Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hunky Jesus Easter

Easter Sunday in Golden Gate Park was the serendipitous setting for the 37th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.

The weather was perfect and the crowd of about 10,000 was mellow and charming.

Best of all, the party was free, the police were mercifully absent, and there was not a single bit of corporate sponsorship signage.

There were also no overpriced vendors so everyone brought their own food and drink and shared.

It felt like an Easter miracle.

Back in the 1970s, there was a seismic shift in the San Francisco gay scene, with seemingly everyone adopting the Castro Clone look of flannel shirts, jeans and work boots for everyday wear.

In reaction to the "butchoisie" of the time, a trio of gay men dressed up in nuns' habits one Easter Sunday in 1979, traipsed through the Castro neighborhood on their way to a nude beach, and the ecclesiastical drag queen sisterhood was born.

In the intervening decades, dozens of autonomous orders have sprung up in cities around the world...

...following the founding mission statement, "to promulgate universal joy, expiate stigmatic guilt and serve the community."

The afternoon began with a childrens' Easter egg hunt which was followed by a series of performances on a makeshift stage that included everything from a B52s cover band to a plus-size burlesque troupe getting down and dirty.

After an oddly touching recitation of vows by the entire Order...

...Sister Roma hosted the controversial, sacriligious finale of the annual event, the Hunky Jesus contest.

Over a dozen contestants competed, including Horny Jesus and Burner Jesus above and Carpenter Jesus below.

This humorous lampoon has long driven the local Catholic establishment crazy, but in truth the Sisters, particularly in their courageous work during the AIDS crisis, came closer to the ideals of the historical Jesus than their clerical counterparts who are still demonizing women and gay people.

The crowd crowned the eventual winner, Cheerleader Jesus, by the loudness of their cheers, but the most poignant moment may have belonged to Tiago Afonso below who called himself Homeless Jesus.

"Maybe we can find you a place to live with somebody out in the crowd," Sister Roma told him. "How much can you afford to pay a month?" and Tiago replied $500. "$500 in this city? You really are Homeless Jesus."

Monday, March 28, 2016

Outré SoundBox

SF Symphony Music Director led this month's SoundBox concert for the first time since he inaugurated the nightclub series in 2014. He seemed to be more relaxed last Saturday evening, and was obviously having a great time along with the sold-out audience.

The program was all French music, beginning with excerpts from Jean-Féry Rebel’s 1737 Les élémens, which opens with a fabulously dissonant depiction of "Chaos" before water, fire, earth, and air make their appearance. There are so many original instrumental ensembles in the Bay Area that it was odd hearing this kind of music on modern instruments, but it was given a fun, jaunty performance by the chamber orchestra and the projections by Adam Larsen for the various movements were perfection.

This was followed by even more ancient music, the 1199 Sederunt principles (The Princes Sat) by Pérotin, one of the earliest polyphonic works in existence, written for performance at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, which was then under construction. Elliott James Encarnación above, along with Jonathan Thomas, Adam Cole, Matthew Peterson, Chung-Wai Soong, and Clayton Moser below, gave a superb performance in what sounded like very tricky music to perform.

As Tilson Thomas mentioned in his explanation of the history of the piece, the long-drawn out syllables and repetition look forward to late 20th century minimalism. "It's one of the Steve Reich's favorite pieces of music and mine too."

The second set started with Syrinx, a 1913 Debussy flute solo performed by Tim Day, which was followed by the most substantial work of the evening, Messiaen's Couleurs de la cité céleste (Colors of the Celestial City), a 1963 depiction of the Holy City in Saint John the Divine’s vision in the Book of Revelation. This being Messiaen, the Holy City sounded a bit like a tropical rainforest filled with exotic birds, and Tilson Thomas prefaced the piece by trying to whistle the birdcalls found throughout.

The complex, strange, and demanding music was given a superb performance and the audience, as it had been all evening, was amazingly quiet and attentive. Besides a huge percussion component that would not have been out of place in a gamelan orchestra, there was a prominent part for a piano soloist performed by Orion Weiss above.

The third set began with Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov, accompanied by pianist Robin Sutherland, in a pair of short, lovely salon pieces, the 1907 Pièce en forme de Habanera by Ravel and one of the last works by Saint-Saëns, an excerpt from a 1921 Oboe Sonata.

