music as machinery segment of the evening, which featured Oscillate, a 2012 strings and percussion piece by Andy Akiho. This was where the breakage occurred, with the fabulous Symphony percussionist Jacob Nissly dominating the performance. The conductor was the 33-year-old Christopher Rountree above, one of the founders of the hugely praised wild Up chamber ensemble in Los Angeles. The 20-minute Oscillate passed the first test of any complex piece of music heard for the first time, which is that I wanted to hear it again.

After intermission, we were treated to Music underwater, with pianists Robin Sutherland and Nicholas Pavkovic joining a chamber orchestra for Saint-Saens' Aquarium.

This was followed by George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) that spanned the beginning and end of time with a meditation on the sea in the middle. The instrumentalists were Linda Lukas on flute, Gwendolyn Mok on piano, and David Goldblatt on cello, and at various moments they had their instruments sounding like uncanny approximations of humpback whales. Crumb's music has never done much for me before, but I loved this theatrical piece and its gentle strangeness.

Crumb asked the three performers to do all kinds of odd things, including climbing inside the piano, whistling, singing, and playing the occasional bit of percussion, and the extraordinary musicians responded fearlessly and sensitively.

After another intermission, we were offered Music inside the mind, in the form of are you experienced?, a David Lang piece from 1987 for narrator, chamber orchestra and the aforementioned electrified tuba.

Olive Mitra above was the narrator on a platform in the middle of the audience, authoritatively intoning quasi-poetic nonsense about losing one's mind...

...and the semi-minimalist music was varied and fun in an expert performance from Rountree, Jeffrey Anderson on tuba, and members of the SF Symphony.

Monday, January 18, 2016

City Hall Blues

San Francisco City Hall was lit up this weekend in an aquamarine blue for a couple of days, for reasons unknown. Though local government spends millions on press spokespersons and elaborate websites for every department, good luck trying to find out any current or useful information from either source. So it was a Mystery Blue Weekend in Civic Center, a good color for newly re-elected Mayor Ed Lee who can't seem to show up for a public event these days without being booed by protesters. It's going to be a long four years for our deeply unpopular "caretaker" mayor. Update: Eve Batey at SFist finally tracked down the answer. The blue lighting was for a Fitbit late-holiday party and they requested the color as part of their rental.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bird's Eye Crash

A little after 1PM on Friday, there was yet another crash at the intersection of McAllister and Franklin Streets. Even though the SUV was flipped to its side by the impact, my spouse reported that everyone crawled out safely (they are standing on the northwest corner). As more drivers are added to our streets, including Uber and Lyft non-employees desperately trying to make a living, the mayhem seems to be increasing.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Silicon Sunset

Commuting on Caltrain from San Francisco to Silicon Valley for the last two months has been oddly soothing. In the early morning, the anachronistic, old-fashioned trains rock you back and forth into a dream state between sleep and wakefulness while offering views of the rain-soaked landscape.

At the end of the workday, walking along small suburban sidewalks to the San Carlos train station...

...and crossing an overpass over the nightmarishly congested Highway 101...

...I thank my teenage self for opting out of driving and car culture while growing up in Southern California.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Patricia Racette, Merola Diva

An awards reception was held at the newly retrofit Veterans Building's Green Room on Thursday evening, honoring American soprano Patricia Racette with the Merola Distinguished Alumni Award. (Pictured above left to right are former Merola president and current Board member Donna Blacker, Racette, and Merola Executive Director Jean Kellogg.)

The Merola program is an independent adjunct of the San Francisco Opera, which runs an annual summer training boot camp in San Francisco for young opera singers who are aspiring to turn professional. The three dozen or so singers and coaches and directors from around the world are given a stipend rather than having to pay for the experience, and are usually housed at the homes of Merola donors, many of whom were in attendance on Thursday.

Patricia Racette was in the program in 1988, when through a series of fateful accidents, she ended up on a tour with Merola's Western Opera Theater singing the demanding title role of Madama Butterfly way before she probably should have been. She then graduated to the main stage of the SF Opera as an Adler fellow, playing small roles like the Celestial Voice in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake Aida and the Fifth Maidservant in Elektra with Gwyneth Jones before forging a great international career of her own.

I was transformed from a Racette admirer to a full-fledged worshiper after appearing onstage as a supernumerary in a 2007 production of Madama Butterfly in the old Ron Daniels production with Brandon Jovanovich making his SF Opera debut as Pinkerton. I don't even like Madama Butterfly but the performance was so moving that some of us were relieved to have black veils over our faces as Kabuki kurokos because we were crying.

Racette is also smart, funny, and clear-eyed about her art. Her speech to the Merola donors and former colleagues about the program was gracious, as she noted how outrageously naive and green she was when they all first met. "You turned what was a hobby into a profession. Thank you from the bottom of my heart." Racette just performed in a new production of Shostakovich's wild Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at London's English National Opera, where she got raves from the critics. It would be great to hear her in the same role at the San Francisco Opera.