Thursday, April 20, 2017

All About Tim at SoundBox

The San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox nightclub series started three years ago with funding from an anonymous donor to foster younger, newer audiences, and through a series of good choices and happy accidents, the monthly winter/spring concerts have turned into a phenomenal success, with $45 general admission tickets selling out online within minutes of being released. I've been to all but a couple of the concerts, featuring different curators and a shifting group of musicians from the SF Symphony's ranks. Some have been more successful than others, but all have demonstrated an exciting, adventurous energy, until last weekend's finale for the third season, which was a self-indulgent stinker.

One of the unwritten rules at SoundBox is that it's not a vanity production about the curator. Composers John Adams and Nathaniel Stookey have both been in charge, and their concerts featured some of their own extraordinary music, but it also featured others in generous ways. Last weekend the curator was SF Symphony Principal Trombone Tim Higgins, and as he mentioned at the beginning, "I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that tonight is basically a trombone recital. The good news is that you've probably never heard a trombone recital, good or bad."

What this entailed were a few interesting bits of music from real composers, performed by Higgins and other first chair friends of his from the orchestra, such as the marvelous percussionist Jacob Nissley above, who performed in a marimba, harpsichord and trombone trio called Altemusk, written by Higgins himself with lots of cribbing from a number of Baroque composers.

Higgins is a tremendously talented performer, but he's delusional about his skills as an arranger, which is a craft all of its own, and as a composer. I don't particularly blame him, but do wish somebody in management had advised him that the sophisticated audiences at SoundBox were used to brilliant music, and this concert did not fill the bill. Instead, we were treated to a number of obnoxious marketing videos, including a short pitch for a few of the "daring" concerts in next fall's regular SF Symphony season and a long video where Higgins compared mixing drinks to playing in an orchestra.

Violinists Alexander Barantschik and Mark Volkert joined an ensemble of other first-chair players in the finale of the first set, a sonata by the 17th century composer Bertali, and they were delightful as was the piece.

The second set started with Beethoven's 1814 Three Equali for Four Trombones, lugubrious music beautifully played. While watching the performers from inches away, I realized what was missing that I had always taken for granted at SoundBox concerts in terms of performers and composers, namely women. This concert was a serious sausage fest, and it felt wrong.

This was followed by another one of Higgins' arrangements, this time of Astor Piazzola's tango music, with a full chamber orchestra headed by a trombone and a soprano singing French poetry over Argentine music, which made no sense at all, particularly since there were no translations.

The lovely soloist was Sharon Reitkerk, Higgins' wife, and the dilution of Piazzola's style with the mushy French diction and the overweening trombone leading the ensemble was bizarre. Higgins introduced the piece by saying he couldn't pronounce the names of the French poems or they would sound like cheese, which clarified what was really irritating to me about the evening. One constant of the SoundBox phenomenon has been that the performers and curators have always talked up to the audience rather than down, and this was the opposite.

The final set started with the 2012 Slipstream for Trombone Solo and Loop Station by Florian Maier which at least offered the novelty of a soloist playing with their own soundtrack loop which was probably a first for many in the audience, even though the technique is fairly dated by contemporary music standards. This was followed by another one of Higgins' compositions, the 2015 CafĂ© Velocio for tuba and piano "using melodic material and Minimalist techniques from Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and original material composed in a traditional style." This was the final straw in banality and I ran out of the theater before the final piece. The SoundBox audience is something of a miracle, varied in age, sophisticated, willing to stand in long lines for a decent seat, and extremely attentive to the performers and interesting music. People buy tickets without even knowing what's going to be played, and this concert was a betrayal of the brand. If the Symphony wants to kill the organic wonder that is SoundBox, offer a few more concerts like this, and it will be dead.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

New Civic Center Children's Playgrounds

The two childrens' playgrounds in Civic Center Plaza along Larkin Street have been fenced off for the last couple of months for major redesign, and a couple of weeks ago a fence appeared in the middle of the plaza on the long stretch of dirt.

