Sunday, October 11, 2015

Monks and Movies in the Hayes Valley

There was a small group meditating in front of the David Best temple on Patricia's Green Saturday morning, quiet and serene within the busy square.

I asked a young woman seated at a picnic bench nearby if she knew what the group was about, and she told me they were followers of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author, and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. According to his Wikipedia page, the 89-year-old Nhất Hạnh had a severe stroke in 2014 at his home in France. There was also this bit of news: "As of July 11, 2015, Thay has been flown to San Francisco to speed his recovery with an aggressive rehabilitation program through UCSF Medical Center. In September 2015, Nhất Hạnh spoke his first words since his stroke."

Across the street, the outdoor screen at Proxy, which originally had something to do with a workout group that never materialized, was being doubled in width.

Tony, my other half, commented, "Good. They can finally show movies in the proper aspect ratio."

I'm still wondering why there needs to be a big black structure in what is essentially a parklet. With luxury condos going up on every available piece of land nearby, what the neighborhood needs is open space.

It also needs open skies, even ones decorated with ads created by choreographed planes.

Speaking of choreographed air shows, the rooftop of the new 100 Van Ness luxury rental skyscraper was jammed with residents meditating on the excitement of Blue Angels death machines.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

SF Symphony Fall Preview

It's guest conductor season at the San Francisco Symphony this month and there are some interesting programs on the schedule. Tonight, Saturday the 10th, is the final performance for Hungarian piano legend Andras Schiff leading the orchestra in Mozart's final piano concerto followed by Haydn's "Lord Nelson" Mass with the Symphony Chorus, and topped off with 40 minutes of German art songs. The Haydn Mass is a rarity which I have been obsessively playing on YouTube because it is such a fabulous discovery. There are $20 rush tickets available for this evening's performance, and you don't have to be a senior or a student to buy a pair.

The SF Symphony Rush Ticket hotline number is (415) 503-5577, by the way, and it's one of the better deals in San Francisco. Next week from October 15-18, the sensationally gifted violinist Christian Tetzlaff is performing Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, surrounded by a Mussorgsky overture and Prokofiev's fun, bombastic Fifth Symphony.

Those concerts will be conducted by the Finnish Susanna Malkki, who is visiting for two weeks this year. Her second set of concerts from October 22nd to the 24th starts with contemporary Finnish composer Jukka Tiensuu's Soma and ends with my favorite Sibelius symphony, #5, which I have never heard played live satisfactorily. Maybe this time. In between, Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski plays Chopin's First Piano Concerto. Though Simon disconcertingly resembles a young Mel Brooks, he's a musical poet on his instrument.

The following week, October 28th to 30th, brings the legendary violinist Gidon Kremer (of Kremerata Baltica fame, among other accomplishments) playing Bartok's First Violin Concerto. The young Latvian conductor Andrey Boreyko will be making his debut with the SF Symphony, bookending Kremer with Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije Suite and Tchaikowsky's Suite No. 3.

On Halloween at 7:30, local drag legend Peaches Christ is the host for a 40th anniversary showing of the movie version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The throwing of rice, toast and the use of waterguns will probably not be allowed in Davies Hall, but I have been assured there will be goodie bags with props to ensure the proper communal experience.

On Saturday, November 7th, the annual Dia de Los Muertos concert features the amazing Mexican-American ranchera and jazz vocalist Lila Downs, who is making her symphonic debut. The concerts have grown in popularity over the years, so this year there are two, at 2PM and at 8PM. Make sure you arrive an hour early for the festivities in the various lobbies, which are genuinely festive.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Politicking at the 2015 Castro Street Fair

The annual Castro Street Fair has turned into one of the sweetest little street festivals in San Francisco.

For decades, it was a huge, claustrophic scene like the Haight Street or Folsom Street Fair, but it has somehow managed to downscale into a manageable crowd where you can run into old friends you haven't bumped into for years.

It probably helps that the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival absorbs tens of thousands of free concertgoers in Golden Gate Park on the same Sunday, and that most gay sex tourists have literally come and gone the weekend before at Folsom Street.

There are a few nods to the gay, nudist, hippie-ish beginnings of the event in the 1970s such as a body painting tent in front of the Castro Theatre, but that particular bacchanalian energy no longer seems to exist on San Francisco's public streets, for better or worse.