This was followed by Tilson Thomas conducting a small orchestra in Darius Milhaud's 1930 Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra with Principal Percussionist Jacob Nissly seemingly playing 40 different instruments at once in a wildly amusing piece of music that managed to sound simultaneously complicated and transparent.

The young Matt Damon lookalike returned with the chamber orchestra for Milhaud's Scaramouche, a short, delightful paean to Brazil which closed out the show. Realizing that I had never heard a single one of these musical pieces before made me wish the main Davies Hall SF Symphony concerts were even half as adventurous in their programming.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Holy Saturday Anti-Hero

A party was held on Holy Saturday afternoon at the San Francisco Eagle tavern for worshipers of superheroes and those who enjoy dressing up like them.

It's not quite Święconka, the Polish blessing of the Easter baskets on Holy Saturday, but every region has their own traditions, including men in San Francisco dressing like Lady Deadbolt.

Friday, March 25, 2016

West Edge Bohemia

West Edge Opera presented a concert version of the other operatic version of La Bohème by Leoncavallo on Sunday at Mills College in a wonderful, strongly sung performance. Pictured above, left to right, are Ryan Bradford as Colline, Sally Mouzon as Phemie, Buffy Baggott as Musette, Michael Orlinksky as Schaunard, Alex Boyer as Marcel, Anders Froelich as Roldolphe, and Carrie Hennessey as Mimi. Not pictured but essential was Musical Director Jonathan Khuner on piano, who gave a virtuoso performance of the complex musical reduction while conducting a large vocal ensemble.

Leoncavallo was a librettist as well as a composer, and was great friends with Puccini for whom he wrote the libretto for Manon Lescaut. Leoncavallo proposed collaborating on an adaptation of the 1849 play by Henry Murger (above) and Théodore Barrière about starving artists and their girlfriends in Paris' Latin Quarter during the 1840s, which in turn was based on a series of touching, humorous, autobiographical stories by Murger published in various Parisian newspapers. Puccini professed to be uninterested but changed his mind and wrote his own opera with different librettists, basing it on the later 1851 collection of stories called Scènes de la vie de bohème which was published after the smashing success of the play.

Leoncavallo was furious and went ahead with his own opera while publicly calling out Puccini for his bad behavior. Puccini denied the story in a letter to an Italian newspaper in 1893, and concluded, "Let him compose, and I will compose. The public will judge." And judge they did, with Puccini's 1896 tuneful, sentimental opera becoming an overproduced repertory staple while Leoncavallo's 1897 opera slipped into obscurity. Based on the West Edge Opera performance, I actually prefer the Leoncavallo. Its libretto is more coherent, the humor is genuinely funny, and the characters have a harder, more realistic edge. The Bohemians are also more fleshed out than in the Puccini opera, especially the composer Schaunard, given a sly, funny performance by Michael Orklinksky above.

I tried to find an English translation of the novel at the SF Public Library, which did not exist, but did stumble across a delightful 1946 biography of Henry Murger, a Parisian janitor's son who had dreams of becoming a poet. That didn't work out so well financially, so his friends encouraged him to write prose, and he finally found a measure of success with journalistic vignettes based on real incidents from the lives of his friends. In their early 20s, they were mostly starving, aspiring artists in various disciplines, living in unheated garrets and cheap hotels in the Latin Quarter, while hanging out nightly on the second floor of the Cafe Momus which was an actual establishment.

The Leoncavallo opera starts with a scene at the Cafe Momus, where the proprietor is demanding to be paid and the artists respond by crafting a manifesto of demands themselves, such as a more extensive selection of newspapers, better coffee, and so on. The second act takes place at an apartment courtyard just as Musette is being evicted after her rich sugar daddy stops paying rent because she's been spending too much time with the painter Marcel. She was supposed to be hosting a soiree that evening, so her circle of friends decide to rearrange her furniture in the courtyard for an impromptu party instead, which culminates in a near-riot when the noisy young people wake up the older tenants. The chorus was a little ragged, but they heroically managed to convey both the revelers and the angry tenants in musical counterpoint.

