Sunday, March 17, 2019

St. Patrick's Day Parade Watchers

The 168th annual San Francisco Saint Patrick's Day Parade marched up Market Street to Civic Center on Saturday under bright, sunny skies.

The Irish Festival in Civic Center Plaza was cancelled this year due to "unforeseen circumstances"...

...so the young party people congregated on a lawn close to the Asian Art Museum...

...where they drank and socialized.

Whatever the unforeseen circumstances, it was nice not having drunk young people puking all over the neighborhood later in the afternoon...

...though there were still a few youngsters who looked as if they had started imbibing too early and hard.

Walking upstream, it was as interesting to observe the parade watchers as the parade marchers themselves.

Sartorial awards go to the woman with the green neon wig...

...and the gentleman with the shamrock blazer...

...not to mention the punk leprechaun in the Muni Metro.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Dark Sky Ferry to Oakland

Our rainy season in California has been spectacular over the last two months, erasing years of drought.

There has been much whining about the relentlessly wet weather by people who like to complain, but the steady precipitation day after day has been a godsend. The gradually filling water tables and wells throughout the state are deserving of erotic public dances worshiping goddesses who have graced us with fresh water.

Plus, all one really needed to get around the Bay Area happily was an $11.95 umbrella from Walgreens along with wool clothing. However, most Californians view wool as if it was a modern version of medieval hairshirts.

Last Saturday I took the ferry boat from the SF Ferry Building to Jack London Square in Oakland under a sky that was changeable in every direction.

The forty-plus years I have been taking ferry boats around the San Francisco Bay for pleasure, and occasionally for serious transportation, have been some of the most easygoing, joyous minutes of my life...

...partly because the people watching is so amusing.

My favorite Bay Area public sculptures, practical rather than "art," are the container cranes of Oakland.

And the sculptures move, with various degrees of precision, transferring containers from ships onto trucks and trains.

My excuse to take the Oakland Ferry was to have breakfast with an old friend who wanted to check up on my mental health, and the afternoon was cathartic and delightful.

San Francisco Bay ferry boats are relaxing, entertaining, holy, and if you can come up with any excuse to take one, you should.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Schick Interpolates Beethoven

An unusually interesting concert was presented on Sunday afternoon, February 24th by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Chamber Orchestra. With almost 60 musicians filling the stage, it felt more like a full symphony ensemble than a "chamber" group, and the student players were superb. Plus, it was free.

What made the concert different was performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 with interpolated serial music by Webern and Dallapiccola between its four movements. This conglomeration was then bookended by a pair of contemporary works by Pamela Z and Anna Thorvaldsdottir. The fractured presentation was the brainchild of conductor and genius percussionist Steven Schick above, and the 75-minute concert was given without pause or applause between numbers.

Composer and vocalist Pamela Z has been experimenting with voice and layered sampling techniques on a laptop for decades, and Schick had commissioned her to write an introduction to Beethoven's Symphony #1 using Ludwig's despairing letter to his brothers about hearing loss. In the program notes, she writes that though the tone of the music is "dolorous and lamenting," she confesses that "I also couldn't resist the instinct to do something playful — something related to my penchant for sampling, layering, looping, and fragmentation. I decided to use the orchestra as a big, living, sample playback device by creating their phrases and motifs from chopped-up, granulated, and drastically stretched fragments of the first moment of Symphony No. 1."

After a short speech from the stage by Schick, Pamela Z and her laptop came out and the piece began, quite beautifully with the whole orchestra playing a snatch of Beethoven while Pamela Z began singing an ethereal "Ahhhhhh......"

About ten seconds into that "Ahhh...." strobe lights started flashing around the stage and a fire alarm sounded.

More than one person in the audience thought it might be an intentionally theatrical part of the piece, but everyone was hustled out on to Oak Street, where a woman with a megaphone directed us to wait in one particular parking lot.

Most people sensibly ignored her instructions.

We soon returned to the concert hall, revivified by the faux emergency, and Pamela Z's Helligenstadt Lament was fun, particlarly in the way she used the large orchestra as a sampler throughout. The coup de theatre was when she stopped singing, closed the laptop, walked into the audience while the orchestra started the first movement for real without an audible segue.

The ten-minute, twelve-tone Webern Symphony arrived between Beethoven movements one and two, while Luigi Dallapiccola's Piccola musica notturna was interpolated between two and three-four. In the program notes, Schick tried to articulate a subtext for his program, involving politics and 12-tone music being all about equality among every note, and none of it was very convincing, but it was great hearing unfamiliar, rarely performed music live by talented young musicians.

aequillibria, the final piece, by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottis was an exquisite, trancey stormscape for eleven instruments, and my favorite piece of music on the program. The unwitting theme of the concert for me was very male (Beethoven, 12-toners) musical energy countered and enfolded by female musical energy, not just in terms of actual gender but in musical effects.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Bach Cantatas with ABS

The American Bach Soloists began by performing J.S. Bach's cantatas at St. Stephen's Church in Belvedere 30 years ago under Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, and this season they are reprising some of their core repertory, including a Favorite Cantatas concert a couple of Sundays ago at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. It was fantastically satisfying, one of the most enjoyable early music concerts in memory.