What did stand out at the fair was how many people were politicking for various politicians and propositions in advance of next month's elections.

The handsome young man with the megaphone above looked like he could have fit seamlessly into the Castro of the 1970s, and he was busking for a pie-throw-at-the-politician fundraiser for the Harvey Milk Democratic Club.

District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim was one of the victims, but nobody seemed to want to throw a pie at her, possibly because violence towards women is a current topic of awareness.

A cute young heterosexual couple asked me why Kim was at the Castro pie-throwing booth since this wasn't her supervisorial district. "That's because this is for the leftie Harvey Milk Democratic Club, and she's friends and sometimes allies with them, while the right-wing real estate lesbians and gays are at the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club booth up the street, and they're BFFs with Scott Weiner, who is the supervisor for this district and who is thankfully nowhere in sight."

I continued, "Most of this is just sectarian schisms, though. It's all about being an insider and having a piece of power, which unfortunately flows directly from the old-time criminal cabal which actually runs San Francisco, badly. There's no way they become one of the insiders without being co-opted."

Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi (above right) was campaigning personally for reelection on Sunday, while his opponent Vicky Hennessy was represented by a pair of odd looking sign carriers. Mirkarimi used to be a part of the City Family when he was on the Board of Supervisors, but he crossed the cabal by running for Sheriff against an approved candidate and narrowly winning. His subsequent vilification for domestic violence by the DA, SFPD, San Francisco Chronicle, Mayor Ed Lee, the SF Ethics Commission, every city-sponsored domestic violence nonprofit in the Bay Area, and various Supervisors was strangely over-the-top and revealed more about how San Francisco is governed than was probably intended.

Up the street, the gay-focused Bay Area Reporter weekly newspaper, which has always had a capitalist, politically conservative slant, was offering a raffle for tickets to the San Francisco Opera House appearance of the ultimate current public distraction.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Monteverdi Madrigals with Magnificat

An unusually beautiful and accomplished concert of madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi was performed on Sunday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church by Magnificat, a Bay Area ensemble under cellist/artistic director Warren Stewart (above center) that specializes in 17th century music. I had never heard them before, but the group has been around for over two decades, and if this concert was any indication, the loss was mine.

After an opening "madrigale morale" called O ciechi, ciechi about the the vanity of pursuing land and treasures while paying no attention to your soul, soprano Christine Brandes sang a long love letter song, Se i languidi miei sguardi. Brandes was in great voice and dramatically intense, making one almost understand the 17th century Italian without consulting the program. The continuo accompaniment by harpsichordist/organist Jillon Stoppels Dupree above was understated and compelling all afternoon.

There were a pair of instrumental pieces by Monteverdi's contemporaries, the Sonata Decimaquinta by Dario Costello and the Sonato in Eco per tre violini by Biago Marini, where the bearded Rob Diggins above played a solo sonata that was echoed from hidden locations by other violinists in the back of the church. The effect was magical. (Pictured above are David Wilson, Rob Diggins, and Jolianne Einem.)

The first half of the program ended with the proto-opera, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, where tenor Aaron Sheehan did a spectacular job narrating the sad story of Tancredi and Clorinda fighting and killing each other during the Crusades. Long ago I owned a recording by the English early music specialist Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra of this piece, but Leppard orchestrated the madrigal with brass and extra strings. Though the sound was entertaining, Monteverdi's music stripped down to its essentials as it was meant to be performed is more dramatically engaging, as this performance and West Edge Opera's recent production of Il Ritorno di Ulisse demonstrated.

The second half was filled with more treasures, including a sublime soprano duet between Brandes and soprano Jennifer Paulino, Ohime dov'e mil ben.

There was also a hilarious parody of a War Madrigal where the enemy is Love and the soldiers completely unequipped to claim victory against this insidious foe which turns their lives upside down. Throughout the entire afternoon, the vocal mixture between the five vocalists (two sopranos, one tenor, one countertenor, and one bass) was extraordinarily smooth and rich. Pictured above are the vanquished by Love soldiers: tenor Andrew Sheehan, countertenor Andrew Rader, and bass Robert Stafford. The finale was Ballo: Tirse e Clori, a pastoral duet between Paulino and Sheehan, which turned into a choral ballet for the entire ensemble. It was exquisite and fun.