Not that many years ago, there was a beautiful ornamental fountain that ran the entire stretch of the central plaza. This was eventually replaced by a lawn, which was torn out in 2008 for a "Victory Garden," a boneheaded collaboration between celebrity chef Alice Waters and then-Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Since 2008, the space has been a stretch of packed earth, but now it has a kid-friendly play space which was being used today by parents and their children waiting on a rainy morning for the Cherry Blossom Parade to begin.

It seems an odd site to place a playground since there are so many large gatherings in the plaza, from protest marches to parades to outdoor rallies, not to mention all the drug-addled street people who hang out in the neighborhood.

Still, it's a nice design and the little boys crawling around in the cubes under their father's watchful eye looked like they were having a blast.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

History Will Be Our Judge

Yet another reason to love City Lights Bookstore is the homemade signage that appeared in January on the windows of the second floor poetry room facing Columbus Avenue.


City Lights Booksellers and Publishers was opened by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, and both the store and the poet are still going strong.

It is one of my four holiest places in San Francisco, with Lincoln Park Muncipal Golf Course, the SF Opera House, and the Bay ferryboats rounding out the quartet.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Gay Death and Marriage

Gilbert Baker, the theatrical protest parade designer from the Vietnam War and Gay Pride era, died last week and San Francisco gave him quite a sendoff, even though Baker had long ago decamped to New York City. There were newspaper articles extolling his contribution to the history of graphic icons with the Gay Pride rainbow flag, which was flying at half-mast from the San Francisco City Hall Mayor's Balcony last weekend. In one of the articles, Cleve Jones is quoted as urging Gilbert to patent the design, but Baker insisted on giving it away for free, which speaks volumes. Cleve Jones, on the other hand, has never encountered a gay tragedy, from the assassination of Harvey Milk to the AIDS Quilt, on which he has not figured out a way to capitalize.

On that same Sunday afternoon I went to my friend Thad's wedding celebration luncheon for 50 his favorite friends at Original Joe's restaurant on Washington Square in North Beach. Thad is my 87-year-old doubles tennis partner who may be aging better than anyone I have ever known. This was his first wedding, partly because he is a gay man and the possibility of marriage is a recent phenomenon, and partly because he had never had a loving relationship before his current one where that would have been a consideration. He gave a short speech at the end of the luxurious lunch that started with, "I am so lucky!" When I told a coworker about the event the next day, she replied, "I guess there's hope for my 62-year-old twin brother after all."

Sunday, April 02, 2017

CalTrain Commute to Super Evil Megacorp

For the last nine months, I have had a permanent, full-time job in Silicon Valley that requires a two-hour commute each way involving two Muni buses, a modified bullet Caltrain, and a shuttle van from San Carlos to Redwood Shores.

The San Francisco Muni portion is a perpetual nightmare with mentally ill people acting out in front of horrified captive audiences, but I have fallen in love with Caltrain.

Unlike Muni, the predominantly cute, smart young commuters on Caltrain have usually taken a shower, and are a remarkably diverse mix of characters from many countries.

An incidental pleasure is passing the massive Systems by my favorite living muralist, Brian Barneclo while being rocked back and forth and groggily waking up on the old-fashioned Long Island Railway style train ride.

At the San Mateo station, there is a computer games startup with the all-time great company name of Super Evil Megacorp.

I recently pointed out the sign to a seat companion, a very expensively dressed female lawyer, and she smiled, "At least they're owning it."

Next to Super Evil Megacorp, yet another Brian Barneclo mural has recently arisen, and it's a colorful beauty.

Every Peninsula town with a Caltrain station should commission Barneclo for their very own mural. The series would be a wonder.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mystery Chinese Celebration in Civic Center

On Sunday, March 19th, there was a stage set up for a celebration involving singing and dancing.

The event seemed to involve lots of Chinese women in brightly colored outfits.