J.S. Bach wrote over 200 cantatas, which are Lutheran chorale hymns he elaborated on and turned into religious mini-operas lasting 15 to 30 minutes. They usually consist of 5 to 10 movements that are a combination of chamber orchestra, chorus, and soloists. Their mixture of modest length and resources with sublimely gorgeous music makes them an inexhaustible pleasure to hear, particularly with performances this fine in a small church setting.

The afternoon of four cantatas started with Jesu, der du meine Seele, which featured the lovely sounding countertenor Jay Carter (above left) and and the tenor David Kurtenbach (above center) who filled in heroically at the last minute for a laryngitis-afflicted Zachary Wilder.

The other two soloists were soprano Nola Richardson and the bass-baritone Tyler Duncan who has a huge yet supple voice. Their duet in the second cantata, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stemme was deliciously carnal, as a watchman calls for everyone to rise in the town of Jerusalem as a bridegroom arrives to make love to his betrothed. It is supposed to be representing Jesus and the soul of a believer, but it reminded me that J.S. Bach fathered 20 children in between writing his thousands of compositions.

In the second half of the concert, the audience was invited to join the brilliant, translucent American Bach Choir in singing the final chorales. Pictured above are the altos Celeste Winant, Dan Cromeenes, and Matheus Coura.

The superb orchestra of original instruments even included the once extinct, recently reconstructed oboe da caccia, played by Priscilla Herreid.

The final two cantatas were Meine Seel erhebt den Herren and Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, both of which had a few too many references to the war against Satan for my taste, particularly in this time of Christian evangelical insanity in the United States, but the music and the performers managed to carry all before them.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco Hero

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's elected Public Defender since 2002, died suddenly of a possible heart attack on Friday at the age of 59. It was a shocking loss for his family, friends, acquaintances, employees, and the wider political world of San Franciscans who believe in integrity and positive change.

Adachi was raised a poor boy in Sacramento by Japanese-American parents who had spent time in the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas during World War II. He went to UC Berkeley and studied law at San Francisco's Hastings College. After 15 years working for the Public Defender's office, he had risen through the ranks to chief attorney of the office.

According to Adachi's Wikipedia page: "In 2001, Kimiko Burton-Cruz, the daughter of then State Senator John Burton, was appointed Public Defender by Mayor Willie Brown. After taking office, Burton-Cruz forced Adachi out on her first day on the job, apparently for political reasons. The following year, Adachi ran against Burton-Cruz for her position and defeated her by a 55%–45% margin."

The political cabal that runs San Francisco and distributes public funds was not amused at this thwarting of their patronage system, and subsequently the Public Defender's Office was annually threatened with drastic defunding as payback.

The above photos are from a public safety union rally in 2009 by the SFPD and SFFD demanding that their budgets not be cut, ignoring the more draconian treatment of the Public Defenders' office. Adachi reasonably explained to everyone in City Hall about how fiscally insane it would be to farm out constitutionally mandated public defending duties to private firms rather than the PD's office. He was smart and persuasive enough that he managed to eventually save most of his budget.

In June of 2010, the San Francisco Grand Jury released a report called "Pension Tsunami: The Billion Dollar Bubble" detailing the unsustainable pension structure of the City and County of San Francisco, with a special chapter entitled "Slicing the Pension Pie: Some More Equal Than Others" on how the SF Fire Department and the SF Police Department were especially adroit at gaming the system, comprising 82% of the retirees receiving more than $100,000 per year in public pensions. Adachi was one of the few public figures who took the report seriously, and started a petition drive to put Proposition B on the ballot to limit some of the fiscal damage which lost after outrageous scare tactics and piles of money were employed against it.

Undeterred, he tried with another ballot measure D in 2011 and even ran for SF Mayor that year to help publicize the issue. Then-mayor Ed Lee offered a watered-down, competing version of pension reform with Proposition C which won while Prop D lost. Adachi, of course, was correct and San Francisco is still facing the same issues nearly a decade down the road.

The last time I wrote about Adachi here at Civic Center was at a Black Lives Matter rally in front of the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street in December 2014. I wrote: "Adachi noted that the problem was larger than bigoted police departments, declaring that "We are all complicit. We see judges and prosecutors routinely asking for higher bail and longer sentences for people of color for the same offenses committed by whites. And if public defenders' offices provide a lousy defense, that can be the worst thing imaginable to happen to a defendant." He pointed out that San Francisco's population is 6% black while 56% of the jail population is black, before urging the small crowd to chant, "Black Lives Matter" for the inmates in the jail above us."

