Friday, April 28, 2017

Cherry Blossom Parade Preparations

On a rainy Easter Sunday, the annual Cherry Blossom Parade from Civic Center to Japantown began assembling, and it felt like a harbinger of Spring.

There were the usual half-dressed men who were either participating in swordplay or Taiko drumming...

...and the reliably out of tune brass band was practicing on the lawn...

...with this year's crop of junior musicians.

The Cherry Blossom Parade would not be complete without the anime/manga worshipers who arrive decked out as their favorite characters. I hope nobody's costumes were destroyed during the ensuing downpour.

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 Café 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.