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New: East Bay Hills fire completely contained

Jeff Shuttleworth (BCN)
Monday August 07, 2017 - 05:56:00 PM

The 20-acre vegetation fire in the vicinity of Grizzly Peak Boulevard in the East Bay hills that broke out last week was deemed to be 100 percent contained as of 10 a.m. today, an Oakland fire battalion chief said. 

Multiple fire departments worked together and made "remarkable" progress over the weekend in fighting the blaze, which was reported at 1:05 p.m. Wednesday near Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Centennial Drive above the University of California at Berkeley Botanical Gardens, Battalion Chief Melinda Drayton said. 

Half of the fire was on Oakland land in the hills and half was on land owned by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory that's mostly in Contra Costa County, according to Drayton. 

University of California at Berkeley police spokeswoman Sgt. Sabrina Reich said Thursday that the fire is being considered as a possible arson. 

But Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Martin, whose agency is leading the investigation into the cause and origin of the fire, said the only thing he can say is that there's an open investigation into the fire and the probe could take days, weeks or even months. 

Also on Thursday, Oakland police said UC Berkeley officers arrested a person who fled the scene of a collision on Grizzly Peak Boulevard that occurred Wednesday morning, near where the fire began. Police haven't said whether that incident is related to the blaze. 

Drayton said anyone who has information about the fire should call UC Berkeley police at (510) 642-6760.

U.C. Berkeley police investigating robbery, assault at People's Park

Peter Fournier (BCN)
Monday August 07, 2017 - 09:53:00 AM

University of California at Berkeley police are investigating a reported battery, kidnapping and robbery that took place Sunday morning at People's Park. 

According to police, the victim was approached by the suspect in the park at 2556 Haste St. The suspect then punched the victim several times, dragged him out of the park and then stole his cellphone. 

Police said the suspect was described as a black male, 5 feet 8 inches or 5 feet 9 inches tall. He was last seen running south from the park wearing a tan wide-brim hat, burgundy fleece jacket, blue jeans and carrying an unknown-colored backpack. 

Anyone with information is asked to contact UC Berkeley police at (510) 642-0472 or (510) 642-6760.

Flash: Berkeley fire on Addison injures one

Peter Fournier (BCN)
Sunday August 06, 2017 - 11:27:00 PM

A fire at a three-story apartment complex in Berkeley injured one person, according to Berkeley fire chief Gil Dong. 

The two-alarm fire at the 27-unit apartment building at 1420 Addison Street - called in at 7:12 p.m. - displaced residents of three units due to smoke, fire and water damage, Dong said. 

Dong couldn't confirm the severity of the victim's burn injuries, but did say they were transported to a local hospital. 

The fire initially forced evacuations in the area of the apartment building. It was called under control at 8:11 p.m. 

The Red Cross is assisting those who were displaced by the fire tonight, Dong said.


The Editor's Back Fence

Bus Rapid Transit on the Road

Friday August 04, 2017 - 12:17:00 PM

If you'd like to know what the ultimate manifestation of AC transit's BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) will mean when (not if) it comes to Berkeley, check out former Planet columnist J. Douglas Allen-Taylor's discussion of how it's progressing in Oakland on his CounterPoints web site here: 

Public Comment

Abuse by U.S. Customs & Border Agents

Tejinder Uberoi
Friday August 04, 2017 - 11:48:00 AM

ABC 20-20 investigative reporters revealed horrific abuse by U.S. Customs and Border agents.

Newly released video footage shows U.S. C & B agents causing the death of a 16 year-old Mexican teenager, Cruz Velazquez, by forcing him to drink a bottle of liquid methamphetamine at a border checkpoint in San Diego.

Minutes after the teenager sipped on the liquid, his body began convulsing, and he screamed "my heart" in Spanish and then died. The officers were never disciplined. John Carlos Frey, two-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker said Velazquez’s case is just the latest example of rampant abuse and mistreatment by border agents. 