I asked my Sinologist buddy James Parr what the occasion could be, and he wrote: "The backdrop reads "Overseas Descendants of Yan and Huang Ancestor Worship Ceremony." Descendants of Yan and Huang (Yanhuang Zisun) is a poetic way of describing han Chinese. The four slogans in vertical text read "the same root, the same ancestors/race" and "Peace and harmony." Knowing that, however, does not in any way explain this event. Who organized it? What was the point? Where did those dresses come from?"

I asked the woman above if this was part of the Falun Gong cult, and she laughed before replying, "No. It has to do with clearing out dark spaces."

To underscore her testimony, a few Falun Gong meditators were seated on the ground at the other end of the plaza.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time, and were even posing in groups with random tourists walking through Civic Center.

If anyone knows what the mystery is about, please get in touch at

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rebel at SoundBox

Last weekend the San Francisco Symphony's nightclub series, SoundBox, featured music from Weimar Germany, Soviet Russia, and Contemporary America, and you can draw your own conclusions. The new SF Symphony Youth Orchestra director, Austrian conductor Christian Reff, came up with the program and conducted a dizzying array of chamber pieces, starting with a lively, entertaining transcription of Kurt Weill's Cannon Song from The Threepenny Opera.

This was followed by two movements from the 1923 Kleine Kammermusik, a wind quintet by one of Hitler's least favorite composers, Paul Hindemith. The five players, including Christopher Gaudi on oboe and Tim Day on flute above, were positioned on a tiny stage in the middle of the audience, and the intimacy truly evoked the literal meaning of chamber music.

One of the joys of the SoundBox series has been watching SF Symphony musicians like bassoonist Seven Dibner embracing and being energized by the format and the close-enough-to-touch audiences who are admirably attentive and quiet during the performances.

The final piece from Nazi Germany was by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) who refused to have his compositions performed in Germany during Hitler's regime, spending most of World War Two studying with Webern in Vienna. As one of the few established German artists who didn't go into exile yet remained untainted by the Nazis, Hartmann returned to Munich and was an important musical figure there until his death, writing eight symphonies and introducing music of the 20th century which had been banned since 1933 along with helping to establish contemporary composers like Henze, Xenakis, and Berio. His music has fallen out of favor in Germany and globally, but musical fashions ebb and flow, and from his introduction and conducting, it was obvious young Christian Reff is a devoted advocate. He conducted a string orchestra in the Allegro di molto movement from the Concerto funebre with violinist Dan Carlson above as the impassioned soloist in an exciting, vital performance. The music was so good it made me want to listen to the rest of Hartmann's work.

Soviet Russia was represented by an all-Shostakovch sampler, and why not, since his music is aging better with each passing year. The selections were all over the map, on three stages, starting with a pair of movements from the 1935 Five Fragments for chamber orchestra headed by Nadya Tichman above. Sprinkled in between were three savage, funny songs from the 1960 Satiri (Satires) sung by the reliably brilliant mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, who usually appears with the SF Opera.

A highlight was the performance by bass-baritone Davon Tines above of two movements from Shostakovich's death-obsessed Symphony #14 for chamber orchestra and bass and soprano. Tines projected contempt and power while tossing aside paper sheets with the lyrics during The Zaporozhian Cossack's Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople and dark Russian soul during O Delvig, Delvig! He's become a new John Adams favorite, having sung El Nino with the LA Philharmonic last December and premiering a role in this fall's Girls of the Golden West at the SF Opera.

The "Contemporary America" section of the program started with selections from George Crumb's 1970 Vietnam War infused Black Angels for string quartet and gongs, followed by a five-minute chunk of Julius Eastman's 1969 Gay Guerilla. Eastman wrote the piece for four pianos in a variation on Reich/Glass minimalism where, as Alex Ross noted, "Eastman keeps piliing on elements, so that an initially consonant texture turns discordant and competing rhythmic patterns build to a blur." Local musical polymath Peter Grunberg composed the beautiful transcription, and the accompanying video of a dancer slowly embracing himself was perfection.

