Monday, April 30, 2018

The SF Conservatory of Music's Big New Building

Last Wednesday David Stull, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's president, announced a major $185 million construction project called The Bowes Center at the northeast corner of Hayes and Van Ness, aided by a $46.4 million gift from the William J. Bowes, Jr. Foundation. The venture capitalist was on the Conservatory board for decades, and he bought the land for the school four years ago before passing on in 2016.

Starting this summer a 27-unit apartment complex and the Lighthouse for the Blind will be torn down and replaced by a 12-story building that will provide housing for 420 Conservatory students, apartments for visiting artists and faculty, classrooms, a restaurant, a rooftop deck, recording studios, rehearsal rooms, and two performance spaces.

District 6 Supervisor and mayoral candidate Jane Kim gave a charming and articulate speech about how her doubts on the project being able to make its way through the city's bureaucracies has turned into joyful amazement that it is actually happening.

The architect Mark Cavagnero showed artist's renderings of what the building and its various spaces would look like, and though it looks sleek, modern and handsome, I saw one major problem.

Mark Cavagnero Associates recently designed the SFJAZZ Center and also the Taube Atrium Theater on the top floor of the Veterans Building, and none of those spaces have prosceniums, stages, or backstage spaces which makes presenting musical theater or opera problematic. The new Bowes Center calls for the same kind of layouts, which will look exciting as you are walking by the building on a Van Ness sidewalk but is not so nice for performers and audiences. The small Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Center, for instance, feels a bit like being in a soundproof glass tomb, and the renderings for the Bowes Center look like more of the same.

One performance space is projected for the ground floor corner with the other to be situated on the roof with a view of City Hall's dome "and all the interesting light effects that happen there on a nightly basis," Cavagnero noted. My objection is that when trying to concentrate on a musical performance, the last thing that is needed is a distracting blue-and-gold light show for a Golden State Warriors playoff run. Plus, tiered seating and stages exist for the good reason that sight lines are terrible if only the first row can see the full show. In an $185 million building, one would hope there would be an attempt at constructing a decent small theater.

The press conference was held on the second floor of 100 Van Ness, the 28-story skyscraper that used to host AAA headquarters before they moved to the East Bay. The building was then gutted down to its girders in 2013 and reincarnated as luxury apartment rentals.

In fact, this is where the tenants from the 27 rent-controlled units will be living for two years before they return to their new building in 2020, surrounded by music students, which seems like a fabulous stroke of luck for them.

At the end of the conference, we were invited to the rooftop deck to check out the views, and I boarded an elevator with the San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman. It turned out that both of us have vertigo around heights so this was the closest either of us came to looking over the glass barriers at the sidewalks below.

I have lived in this neighborhood since the early 1990s and its transformation has been fascinating to witness. The Bowes Center looks like it could be the most wonderful addition yet.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Cherry Blossom Festival Parade 2018

The annual Cherry Blossom Festival Parade last Sunday featured the usual Princesses...

...young people dressed as anime characters....

...and the proud owners of Shiba Inu dogs.

New to me were these colorful women dancing up the street in stylized fashion...

...accompanied by boys and men who were exuberantly dancing to their own choreography.

The parade route began in Civic Center and marched up lower Polk Street where some of the neighborhood inhabitants came out to watch, including the woman above who was frowning until I asked her if it was okay to take a photo of her "Good Vibes Only" T-shirt.

The smile may also have had something to do with the contingent from the Rosa Parks Elementary School from the Western Addition, which features a Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program.

Performing choreographed routines to prerecorded music from a loudspeaker on a truck, they were adorable.

We marched alongside them up Post Street all the way to Japantown, and couldn't stop grinning.

This is diversity that is actually walking the talk.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Embarcadero Crash and Beautiful Young People

On Saturday morning, there was a crash in front of the Embarcadero Hyatt Regency where Steuart Street makes a left turn and becomes Market Street, San Francisco's perennially grubby version of the Champs Elysees.

An historic streetcar had run into the back of a doubledecker tour bus.

The mild crash blocked bus and car traffic in both directions, and a trio of Muni drivers were standing on a corner talking with each other. "Did somebody try to play chicken with a Muni vehicle?" I asked them, and they all laughed. "That's about right!" one of them replied.