In contrast to the Puccini version, where Rodolfo and Mimi are the main romantic characters, Leoncavallo's opera focuses more on Marcel and Musette. Soprano Buffy Baggott above as Musette was delightful, and Alex Boyer as Marcel, even with a couple of unsteady moments, sounded ready to take on the major operatic stages of the world with his big, beautiful tenor.

The real Musette was named Marie Roux (seated in the above photo). The book relates that she "was a neatly-balanced mixture of gentleness and heartlessness. She was thoroughly independent, quitted her lover whenever she fancied, and as capriciously rejoined him. The Lothario of the Bohemians had met his match. Once, when, as usual, she and Champfleury [the model for Marcel] had parted forever, Musette came back to stroke Champfleury's head. 'My dear, I am never jealous of my old lovers. When it is finished, it is finished. We see each other again, we are good friends, and that is all. I am not like most women and all the world knows I don't act with men as most women do. If I love someone, I tell him so."

The poet Rodolphe, sung beautifully by baritone Anders Froehlich (above left), was based on Murger himself while Mimi, given a lovely performance by Carrie Hennessey (second from the left) was a conflation of three different lovers, all of them blonde, blue-eyed, and frail. Two of them died young of tuberculosis in charity hospitals, and Murger himself died at the age of 38 from acute arthritis and gangrene, probably brought on by the serious malnutrition he experienced as a young man.

In The Legend of The Latin Quarter, there is a funny story where Murger and Barrière can't agree on an ending for their play, so they bring in a writer friend named Monselet to play referee. "Barrière, it appeared, was insistent that "Mimi must die." Henry shook his head vehemently. He proposed that she be sent on a trip to Italy, at any rate make the ending a happy one. Barrière, who knew the true story of Mimi/Lucille, was adamant. The greatness of the play, he contended, rested upon her tragic death. But for the sentimental Murger, it was harrowing to kill the poor girl a second time. The two collaborators appealed to Monselet. He agreed with Barrière. It was two against one and Henry finally withdrew his objections. "And that," chuckled Monselet afterward, "was how I killed Mimi."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Dean Preston for D5 Supervisor

On Haight Street near Fillmore stands a mysterious business named the Peacock Lounge and Gold Room, which turns out to be owned and operated by the Unity Mutual Social Club, a group of black Masons that dates from the 1960s.

On Saturday afternoon, there was a free public gathering there to rally volunteers for an SF District Five Supervisor candidate, Dean Preston, and it was a surprisingly smart, hopeful and inspiring occasion.

The Peacock Lounge is a tiny bar, where people were meeting and greeting, including political activists David Talbot and David Salaverry above.

Behind the bar is the "Gold Room," a large multi-purpose area which looked a bit like a church basement, where music and speeches were being given.

The first speaker was San Francisco author David Talbot, who wrote the recently published, brilliant muckracking history of Allen Dulles and the CIA, The Devil's Chessboard. Talbot helped form a group last year called Vision SF that is attempting to wrest control from the tech billionaires like Ron Conway who openly brag about owning City Hall and Mayor Ed Lee. Talbot apologized for reading from a prepared statement called Home, a moving essay about the necessity for a roof over one's head and the indignities associated with being homeless.

District 9 Supervisor David Campos gave a speech talking about how consistently effective Dean Preston has already been in his work as a lawyer and statewide tenant activist. "Dean came to me and asked, can't we come up with legislation to protect San Francisco schoolteachers from being evicted from their homes in the middle of a school year?" Campos related. "It's a simple enough idea, which just about everyone can agree with, and the legislation is being brought to the Board of Supervisors this week."

Former District 5 Supervisors Christina Olague and Matt Gonzalez followed with their heartfelt endorsements. Gonzalez mentioned that current District 5 Supervisor London Breed was a bad fit for the district, which has historically been one of the most liberal voting blocs in the city and the country. "That's a strange thing to say because Breed was born and raised in the district and she's smart and capable, but her constituents deserve someone who isn't twisting themselves into compromises with Airbnb and others ravaging this city."

Finally, the candidate himself gave a smart speech acknowledging that he was facing an uphill battle in trying to unseat an incumbent, but that the effort was worth it. "This wouldn't be possible without district elections, but there are only 35,000 people to reach and we plan on meeting almost all of them."