Davon Tines returned and strolled through the audience while singing a powerful version of Caroline Shaw's 2016 song, I'll Fly Away, which sounded very different from the folkie styling of the composer (click here for a YouTube video).

The very satisfying concert ended with an excerpt from Jessie Montgomery's 2014 Banner, a multi-culti tribute to The Star Spangled Banner on its 200th birthday. Conductor Reff and his chamber orchestra tore into it with verve, and it was interesting enough I wish they had played the whole piece.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Civic Center Photo Apocalypse

The photos from the last ten years at Civic Center are now broken links. This isn't the first time I have been burned by a tech company offering small amounts of free photo storage in exchange for buzz and usage. When I started publishing this site, I used a account and paid something like a $100 annual fee. Then the creeps at Apple decided they were no longer going to support, and five years' worth of photo links vanished overnight. Then I migrated everything to Dropbox, using their "Public" option. A couple of months ago, there was an email from Dropbox announcing they were no longer supporting their "Public" folder starting March 15th. I blame it all on Condoleeza Rice who is on their Board of Directors. In any case, I will be very slowly relinking photos in old posts to a new Google Photo Album account, but it will be a long, slow process. If there is a particular photo you would desperately like to see or use, email me at, and I will see what can be done.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Hot Air Music Festival 2017

The free, annual, all-day Hot Air Music Festival is the coolest event at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with students and former students playing whatever they want. The eighth iteration was a couple of Sundays ago, and I lucked out seeing a few of my favorite performers, including Meerenai Shim on flute who was playing Bryndan Moondy's recent composition Cascade with Brandon Morris on violin, Samuel Nelson on viola, and Chiayu Chang on piano. You can see Meerenai perform with with the A/B Duo and Areon Flutes.

They were followed by the Friction Quartet, who have played at the last six Hot Air festivals.

Violinist Kevin Rogers explained the quartet originally got together for the Hot Air festival, so that it was a sentimental event for them, though they are getting so good they will probably soon be famous which may put an end to that.

On Sunday they played three movements from Marc Mellits' 2011 eight-movement Tapas, which was beautiful, exhilarating music (click here to listen to the piece on Soundcloud). Violinist Otis Harriel is pictured above.

The Friction Quartet will be appearing tonight, Wednesday the 15th, at the Center for New Music performing eight string quartets. Here's a description of the interesting sounding event from the C4NM website:
The Common Sense Composers’ Collective completed eight string quartets in 2010 up at Banff in collaboration with the Afiara and Cecilia Quartets. San Francisco’s own Friction SQ is about to record these works up at Skywalker and will be preceding these sessions with this one-time only live performance of the whole set of eight pieces. Common Sense is a bi-coastal composers’ collective founded in 1994. All members, which include Marc Mellits, Melissa Hui, Belinda Reynolds, Carolyn Yarnell, Dan Becker, John Halle, Randy Woolf, and Ed Harsh, will be in attendance for this West Coast premiere of these pieces. There will be a celebratory wine reception open to all ticket-holders at 6:30pm before the 7:30pm performance.

Pictured above is cellist Doug Machiz.

Violist Taija Warbelow introduced John Halle's 2002 Spheres with an entertaining demonstration that included clapping her hands against her body to show how each player was performing the same music but with different time signatures ranging from triplets to fifths, and the polyrhythms were fun and fascinating.

Later in the afternoon ZOFO, the four-hand, one-piano duo of Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi played three pieces from an upcoming hour-long project called ZOFOMOMA.

They have commissioned 15 composers from around the world to write a short work for the duo based on a favorite work of art which will be projected while the music is performed, rather like a 21st Century Pictures at an Exhibition.

This afternoon they played Mexican composer Pablo Ortiz's paisaje, Swiss composer Cecile Marti's Wendung, and Japanese composer Kenji Oh's Sacred Chichibu Peaks at Spring Dawn. They were all quite different from each other, and the entire ZOFOMOMA is slated to be completed at some point in 2017-18.