Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Tale of Two Marches, Part Two

Last Saturday afternoon we took a Van Ness bus towards the Civic Center but traffic wasn't moving, so we jumped off and walked. On the sidewalk, there were thousands of people on their way to the Women's March, scheduled to make its way down Market Street at 5PM.

Like the marches that sprouted in seemingly every city and town in the United States and throughout the world, the turnout was astonishing.

The density of the crowd induced claustrophobia, so I escaped to the fifth floor of the Main Library and took a few photos.

My mother took her children to early Vietnam War protest marches in the 1960s and it feels as if I have been attending variations on them intermittently ever since.

I am not sure how effective they are as agents of change, but after the election of the increasingly bizarre Donald Trump as president of the United States, it was heartening to see so many people out in the streets.

The major accomplishment of most of these marches is in creating a monumental, theatrical, communal mental health intervention for the participants. "I'm not alone in thinking this state of affairs is evil and crazy" is always an empowering truth to experience with others.

The fact that the marches were led by women trying to make the world somewhat better for their children, in opposition to fascist old fossils, only added to their power.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Tale of Two Marches, Part One

Late Saturday morning we heard drums and looked out the window to see streams of protesters walking down McAllister Street on their way to Civic Center.

At first we thought they might be early arrivals for the Women's March scheduled for 3PM in Civic Center, protesting newly elected president Donald Trump's misogynistic evil. Instead, they turned out to be from the annual pro-life, anti-abortion march protesting the Roe v. Wade decision.

Thousands of parishioners from Catholic and evangelical churches are bused in from all points in the Western states to parade down Market Street to show godless liberals in San Francisco the error of their baby-killing ways.

This blog covered the marches in 2015 and 2016. They were annoying in their patriarchal stupidity, but the crowds felt basically harmless, as they enjoyed a jaunt into the Big City with fellow true believers from the provinces.

Mexican-American family groups with their teenage children looking bored out of their minds have always been a feature...

...although what looked like two gay daddies embracing the cause was certainly a new, grotesque twist.

What was new this year was the vehemence and excitement of the speakers. A woman was onstage in front of the recycled Abortion Hurts Women signage telling the crowd that they "should pray for Donald Trump and Mike Pence. This is Our Season, and we will triumph. Planned Parenthood WILL be defunded, which won't make any difference to women's health. I'm a nurse and just got back from West Africa where we were taking care of women and Planned Parenthood was nowhere to be seen! This is our moment." Her speech was insane and perfectly chilling.

Across Polk Street in front of City Hall there were a half dozen early arrivals for the Women's March who looked utterly depressed by the spectacle. "Are you the counter-protest?" I asked and they laughed. One woman, not pictured, said "I need a drink. Let's go."

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mahler Juvenalia at the SF Symphony

Last weekend at Davies Hall, the SF Symphony Orchestra under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, the SF Symphony Chorus, a quartet of superstar vocalists, a gaggle of dancers, and a few stray children gave a staged presentation of Gustav Mahler's earliest compositions. The reactions to the performance were all over the map (click here for Lisa Hirsch's critical roundup), but I was enchanted by the entire evening. (All photos by Cory Weaver.)

That may have something to do with how I discovered Mahler's music. With the proceeds from my first job at age 13, bagging groceries, I bought a stereo turntable and speakers. This led to becoming the teen mascot for the classical music staff at Discount Records, a proto Tower Records chain with an outlet in the La Cumbre Plaza shopping center in Santa Barbara. I adored the look and feel of boxed classical music sets but usually couldn't afford them. When Leonard Bernstein's big, black, leatherbound collection of close to 20 LPS surveying the Complete Symphonies of Gustav Mahler appeared on the front counter in 1968, I went bonkers with acquisitive ardor. Unfortunately, the price was $100 which might as well have been $1,000 at the time. There was another catch, which was that I didn't have a clue who the hell Gustav Mahler was and what his music even sounded like.

Still, the big black box set beckoned and I watched as it was transferred from the front counter to a back, top shelf, and saw the price descending over the months to $75, then $49, then $33, which was when I made the leap and bought it. Proceeding slowly through the LPs, I wouldn't play the next symphony until assimilating the previous one through repeated listening. The moment it became clear that the music was not going to be a disappointment, and was worth every one of those thirty-three dollars, was on first hearing the third movement of the First Symphony, with Frere Jacques rewritten as a funeral march suddenly being interrupted by a raucous, grotesque gypsy band. It didn't need to be explained that this was wild music, filled with rapturous longing, perfect for a romantic, precocious teenager.