His new investigation is titled "Life and Death at the Border.” Speaking on ABC’s 20/20, Reyna Velazquez, Cruz's sister, said the Border Patrol agents were laughing as her brother was screaming in pain. The family was paid $1,000,000 in a wrongful death suit but there was no apology and no admission of wrongdoing.  

Earlier this year, the former White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, said the president wanted to "take the shackles off" the nation’s immigration and customs agents. The two female border agents were back on duty the next day waiting for their next victim.

Protests at The Local Butcher Shop are harassment

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin
Friday August 04, 2017 - 11:41:00 AM

I respect people's passion for social causes as well as their right to express their opinions, but the recent action undertaken by animal rights protesters against The Local Butcher Shop is harassment — plain and simple. Demanding that the store hang a sign stating the group's views in exchange for an end to protests is coercive, improper and not the way to treat a much-loved local business. Our independent stores are the lifeline of our community and should not be harassed for simply doing their jobs.  

I support Monica and Aaron Rocchino, owners of The Local Butcher Shop, who are doing more than many other grocers to buy locally sourced animals raised in humane conditions. If you're against eating meat, don't eat it, but don't impose your beliefs on others either

Our quicksand economy

Harry Brill
Friday August 04, 2017 - 11:25:00 AM

It is widely known that we live in a roller coaster economy, which economists refer to as the business cycle. We hear from the establishment that our economy is almost at full employment. According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the June unemployment rate was 4.4 percent, which is relatively speaking very low. But most people realize that this figure is nonsense. It fails to take adequate account of the very large number of working people who have given up looking for work. They are either jobless or working part time because they are unable to obtain full time work. 

With regard to the official unemployment rate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics hides more than it reveals. There is another figure that is essential to take into account -- the labor force participation rate. This rate tells us what percent of adults is in the labor force, that is either working or actively looking for work. Ben Bernanke, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, testified in Congress that unemployment may be higher than the official figure because it overlooks the relevance of the decline in the labor force participation rate (LFPR).  

From the year 2000 until now, the labor force participation rate has appreciably declined. In other words, a growing percent of working people for a variety of reasons are not looking for work. Consider the following - the increase since 2000 in the adult population --ages 19 to 64 -- is about 24 million. Yet less than half this number is counted as members of the civilian labor force. But why? Since those who are at least 65 are not included in this estimate, retirement is not a major factor. And nowadays many students work and want a job. The only valid explanation for the millions of these forgotten Americans is that they have given up the search for work because they are unable to find a job. 

If most of these workers are included in calculating the unemployment rate, the official unemployment rate would be at least twice the current official rate. But why are jobs so difficult to obtain? Of course there are many explanations. But especially important is that we live in a global economy. Rather than business shipping jobs mainly to low wage states, which was once the prevailing pattern, millions of jobs are being continually outsourced, that is, shipped abroad. With rare exception, these jobs are not making a round trip. The numbers are staggering. Since 2001, over 3 million jobs have been relocated to China. Many millions of jobs have been shipped to India. And as the result of the NAFTA agreement, almost 700,000 jobs have moved to Mexico. But that's not all. A partial list of some of the other beneficiaries of American jobs are Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  

In the aggregate, over 2 million jobs are leaving the country every year. That's a loss of more than 20 million jobs in every decade. Manufacturing has been particularly hit hard. In 1960, about one out of four jobs were in manufacturing. The number are down not to only about 8 percent. Five million manufacturing jobs have been shed since the year 2000. 

The consequences of outsourcing are very serious not only for those who are directly affected. The growing surplus of unemployed and underemployed workers weakens the ability of a majority of the work force to improve their standard of living. It is not surprising that union density has declined from the double digits to a meager 6.4 percent As a result of the erosion of both the collective and individual bargaining power of working people, hourly wages for the majority have either stagnated or declined. And the hourly wages of 90 percent of college graduates from 2007 to 2014 have gone down. Yet since 1979 the productivity of workers has increased by 64 percent. So business could have easily afforded a higher wage for its employees and still enjoy higher profits. 