"This is a completely ground-up campaign, with meetings in every neighborhood to discover their individual issues and how they can organize themselves to make a difference at City Hall. It's amazing how different each neighborhood is, from the Inner Sunset to the Fillmore to the Haight, none of which really talk to each other. Part of what we're trying to do is organize these groups so they have some collective power going forward, whether we win this race or not." The candidate managed to steer away from the usual political posturing cliches, and his positive message was refreshing. He certainly has my vote this November.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Transatlantic Crossings

British Californian Brenden Guy (above), the clarinetist, publicist, and impresario of the Curious Flights music series, presented an interesting, ambitious concert called Transatlantic Crossings last Saturday at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music last Saturday. Highlighting the evening were works by the young British composer Simon Dobson, who was in attendance conducting his own music.

The concert started with Dobson's 2014 Crystal, a short, thrilling fanfare for eight trumpets. You can hear Dobson playing all eight parts in an amusing YouTube video (click here), but on Saturday we were treated to eight trumpeters being led by the composer. In a profile by Jesse Hamlin at the SF Chronicle, Dobson noted that he remains deeply in love with the sonorities of the brass ensemble, the clarity and warmth of a sound that’s woven into the fabric of the U.K. "Brass bands are integral to the history of this country. It’s a working-class pastime that grew up around factories. Mines and factories have closed, thanks to a horrendous Tory government. What we’re left with is the beauty and the wealth of history encapsulated in the brass band world.” Following the fanfare, Brenden Guy gave the world premiere of A Modulation on Plymouth Sound, a short piece for solo clarinet and electronics that evoked the waves, gulls and people of Southwest England.

This was followed by Samuel Adams' 2010 Tension Study No. 1 written for The Living Earth Show, a new music group started by guitarist Travis Andrews above and percussionist Andy Meyerson below.

Andrews stoically retuned his electric guitar to various microtonal settings while the quicksilver Meyerson scampered about his vibraphone and drums in an extraordinarily entertaining manner. The "soft to loud, slow to fast superficial narrative," as the composer puts it, was given a splendid, compelling performance.

The first half ended with another essay in electronics and acoustics, the 2007 Red River by Mason Bates, a pictorial meander down the Colorado River before it stops at the Hoover Dam near Las Vegas and trickles out into the Mojave desert. Written for the unexpectedly wonderful combination of violin (Tess Varley), piano (Ian Scarfe), cello (James Jaffe), and clarinet (Brenden Guy), it was a pretty, charming work given a lovely performance. Oddly enough, the piece gained nothing from the additional electronic sound effects that is Bates' ongoing compositional shtick.

After intermission, the chamber musicians were replaced by the San Francisco Wind Ensemble, which turned out to be a 50-person orchestra of wind players, percussionists, a pianist, string bass, and a harp. Wow. The group performed two world premieres and a U.S. premiere of three substantial works by (left to right) composers Robert Chastain, Noah Luna, and Simon Dobson, who each conducted their own music.

First up was Noah Luna's The Wireless, which was my favorite piece of the evening, a bright, funny, sophisticated depiction of "a stubborn father who knew the only trick to make that [wireless] box work right, to power it up, and sift through the static [was] by scrubbing this way and that until a clear signal of the desired frequency was attained." Between passages of static that sounded like Ligeti tone clusters were musical dioramas influenced by jazz and movie soundtracks, seamlessly floating in and out of each other in a manner that could have sounded like a gimmick but did not. Luna was also a crack conductor and the huge wind ensemble played magnificently, making a rich, mighty sound.

The mighty sound continued with Chastain's Metanoia, a 12-tone depiction of a psychotic breakdown, which was certainly ambitious but bombastic barely describes the repeated aural assaults and 27 different endings that made up the work. I have to give the composer credit for courage but the piece became tedious fast.

Simon Dobson's 2014 Another World's Hell was inspired by Chapter 5 of Huxley's Brave New World, where the protagonists attend a concert "at the newly opened Westminster Abbey Cabaret and listen to Calvin Stopes and his sixteen Sexophonists." Dobson decided to write the "future music" himself, and it was a fascinating, well-composed piece that echoed The Wireless in its smooth transitions from one wildly different episode to another. Dobson was also a skilled conductor, literally dancing to his own music on the podium, which in his case was charming rather than annoying.

The entire evening was a challenging, delightful success.