Adachi was already Public Enemy Number One for the SF Police and Fire Departments and only became more so after he revealed video evidence in 2014 of police officers stealing from single-room occupancy hotel tenants while making warrantless drug busts. Adachi's sudden death on Friday at a friend's apartment on Telegraph Hill, possibly involving a mistress, has already led to all kinds of mischief on the part of the SFPD and local media, but my reaction to those rumors was "Good for him if there was a mistress because I was afraid he did nothing but work all the time."

That 2014 post ended with the following: "I used to write more about local politics on this blog but found the provincial, corrupt San Francisco City Family too depressing to think about after a while. There are a few exceptions among San Francisco's elected officials, and Public Defender Jeff Adachi is first in line, the most admirable local politician I have met since Harvey Milk. He's smart, compassionate, honest, an inspiring leader, and a great speaker. We would be lucky to have him as Mayor of San Francisco, but that will never happen, partly because he had the temerity to point out during the last mayor's race that the current municipal compensation and pension system is unsustainable, particularly among public safety unions. You don't say those kind of things and get elected Mayor." He will be deeply missed by everyone whose lives he touched. When bloggers were thought of as inferior bomb-throwers by traditional media, he treated me as if I was as intelligent and important as any other reporter who asked him a question, which is how he treated everyone. The man was very special.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Shostakovich Two-Piano Jam with Other Minds

The Other Minds Festival has spread out with performances over the course of the year in various Bay Area locations, including a few ancillary events such as a two-piano recital in San Francisco's Taube Atrium Theater a couple of Sundays ago. The organization's founder, Charles Amirkhanian (above), gave his usual wry and intelligent introduction, noting that the festival's next event would be in the same theater on March 23rd when the Arditti Quartet plays the "complete microtonal pieces for strings" by Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893-1979). "This will be your first chance to hear this music in the United States...and probably the last."

He then introduced the two pianists playing music written or adapted by Shostakovich for two pianos, Maki Namekawa and her husband Dennis Russell Davies. Namekawa is best known for her work with composer Philip Glass, while Davies has had a fascinating career in Europe conducting everything from Bruckner to Lou Harrison. In both the recent Lou Harrison biography and Philip Glass's memoirs, Davies is a major figure. "We're starting the concert with the encores," Davies explained, "because you really don't want to hear anything else after Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony on the second half of the program."

After a pair of dances that Shostakovich wrote for films, they played a two-piano reduction of Stravinsky's 1930 Symphony of Psalms written by Shostakovich for students at the Leningrad Conservatory. According to the program notes by Randall Wong, "Shostakovich thought well enough of his transcription that he personally presented the manuscript to Stravinsky during his historic 1962 visit to the Soviet Union. Shostakovich's arrangement reflects his admiration for the work in that it succeeds in preserving both the ecclesiastic ambiance and choral textures or the original. Stravinsky's reception of the score was tepid at best." Though it was beautifully played by Namekawa and Davies, I'm siding with Stravinsky on this one because the two pianos could not make up for the loss of human voices in this piece, particularly in the ethereal finale, one of Stravinsky's most strikingly beautiful stretches of music.

At intermission, it was fun drinking coffee with a celebrity, singer-composer Laurie Anderson, who was an early "discovery" of the Other Minds Festival.

Also attending were true music lovers Terence Shek and Charlie Tiee looking perfectly imperturbable as usual.

My friend James Parr and I started the afternoon with a trip to the Kimono Refashioned exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, so Ms. Namekawa's procession of gorgeous concert wear felt serendipitous. She and Davies gave a fascinating, arduous tour of Shostakovich's 1936 Fourth Symphony which the composer put in a drawer after being attacked by Stalin for his wild, modernist opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. The original score of the symphony was lost and all that remained was a two-piano reduction by the composer and it wasn't until 1961 that the full piece was reconstructed from orchestral rehearsal parts and this two-piano version. In the week leading up to this concert I listened obsessively to a recording led by Vasily Petrenko of the 70+ minute symphony, and enjoyed it tremendously though it was hard to encompass the entire, sprawling work mentally. It was even more difficult absorbing the two-piano version, particularly the long first movement.

Davies introduced the work by saying that he had been part of a poll of conductors asked for their favorite three symphonies and he had picked the Shostakovich Fourth. "I was the only one who selected it, but I do feel that strongly about the work. You should really hear the whole thing." Did you hear that, SF Symphony programmers? Anne Midgette, the Washington Post music critic, wrote a rave review of Namekawa and Davies playing different two-piano repertory in 2017, and ended with this wonderful appreciation: "The performers, smiling at each other and at the music, emphasized “playing” rather than “performing,” with all the artificial earnestness that the latter entails. It was a performance given by people who cared more about the music than about what you, or I, or anybody thinks of it — a performance at once intimate and uncompromising, a concert given by two working musicians, at work." It was a pleasure to witness.