From the perspective of the economy, hundreds of billions of dollars in spending power is being lost every year. Consider the following: in 2015 over 211,00 jobs of computer programmers were outsourced. The wages lost in just this one occupation in one year were about $14 billion ( this is a gross, not a net estimate). 

In addition, large job layoffs in any business impact workers at other establishments. Economists call this the multiplier effect. For example, if an auto plant closes, workers in the steel industry will lose jobs because the demand for steel will decline. And apparel workers who supply auto workers with clothes for work will also lose jobs. According to the calculations made by the liberal think tank, the Economic Policy Institute, every hundred jobs in manufacturing supports almost three jobs elsewhere. That is why a substantial number of outsourced jobs by various businesses adversely impact almost the entire economy. 

As technology improves and employers learn more about the advantages and the ins and outs of exporting jobs, outsourcing is likely to increase. To avoid a severe economic downturn it is imperative to build a progressive movement to compel our government to radically change its agenda in favor of working people and their families rather than corporate America. But whatever is accomplished, working people will be forced to live in perpetual insecurity unless serious steps are taken to curb the massive export of jobs

August Pepper Spray Times

By Grace Underpressure
Friday August 04, 2017 - 04:58:00 PM

Editor's Note: The latest issue of the Pepper Spray Times is now available.

You can view it absolutely free of charge by clicking here . You can print it out to give to your friends.

Grace Underpressure has been producing it for many years now, even before the Berkeley Daily Planet started distributing it, most of the time without being paid, and now we'd like you to show your appreciation by using the button below to send her money.

This is a Very Good Deal. Go for it! 



Toni Mester
Friday August 04, 2017 - 01:38:00 PM
840 Page
Toni Mester
840 Page

One of the things I learned in kindergarten was to get a pass to go to the bathroom. The teacher kept the keys on wooden sticks marked girls or boys, our ticket to legally walk the halls while classes were in session.

A crucial lesson we should have learned early in school is that you need permission for privileged behavior. In grown-up land that includes building additions to a house or converting a garage to a dwelling unit or even building a whole house in the backyard. And yet people do these and many other extraordinary things without permits.

There must be an epidemic of illegal building in Berkeley, an outbreak in West Berkeley, or maybe I just happened to discover several cases in the last few weeks by serendipity. But after the death of six students last year due to faulty construction, the idea that anybody would even consider building a place for human habitation without the proper permits and inspections should make our skins crawl.

What’s going on, why, and how can we stop illegal construction? Without looking into the bigger picture City wide, I can point to three unpermitted local projects, two under investigation and one that went to ZAB. 

The first is a backyard two-story house on Eighth Street near Rosa Parks School, which came to our attention on Next Door West Berkeley when a neighbor asked what to do. Several neighbors pitched in with advice, and the outcome was a stop work order from a City inspector. 

A few days later a contractor who was directing a third story addition on a Tenth Street house admitted to a neighbor that the work was not permitted. This led to a complaint and a stop work order. Inspectors in the Building and Safety Division of the Planning and Development Department are investigating both of these violations. 

The inspectors take their work seriously, but after the missing applications are submitted to the planners, an attempt is made to legitimize the work to date. The permit fees double as a fine, but the scofflaws must see this as a slap on the hand compared to having deposited facts on the ground. They have to endure some delay, but not the dismantling of the illegal construction. It would be interesting to find out if the planning department has ever condemned any unpermitted structures. 

An illegal building addition at 840 Page Street is one indication of the Planning Department’s current policy that anything goes, because the staff report reaches depths of disingenuousness in recommending approval of this substandard project, heard by the Zoning Adjustment Board on July 13. The staff report fails to fully describe the nature and extent of the illegal work that dates back to November 2013, when a permit to remove and replace the gabled roof was approved.  