Listening to live Mahler performances over the ensuing decades usually ensures a Proustian madeleine moment involving time transport to an often tortured teenhood. This was very much the case at last Saturday's performance because the program was music Mahler had written as a teenager or thereabouts. It started with an early lyric orchestral movement, Blumine, which was not particularly interesting except for the divinity of the Mark Inouye's trumpet solo. This was followed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (above) exquisitely singing the four Songs of a Wayfarer in that voice which melts me to butter, every time. It was fascinating hearing all the tunes and phrases Mahler recycled into his First Symphony in their original form.

The second half of the program was the staging of the original, three-movement, hour-plus gargantuan cantata for orchestra, soloists and chorus, Das Klagende Lied. The staging was by the usual suspects, director James Darrah, projection designer Adam Larsen, set designer Ellen Lenbergs, lighting designer Pablo Santiago, and costume designer Sarah Schuessler. I heard a few reactions about the staging on the order of "awful, just awful," and reactions to the music that it was derivative, unshapely and a mess.

I thought the understated staging and projections were evocative and beautiful, even though they never quite got around the fact that the piece wasn't meant to be staged. The musical performances by soprano Joelle Harvey (photos 2 and 6), mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (photos 2-4), tenor Michael Konig (photo 7), and baritone Brian Mulligan (photo 6) were sweet, convincing and heroic, considering they were wandering on a ramp trying to project their voices from behind a huge orchestra, which was sounding their usual excellent Mahlerian selves under MTT.

As for Das klagende Lied, I had never even heard of it before these performances, and over the course of a week listening to it via YouTube, fell in love with the nutty, extravagantly ambitious music. The dark German fairy tale story about fratricide over an ice princess is serviceable, and throughout the score you can hear multiple glimpses of Mahler masterpieces to come. I was teleported right back to a cheap 1960s turntable and speakers blasting out lavish Austro-Hungarian-Czech-Jewish orchestral music in a SoCal university beach town.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Amor Ah Quality Becomes a Novice Sister

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence began as a costumed prank in San Francisco in 1979, and in the ensuing decades has morphed into an amazingly political and spiritual movement, with Sisterly orders sprouting up all over the country and the world. (Pictured above is Sister Rose Mary Chicken aka Poultry in Motion.)

Though the Sisters are predominantly gay men, any gender can join after going through a rigorous step-by-step trial period that involves being an Aspirant, a Postulant, a Novice Sister, and if 75% of the order approves, a full-fledged Sister.

Last Saturday in the tiny, triangular Castro District park created by Upper Market and 17th Street, two Postulants were being elevated to Novice Sister, including Gwen Essex (above center, flanked by Flora Goodthyme and a Sister out of habit).

Gwen's religious name will be Amor Ah Quality, and she had a posse of friends supporting her at the public event.

Both Amor and NormaLee Chaste knelt on the ground while their "Mothers" applied full-face white makeup.

They were given white veils to wear to signify their elevation...

...and were ornamented with fabulous costume jewelry.

A leader of the group gave a heartening speech about the difficult political times ahead, and how "the Sisters have devoted ourselves to community service, ministry and outreach to those on the edges, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment. We believe all people have a right to express their unique joy and beauty and we use humor and irreverent wit to expose the forces of bigotry, complacency and guilt that chain the human spirit." We all raised our arms in the air and recited a prayer that ended with "Amen" and "Awomen."

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Lay Your Sleeping Head" by Michael Nava

The writer Michael Nava was interviewed and gave a reading from his newly published novel, Lay Your Sleeping Head, last Saturday at the Hormel Center in the Main Branch of the SF Public Library. The turnout comfortably filled the room, amusing questions from writer Kevin Killian were thoughtfully answered, and books were sold.

In a fascinating, autobiographical afterword to the novel, Nava explains the book's genesis. His first mystery novel, The Little Death, was published in 1986 by a young, gay Bostonian, Sasha Alyson, who Nava remembers as being very odd, but also possessing unusual "vision, intelligence and determination." The novel was meant to be a one-off, but it was reviewed favorably in The New York Times and was a modest success, so he was contracted to write more featuring the same leading character, Henry Rios, a gay, Mexican-American lawyer who came from the wrong side of the tracks in California's San Joaquin Valley and managed to educate himself into a complicated relationship with the ruling class of coastal California.