Muni drivers may have the most heroic, difficult jobs in San Francisco, dealing on an hourly basis with crazy streets, passengers, drivers, bicyclists, and now electric scooter riders.

They also get no respect, which at heart reflects San Francisco's longtime institutional racism.

Walking along the Embarcadero waterfront, we tried not to get run over by bicycles, scooters and even a pack of young, nerdy characters on motorized skateboards.

Even dodging all the vehicular traffic, the Embarcadero still knocks me out with its beauty.

We saw a quintet of friends on surfboards at McCovey Cove next to the SF Giants ballpark and what was sublime was that there was no home game that day and they had the place to themselves.

It was amusing to watch them pulling cans of beer out of their swim trunks for an impromptu day drinking session.

After watching all the many people on vehicles staring at digital devices, this group looked paradisiacal in their analog languor.

Further down the Embarcadero we went to our secret cheap waterfront German beer burger joint, that was once fashionable and no longer is so I will not name it, and were soon swarmed by a bachelor/ette party. The bride to be is pictured above.

The woman above explained that the bride-and-groom-to-be shared all the same friends, so they decided to have a bachelor party where both genders were included. "Does this have a name?" I asked them, and they replied, "No." In other words, they were inventing it and I confidently predict there will be a New York Times trends article about bi-gender bachelor/ette parties within the next five years.

The group of about 20 friends were the sweetest, cutest group imaginable, and I asked who the central character might be. "The groom," another woman told me. "The bride to be is a nurse and the groom to be is a chef, and when he invites people to an event, everyone shows up."

As we made our way home dodging all the sidewalk distractions, I predicted that we would run into somebody on an electric scooter walking a pit bull while looking at a mobile device. Instead, we ran into a rollerblader staring at his mobile phone while exercising his pit bull.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Don't Be Trashy on Earth Day

An Earth Day celebration took place a day early in Civic Center plaza on Saturday because Sunday was reserved for the Cherry Blossom Festival Parade.

At 11AM, there was a lone yoga enthusiast posed in front of a low stage...

...where a percussionist played with amplified bowls...

...while his audience showed off her flexible form.

Nearby a woman was assembling what looked like a healing circle.

Various corporate entities had booths displaying their commitment to capitalism and the environment at the same time, including Capital One which had the best T-shirts of the entire event.

Happy Earth Day to all creatures large and small, including my Palm Springs critter dude explaining the power of windmills.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Scooter Scourge

A month ago, rentable electric scooters from three different "disruptor" startups began appearing on the sidewalks of San Francisco. There was no notification of city authorities, no parking infrastructure put in place, and no rules for where you could ride them.

This meant that oblivious characters of all ages, ethnicities, and physical coordination could now use an app on their mobile devices and hop on a balancing board while motoring down a crowded sidewalk at 15 MPH. What could possibly go wrong?

Last week, during a morning rush hour, three-block walk to Caltrain on 5th Street, I was just about hit by seven different riders and watched another one wipe out and crash into a wall after being diverted by a particularly large sidewalk crack.

A tsunami of citizen complaints has spurred some City Hall politicians into expressing alarm and proposing legislation. Last week the City Attorney sent a cease and desist letter to the three companies, which they have blatantly ignored.

Sections of downtown San Francisco are already at a Manhattan level of crowding, but at least in New York City they know how to walk on crowded sidewalks without slamming into each other.

San Francisco drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists are legendarily clueless as they hurtle along blithely, often with earbuds and mobile devices in full distraction mode. Throwing electric scooters into the mix without any restrictions will simply amp up the insanity.

The probable upcoming class action lawsuits will also be legendary. People are dropping off the scooters wherever they like, including at sidewalk bus stops where people are tripping over them trying to board and unboard. A very entertaining woman in her 70s was waiting for a Market Street bus with me and was yelling, "Yes, take a picture of that damned scooter, and send it to your Supervisor. I've already been hit twice now. This is crazy."

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Snuff Films at SFMOMA

There are two major installations at SFMOMA currently featuring film and digital video. On the third floor is The Train, an examination of Robert Kennedy's funeral train carrying his assassinated body from New York City for burial in Arlington, Virginia. The starting point is a series of blurry color photographs from Paul Fusco who was commissioned by Look Magazine. Fusco rode on the train and shot the onlookers along the tracks paying tribute. French artist Philippe Parreno was so taken by the photos that he recently rented a train and hired actors in late 1960s period clothing to reenact the event in a 7-minute, 70mm art film which you can watch in a small room while laying on the floor. In another room, Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra assembled 8mm footage and photos that the mourners themselves had taken of the event. The overall effect can best be described as disembodied.