The owner not only removed the roof, but also raised the walls without permission. Then the project stalled for lack of funds and was left in an ugly unfinished state. The neighbors complained, which eventually brought the matter to ZAB, who continued the hearing to allow the applicant to change the roof design. By the way, the County use code for this parcel is 2300: three units of lesser quality, which could mean that the assessor considered the original construction to be inferior. 

It could also indicate that the parking is insufficient, as there is no off-street parking for three units. The driveway is shared with the house next door, and the garage has been converted to an office and sometimes used as Airbnb, also illegally. A condition of approval would return the garage to an off-street parking space. 

In justifying the new building height above the district limit, the staff report refers to a large home at 901 Page Street, which makes the application “consistent with at least one other three-story building in the vicinity and in the same zoning district.” 840 Page is a dump compared with this beautiful old farmhouse, an exception in a neighborhood of mostly one-story cottages. The neighbor who complained inventoried Page and Jones Streets between San Pablo Avenue and Sixth and found 88 one-story and 19 two-story residences. The staff report misrepresents the character of the neighborhood, when one of the purposes of the R-1A district is “to recognize and protect the existing pattern of low medium density residential areas characterized by reasonable and spacious type of development in accordance with Master Plan Policy.” 

Such lies of omission and distortion are a clear indication of staff bias in favor of the applicant and counter to the interests of the neighbors; it’s no wonder that so many consider the Planning Department to be corrupt and are looking for ways to reform its culture. Even when the application is fraught with past violations and detriment to nearby properties, and the assessor’s office has listed the property as lesser quality, the planning staff goes out of their way to put the stamp of approval on an application. The scofflaws anticipate this and deliberately bypass the permit process because they know they will eventually get what they want. 

The neighbors’ rights of due process are diminished, as the discussion will focus on the partially completed project. When virgin project plans are filed, the neighbors have a fighting chance to influence the design outcome, but a fait accompli disadvantages the neighbors. 

To add insult to injury, the Page Street applicant retaliated against the neighbor whose complaint triggered the inspection by filing his own complaint about an existing non-conforming use that needs to be fixed on her property. It seems that any old non-conforming use is the responsibility of the current owner to remedy. Caveat emptor indeed. 

Fear of retaliation and bribery make the neighbors hesitant to complain about illegal construction, but it needs to be done for safety’s sake. To file a complaint, don’t bother filing a form first. Instead, go directly to the Building and Safety Division, make phone contact with an inspector, and send photos of the unpermitted work. Follow that up with a letter to Tim Burroughs, the acting director of planning. A public records search on the project might turn up valuable information. 

It’s time for the City to get serious about illegal construction and crackdown with higher penalties. On September 9, 2014, Kriss Worthington referred the matter to the Manager, who issued a report on October 7, 2015. Since the fatal balcony collapse, inspections have intensified but more needs to be done to prevent illegal construction. 

Hate the Homeowner 

In one of the more bizarre hit pieces, two members of the Cal Graduate Assembly, Tyler Barnum and Jonathan Morris, wrote an op-ed in the Daily Californian on July 24th lambasting the City Council for upping the housing mitigation fees in new construction and just couldn’t restrain themselves from a gratuitous attack on homeowners. Here’s what they wrote: “But while the housing shortage continues to harm lower-and middle-class renters in our communities, City Council has chosen, once again to cater to the selfish interests of old, wealthy, white homeowners.” At this point, most of us have become immune to weird non-sequiturs in the housing debate, but this one takes the cake. There must be some steps in their reasoning to explain how a $3K rise per market rate unit in the housing mitigation fee benefits homeowners, but it escapes me. By the time one ascends to graduate level status at Cal, common sense, if not critical thinking should have crept into the curriculum. At a time when students are scurrying to find an affordable place to study for the upcoming semester, their leaders are biting the hand that feeds them. Many older property owners have paid off their mortgages and can rent a room or apartment at below market rates and are looking for responsible tenants without a hostile attitude. Insult has never been a way to win hearts and minds, and it makes for a lousy first impression. 