The Henry Rios series continued for a total of seven volumes, ending with Rag and Bone in 2001, and then stopped altogether, partly because the author had become tired of living constantly with the same character. This was hugely disappointing for fans of the series, because the books are so good and the characters so rich. Additionally, there are very few writers that have described 20th Century California as well as Nava, or as accurately. Readers were being given insiders' looks at the gay world in all its intricacies and the Mexican-American world in its own complexities, plus convincing appearances from every race, political group and economic class. On top of it all, his California is multiple: San Francisco and its environs, the San Joaquin Valley, and Los Angeles are all shaded distinctly.

Without a trust fund background, Nava had to find a paying profession rather than poet/writer/grad student, so he became a lawyer, graduating from Stanford Law School, and had a distinguished career that ended while writing opinions at the California Supreme Court in San Francisco and working on death penalty case reviews. Long an advocate for racial diversity on the bench, he also ran for Superior Court Judge earlier this decade and almost won. Because Nava broke the unofficial, back bench rule which decrees that you must not run against a sitting judge, the election got as ugly as anything I have ever witnessed in local San Francisco politics, which is quite a statement if you are familiar with the everyday corruption of San Francisco politics. The silver lining to the electoral disaster was it spurred Nava to finally finish a novel he had been working on for 14 years about the Mexican Revolution, The City of Palaces. It is a modern classic, I believe, and worth the time it took to germinate.

Meanwhile, the Henry Rios series were being regarded as modern classics of their own in the California mystery genre, and are being studied in Latin American and Gay Studies programs at colleges throughout the country. Unfortunately, they were out of print except for e-book versions, so last year Nava managed to regain the print rights to the seven novels from a conglomerate and struck up a deal with another young indie publisher, Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano. Nava read The Little Death for the first time in years, hoping to fix a few typos, and found himself appalled at how thin the book was, and how much better a writer he had become over the course of a lifetime. So he rewrote 95% of the novel, keeping the same characters and plot, but enriching it all with an understanding he didn't possess when it was first written. Going back and rewriting earlier work is more common among composers than writers, and it often doesn't work out well, but having read both The Little Death and Lay Your Sleeping Head more than once, this is one case where the improvement is enormous without sacrificing any of the youthful energy that animates the characters.

Nava pointed out to Kevin Killian above that the series has turned out to be an unofficial history of the AIDS Plague era, with Lay Your Sleeping Head taking place in 1982 at the advent and the final Rag and Bone in 2000 when the period where AIDS was an automatic early death sentence was about to come to an end. "Writing these books was like being in the midst of a battle, where friends were being killed all around you, and you just try to survive and record what is going on without really being able to think."

Nava retired from his legal career last summer and he seemed in a bit of a what-to-do-next funk when we had lunch one day. The prospect of writing anymore wasn't appealing. So the real headline news of the afternoon is that Nava has just finished the first draft of a new Henry Rios novel, set in San Francisco in 1984, becoming in effect the second book in the series, bridging the gap between the Northern California first volume and the move to Los Angeles for the rest of the series. "It's the first Henry Rios book set in San Francisco, right after he gets out of rehab and the advent of AIDS is raging in the streets. I started writing it two days after Trump was elected, and have never written anything that fast." This is the first election silver lining story I have heard.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

SF Symphony 2017 Winter/Spring Highlights

In a famous 1964 speech when receiving the first Aspen Award for the Humanities, composer Benjamin Britten made the following claim:
"One must face the fact today that the vast majority of musical performances take place as far away from the original as it is possible to imagine: I do not mean simply Falstaff being given in Tokyo, or the Mozart Requiem in Madras. I mean of course that such works can be audible in any corner of the globe, at any moment of the day or night, through a loudspeaker, without question of suitability or comprehensibility. Anyone, anywhere, at any time, can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only—that they possess a machine. No qualification is required of any sort—faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Music is now free for all. If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don’t mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possessions of a tape-machine or a transistor radio. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the program perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener’s part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener."

In that spirit, here is a listing of the concerts at the San Francisco Symphony over the next six months that have me most excited for a live music experience. The first choice is next week, January 13-15, and it is a remarkably ambitious survey of Gustav Mahler's early work, including the discarded Blumine movement from his First Symphony, the Songs of a Wayfarer, and the original, three-movement opera/cantata Das klagende Lied which he wrote as a teenager and which is an amazing, crazy piece, with offstage bands, six harps, and a huge vocal contingent. To add to the occasion, the soloists Joelle Harvey, Sasha Cooke (above) and Brian Mulligan will be joined by the SF Symphony Chorus, and James Darrah and Adam Larsen will be brought in to stage the work. Not to be missed.