On the top floor is a three-screen work by the African-born Londoner John Akomfrah called Vertigo Sea, which combines stunningly beautiful nature imagery of the ocean juxtaposed with disturbing archival and contemporary imagery of whales and polar bears being slaughtered along with references to the 19th century Middle Passage slave trade and 21st century refugees drowning in leaking boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

The 50-minute work is set to a haunting score that mixes narrated poetry and snippets from novels with music, including reworked snatches of Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

There is a sign outside the screening room warning about the shocking footage, and it should be taken seriously. I have tried to watch the work twice, and both times lasted about ten minutes. Even the artist himself can't watch it again, according to a great interview by Jonathan Curiel in the SF Weekly. “I can’t watch it anymore, because in the course of trying to finish it, I think I crossed a line. There are one or two thinkers who basically told us over and over again that there’s this stage of being, and we have for a long time believed that [humans] were the only figures in that stage. And we know that’s not true. Deep down, everybody knows this is not true. Deep down. I happen to believe it passionately now. So I can’t watch it, because I know I’m watching fragments of a genocide. That’s basically what you’re watching."

On Saturday, April 28, there will be a free all-day screening of three of Akomfrah's other art films in the Wattis Theatre. In the description of the event, I also ran across a favorite typo, referring to "Stuart Hall, the Jamaican born pubic intellectual."

Friday, April 13, 2018

The World of Henry Cowell at Bard Music West, Concert 2

Before there was such a thing as "World Music," the California composer Henry Cowell pretty much invented it. The Saturday afternoon concert of the Bard Music West festival last weekend was dedicated to Cowell's international bent, which began with an improvisation by Shahab Paranj on the tombak, an Iranian percussion instrument that was surprisingly multi-faceted in its sounds.

This was followed by Urban Inventory, a 2015 work by Wang Lu, who was raised in Xi'an, China and now teaches at Brown University in Rhode Island. The performers were Third Sound, a recently formed contemporary music ensemble from New York, with Romie de Guise-Langlois on clarinet, Karen Kim on violin, Michael Nicolas on cello, Orion Weiss on piano, and Sooyun Kim on flute who also doubled on a loud, shrieking piccolo in a few movements that made me cover my ears. The six-movement work also included prerecorded urban sounds of voices over speakers, and though the performance was expert, I found the experience unpleasant which may have been intentional.

Sonorous beauty was restored with the 1924 Sonatina by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez who Cowell championed over the decades. The lovely performance was by Luosha Fang on violin and Allegra Chapman on piano.

Tim Padgett then led a percussion quartet in the 1941 Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison. Both composers were students of Cowell and he introduced them to each other in the late 1930s, where they essentially invented the percussion ensemble in Western classical music, writing pieces for modern dance troupes in San Francisco and Oakland's Mills College. Double Music is a fascinating chance music experiment, where Harrison and Cage wrote 200 measures for two percussion voices independently and then layered the results together. It worked brilliantly.

The quartet, consisting of Padgett, Ben Paysen, Sam Rich and Mika Nakamura, then played Cowell's 1939 Return which was originally written for dancers to play instruments, which must have been something to see.

Cellist Michael Nicolas from Third Sound was the soulful soloist in Cowell's 1924 Adagio from Ensemble for String Quintet and Thunder Sticks minus the thunder sticks which the composer decided later in life didn't add much to to the composition.

The concert's finale was amazing, a performance of Cowell's 1957 Homage to Iran, with Allegra Chapman on piano, Luosha Fang on violin and Shahab Paranj improvising on the tombak. One of the weirder detours in American history must be Cowell, imprisoned at San Quentin for homosexuality in the 1930s, being selected as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department in the 1950s. During a world tour, he landed in the Middle East during the Suez Canal crisis, and was sent off to program radio shows in Iran where the CIA had recently stage managed the 1953 coup that installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The rare chance to hear this music live, particularly in such a thrilling performance, was one of the many highlights of Bard Music West festival, which is one of the most exciting new developments on the Bay Area music scene in a long while. I can't wait to see what they do next.