Toni Erdmann 

This glorious 2016 German film by Maren Ade supplies more than two hours of sheer pleasure. I put it on my Netflix queue without reading any reviews, simply because the title contained my name, which just intensified the fun. The comedy, full of priceless moments and deeper insights, focuses on the relationship between a prankster father, played by Peter Simonischek, and his daughter Ines (Sandra Müller) a corporate consultant working in Bucharest. On one level, the movie is an exploration of conflicting personal agendas as Ines tries to leave home on the psychological level. But the film also works as a satire on German efficiency as the capitalist model takes hold in a former communist state. The best bit is Ines singing “The Greatest Love” at a party, accompanied by her father, but don’t watch the You Tube excerpt first, as it needs to be seen in context to appreciate how the moment captures the essence of their relationship. Enjoy. 


Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley. 






ON MENTAL ILLNESS: When Too Much Effort Works Against Us

Jack Bragen
Friday August 04, 2017 - 11:23:00 AM

When we are trying to do something, and the going gets difficult, most people are taught that we just need to try harder. However, if your brain has a biological vulnerability, too much effort at some things can worsen or even initiate a psychiatric condition. This applies to both physical and mental effort.  

Of course, we should make an effort. Effort is the cornerstone of getting well and doing well. If we fail to make an effort, our lives will go nowhere, and we could easily spiral downhill.  

On the other hand, when the effort level is 200% of what it should be, this could become damaging. The "do or die" attitude, that propels many "normal" people to be able to function in their jobs, for some people, is poisonous. 

This may have been one of numerous factors that originally got me sick. However, once the neural route responsible for my illness established itself in my brain, whatever first caused my illness was not quite as relevant. 

I know someone who believes people ought to just force themselves to do something even if they don't feel like it; and that, supposedly, is the solution to our work quandaries. That is probably applicable to an extent. We have to function at some things whether we like it or not. If you get a court summons, you must respond to that. If you have a utility bill but would rather use the money to go out to a movie, you'd better pay the utility bill. 

Someone who worked as head of a rehabilitative recycling center for mentally ill adults once said that it is called work for a reason--it is not about doing what you'd like to do. That person, due to unpopularity among subordinates, was nicknamed "Dragon Lady." Regardless, she had a point.  

The Dalai Lama, in a television interview, used the word "effort" when describing meditation. I think he essentially said that it requires a lot of effort to become a master of oneself.  

The part of the brain that generates effort becomes more developed the more it is used. Effort can be uncomfortable at times. Yet, many things that are worth doing require effort.  

How to know when effort is too much? This is can be learned through experience. In addition, your body or your surrounding circumstances may provide some hints, when effort is becoming excessive.  

For example, when too many mistakes are made or when we become accident-prone, it could be an indication of pushing ourselves too hard. You may also be able to tune into your body to look for signals of overload. These can vary from person to person.  

Sometimes when mentally overloaded, I'll get a particular cough, one which is different from that caused by congestion. At other times, when I anticipate doing something, and have excessive dread about it--to the extent that I can feel it physically, I will often preemptively opt out of the task or activity. This is a choice of not forcing something when my body is giving me a warning.  

(When I went to traffic school following my most recent traffic ticket for a moving violation, which was in 1989, the instructor said, "Stress will kill you." And he said those words with strong emphasis. It is important not to get behind the wheel of a car unless you are calm, not sedated by medication, and feeling at 100%. California law has severe penalties for driving while impaired.)  

You should not let someone coerce you into doing something that you do not feel ready to do. Yet there are some exceptions to that.  

When your body and/or mind are giving you a message that appears to be saying that you've had enough, it may be time to at least take a break.  

Effort toward something positive is generally a good thing. Yet, when effort is too strong to the extent that it causes mental or physical injury, or causes an accident of some kind, it is probably time to reassess your approach.  