Conductor James Gaffigan was Associate Conductor of the SF Symphony from 2006-2009 where he struck me as extraordinarily gifted, particularly with Mozart whose music he made magical. Since then, he's become the Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony and has been jetting around the world to opera houses and concert halls in a wide range of repertory. From January 19-22, he will be conducting a weird grab bag of pieces – Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto #2, Mozart's Symphony #36, and Strauss's Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome. Looking forward to hearing how he has matured.

World famous, Bay Area composer John Adams is celebrating his 70th birthday (February 15th, to be exact) with the San Francisco Symphony next month. He'll be leading a SoundBox concert February 10th and 11th, and on February 16-18, there will be the first local performances of his The Gospel According to the Other Mary, which some consider his masterpiece. Premiered by the L.A. Philharmonic in 2012-13, it's a three-hour Passion for orchestra, soloists and chorus. It's a bit like his 2000 Nativity oratorio, El Niño, with its collage libretto assembled by director Peter Sellars of Biblical texts and contemporary verse by writers that include everyone from Dorothy Day to Louise Erdrich. It will be conducted by LA Master Chorale director Grant Gershon, who was involved with the premiere and has conducted the work elsewhere. If you are an Adams fan, this is not to be missed. The following week from February 22-25, Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the first local performances of Adams' 2015 major work for violin and orchestra, Scheherezade 2, featuring soloist Leila Josefowicz for whom it was written.

Another must-experience-live event will be taking place May 4-6, when Charles Dutoit conducts 400+ musicians in Berlioz's Messe des Mortes, the Big Daddy of Requiems. This concert was supposed to happen last year, but was suddenly postponed, probably just to amp up the anticipation for Berlioz worshipers.

One of a handful of "Art Song" superstars in the world, Matthias Goerne (above right, with Christoph Eschenbach) sings Shostakovich's 1974 Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti from May 25-27. That's about all you have to know. Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Music Director Manfred Honeck will also offer a Tchaikovsky Symphony (#5), and maybe it will be good.

From June 23-25, Michael Tilson Thomas presents one of his American Mavericks concerts of 20th/21st century U.S. composers including Charles Ives, Lou Harrison (Suite for Symphonic Strings), George Antheil (the Jazz Symphony), and even a piece by the conductor himself. Your chances of hearing the Antheil and Harrison live are infrequent and MTT handles this strain of music brilliantly.

So far, I haven't been quite as convinced by MTT's conducting of Berlioz, but he grows into things, and for a number of years MTT has been playing around with excerpts from the composer's Romeo and Juliet for orchestra, chorus and soloists. From June 28 to July 1, he will be conducting the entire, evening-length cantata with singers that include the divine Sasha Cooke again, the tenor Nicholas Phan (above), and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. This is another work that is performed too infrequently, and any occasion to experience it live is great news. For those who are more conservative in their musical enthusiasms, there are plenty of other interesting looking concerts this season too (I'm looking at Herbert Blomstedt conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony from February 1-5, in particular). For tickets, click here, and for inexpensive, day-of-sale rush tickets, call (415) 503-5577 the day before, after 6PM, for availability.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Ringing in The New Year

After being fed breakfast on a chilly New Year's Eve morn, my cat Tiger Woods sprawled out on the unmade living room futon and welcomed the New Year as a solar-powered pussycat.

I joined my friends Alexandra Kutik and James Parr at the Asian Art Museum later in the day to see The Rama Epic exhibit. We were caught up in the annual Japanese New Year bell-ringing ritual in Samsung Hall which involved an hour-long ceremony.

It involved dull speeches by museum staff and a "modern dance" performance by Yoshie Akiba, the venerable proprietor of Yoshi's jazz clubs. Yoshie is a tiny woman, probably less than five feet tall, so most of us in the audience could only see the occasional arm flying into the air with accompanying scarf.

Two male monks and their four female colleagues then carried out a ritual ceremony involving chanting and incense. "It's very Midnight Mass," my friend James remarked. The three of us finally were called to ring the antique Japanese bell to expel the bad energy of the last year and send concentrated good wishes to the whale on the land and the dragon in the sky. It felt as if we did.

I then went off to the Tibetan wing to snap a Birthday Buddha photo for my friend Heidi who was born with Christ. The statue above depicts the Tibetan/Nepalese Buddhist deity White Tara in gilded copper from the 15th century.

Nearby was a sculpture of the Buddhist deity Guhyasamaja embracing Sparshavajra. The wall text for the above 15th century Ming Dynasty Chinese/Tibetan sculpture talks about what it symbolizes in religious terms, but it is obviously divine porn. Happy New Year.