In some sports, such as distance running, a "second wind" is achieved by relaxing, rather than trying harder. My father, when he tried running for a brief span in his forties, described the second wind as this: Things are getting increasingly difficult, and abruptly you let go of the tension, and the running becomes effortless.  

When I was a teen, someone once tried to tell me that "relaxation helps in a lot of things." At the time, I didn't absorb that. More forcefulness isn't always the answer.

Arts & Events

New: Rossini’s LA CENERENTOLA Shines in Merola Production

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday August 06, 2017 - 03:27:00 PM

The 2017 crop of Merola singers continues to impress, unveiling seven new young singers in two performances, August 3 & 5, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music of Gioachino Rossini’s musical retelling of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola. With an artful libretto forged by Jacapo Ferretti, Rossini’s La Cenerentola hinges not on a missing slipper but rather on one of a pair of identical bracelets. If the Prince finds the mate to the bracelet given him by the beautiful but mysterious woman who attends the ball but refuses to tell her name, the Prince will indeed have found his mate. That is, if he can accept the mysterious woman’s lowly status as step-sister and servant in the household of Don Magnifico, who cruelly mistreats his step-daughter in favor of his own two daughters. The only other major change in the Cinderella story is here provided by Alidoro, court philosopher to the Prince, who presides over all events in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, even exercising seemingly mystical cosmic powers to raise up the Cinderella figure, here named Angelina, to her rightful status.  

This Merola production of La Cenerentola was conducted by Mark Morash and was directed by Chuck Hudson. Donald Eastman was Scenic Designer, Christine Cook was Costume designer, and Eric Watkins was Lighting Designer. All of the above did stalwart duty in making this a musically cohesive, delightfully staged production. Pride of place, however, goes to mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey for her interpretation of the role of Angelina, aka Cenerentola. When we first meet Angelina, she sits by the fire in her kitchen and sings to herself a wispy little song, “Una volta c’éra un re”/”Once upon a time there was a king.” Singing quietly, and low in the mezzo register, Hankey’s voice does not immediately impress. But, oh my, when she moves up the register and lets loose her voice, Samantha Hankey reveals glorious tone, impressive high notes, and superb vocal technique. Her coloratura is a thing of beauty! Moreover, Hankey is a fine actress, one who dramatically portrays the goodness, innocence and graciousness of her Cinderella character. Samantha Hankey is definitely a singer to watch! 

As Prince Ramiro tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro displayed a robust voice full of power, though lacking somewhat in color. Vocally, he gave a monochrome interpretation of the Prince. Whether badgering his valet, Dandini, imperiously cutting short the pompous Don Magnifico, or falling head over heels in love with Angelina, Anthony Ciaramitaro as Prince Ramiro sang with force and conviction, if not with great subtlety. However, the duet “Un soave non so che” between the disguised Prince and Angelina when they each feel the first pangs of love for one another, was movingly sung by Ciaramitaro and Hankey. Of the other characters, bass-baritone Christian Pursell gave a multi-hued portrayal of Dandini, the valet who spends the early part of La Cenerentola disguised as the Prince, a ploy by the Prince to allow him to observe in secret the various women who hope to be his bride. Pursell may have over-acted a bit, for which he is chided by the Prince disguised in turn as Dandini the valet. But Pursell has great comic flair, which was evident in his Act II introduction to a duet with Don Magnifico about “Un segreto d’importanza.” Pursell even used multiple voices, breaking into falsetto at one point to imitate the cloying caterwauling of the sisters Tisbe and Clorinda.  

As for these latter, they were as usual portrayed as fawning, vain, and ambitious airheads vying with one another in hopes of winning marriage to the Prince. As Tisbe, Edith Grossman displayed a dusky mezzo-soprano to fine effect; and as Clorinda soprano Natalie Image offered a bright, often comically squealing voice that was spot on for this role but not exactly the kind of voice she will display in other roles. (Natalie Image will sing Lucia in a duet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on August 19 in the Merola 2017 Grande Finale; and that role might give us a more insightful account of Natalie Image’s voice than does the role of Clorinda in La Cenerentola.) The father of these airhead sisters, Don Magnifico, was admirably sung by bass-baritone Andrew Hiers, who like Christian Pursell as Dandini, offered a multi-hued interpretation of his role. The Don Magnifico of Andrew Hiers was now mean and nasty, now pleading and vulnerable, and, finally, at the end of the opera, grateful toward his step-daughter, Angelina, who graciously forgives both her step-father and her step-sisters for their earlier mistreatment. Finally, in the role of Alidoro, who is usually portrayed as a kind of eminence grise happily moving people around but staying behind the scenes, Polish bass-baritone Szymon Wach often took center stage in this production. Singing robustly, Wach portrayed Alidoro as an almost omniscient godlike figure, one who can even muster cosmic powers to set the world right. It is through Alidoro’s actions at every step along the way that Angelina is singled out to become the wife of Prince Ramiro.  

Director Chuck Hudson moved his singers continuously about the stage so there was hardly a dull moment. However, his oft-repeated gag of having Angelina suddenly come face-to-face with Prince Ramiro and in her rapt confusion drop a tray of glassware, was grossly overdone. (It occurred at least four times in Act I and at least once more in Act II.) The famous storm scene in Act II was cleverly staged with characters carrying colorful umbrellas that threatened to carry off their holders with the sudden gusts of wind. Lighting Director Eric Watkins supplied dramatic lighting effects for this storm scene, which was a visual as well as orchestral highlight of this production. Vocally, of course, Rossini’s La Cenerentola is full of florid coloratura passages, especially for Angelina; and her high-flying aria “Naqui all’affano” toward the opera’s end was gorgeous indeed. Likewise, the ensembles of this opera were also splendidly effective, perhaps especially the quintet at the end of Act I and the sextet near the close of the opera. Throughout this production of La Cenerentola, Conductor Mark Morash led a taut, rhythmically supple interpretation of Rossini’s brilliant score. All told, this was a thoroughly delightful La Cenerentola. 



Benjamin Beilman Excels in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday August 04, 2017 - 11:39:00 AM

These days, it seems there is a veritable worldwide explosion of talented young violinists and pianists, all seemingly armed with flawless technique. American-born violinist Benjamin Beilman, age 27, has awesome technique; but Beilman also has something surprising in such a young performer – a wonderful interpretive feel for the delicacy as well as the sheer power of music. As soloist in the San Francisco Symphony’s performances at Davies Hall, July 28-9, of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, Benjamin Beilman sensitively brought out far more delicacy in that familiar work than I have ever heard before. With Guest Conductor Juraj Valčuha leading the way, Beilman was acutely respectful of dynamics in this concerto, with the result that the fiery pyrotechnics of Tchaikovsky’s score were set in sharp contrast to the soft, delicate passages that are too often played as if they too were marked fortissimo or at least forte. Beilman set the tone from the outset, offering a delicate filagree in the first movement’s Allegro moderato section, then redoubling that gossamer touch in the Moderato assai section. Beilman also excelled in the First movement’s cadenza. 

The second movement, marked Canzonetta Andante, begins in the woodwinds, then unfolds in muted violin, offering a lilting melody that serves as first subject, followed by a graceful second subject. Shortly, the lyrical first subject returns for further elaboration. Then, without pause, Tchaikovsky launches into the coarse-grained Finale in the form of a Russian folk dance. The passage work here is fearsomely demanding, and Benjamin Beilman displayed admirable technique in meeting the challenge. More than that, Beilman even brought out the occasional delicacy in passages of the boisterous Finale, as for example in the moments when the solo violin states a delicate theme that is answered, softly, in the cellos, then repeats the phrase with variation only to be answered again, softly, by the cellos. Once again, these soft and delicate moments were set in sharp contrast to the famously strident outbursts in Tchaikovsky’s Finale. This attention to dynamics was a credit to both Beilman as soloist and Valčuha as conductor. In response to thunderous applause, Benjamin Beilman played as encore one of the Partitas from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. During intermission, I spoke with one of the Symphony’s members of the violin section, and we both marveled over the delicacy of Beilman’s performance, which shows that his soft touch was appreciated by the musicians as much as by the audience. This was Tchaikovsky as we’ve never heard him before; but let us hope we hear Tchaikovsky this way again in the future.  

Opening the program was Alexander Glazunov’s Concerto Waltz No.1 in D Major. This is an ingratiating piece, a bit schmaltzy, but definitely in the genre of waltzes made famous by the Viennese Strauss family. Glazunov introduced this brief work in St. Petersburg, where it was hugely successful at the Tsarist court.  

After intermission the orchestra returned to perform Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. Mussorgsky composed this work as a piano suite, and there exists a lovely recording of it for piano by Vladimir Horowitz on RCA Victor. Of the many orchestrations of Pictures at an Exhibition pride of place goes to the Maurice Ravel version heard here in San Francisco. In the genre of program music, Pictures at an Exhibition is an outstanding work. Mussorgsky composed it in honor of a posthumous exhibition of paintings and drawings by his friend Victor Hartmann, and Mussorgsky gave his composition the structure of a leisurely promenade through the exhibition, with stops at various pictures seen along the way. Rarely has music so successfully engaged in scene painting as it does in this brilliant work.  

Pictures opens with a Promenade theme heard in the brass in Ravel’s orchestration. Then the composer stops to look at the first picture, Gnomus, a portrait of a deformed little gnome in the guise of a nutcracker. Mussorgsky depicts the humorous and fantastic elements of this picture with hesitant, almost jerky rhythms suggestive of the ungainly movements of this gnome. Next comes a picture of Il vecchio castello, a medieval Italian castle, which Mussorgsky sets to moody melodies, first in the bassoon, then in the saxophone. Then the Promenade returns, this time in trumpet, trombone and tuba, before we stop before a painting of the Tuileries Gardens of Paris. Here Mussorgsky suggests the gay chattering of children as they run about and play, heard largely in the flutes. Following this we come to a picture of a Polish oxcart, a Bydlo, musically rendered by a solo tuba, admirably played here by Jeffrey Anderson, suggesting the halting, lumbering movement of the oxcart. A return of the Promenade theme brings us to the Ballet of Unhatched Chickens, a capriciously delightful rendering of the chirping of chicks in their eggs. Next comes a portrait of Two Polish Jews, One Rich, One Poor. Without anti-Semitic malice, the Rich Jew is depicted in a pompous passage in the basses, while the Poor Jew is introduced in an abrupt subject for muted trumpets. Following this comes a picture of The Marketplace at Limoges, suggested in music as a colorful, bustling scene with leaping rhythms. Then a moody version of the Promenade leads to a picture of the Catacombs in Paris. The music here is somber, heavy, yet full of reverence for the dead. Lightness returns in the picture A Hut on Fowl’s Legs, a humorous take on Russian folk tales, with music that is both humorous and sinister. The concluding picture is of The Great Gate of Kiev, set to music of grandiose proportions, complete with the tolling of bells, as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition closes on a dramatic note. Throughout this work, Conductor Juraj Valčuha led the San Francisco Symphony with large, sweeping gestures and sharply accented rhythms, giving Mussorgsky’s music a welcome vitality. 


Note: At the end of my review of Merola’s 3 one-act operas in last Friday’s edition, July 28, I urged readers to attend the Merola Grande Finale in August. Alas, in doing so I mistakenly gave the wrong date. I apologize for the error. The correct date for this event is Saturday evening, August 19, at the War Memorial Opera House.