10 February 2016

Elsewhere (Dryden for American Bach Soloists)

Many thanks to American Bach Soloists for asking me to talk about John Dryden as background for their upcoming performances of the Handel / Dryden oratorio Alexander's Feast; you can read my thoughts here.

And you can go here to get tickets to the upcoming performances; Jeffrey Thomas conducts, with soloists Anna Gorbachyova (soprano), Aaron Sheehan (tenor), William Sharp (baritone), and Maria Christina Cleary on harp. That's 26 February at St Stephen's Church in Belvedere, 27 February at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, 28 February at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco (4:00 start time for that one), and 29 February at Davis Community Church in Davis (7:00 start).

08 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/6

one for old snaggle-tooth

I know a woman
who keeps buying puzzles
pieces that finally fit
into some order.
she works it out
she solves all her
lives down by the sea
puts sugar out for the ants
and believes
in a better world.
her hair is white
she seldom combs it
her teeth are snaggled
and she wears loose shapeless
coveralls over a body most
women would wish they had.
for many years she irritated me
with what I considered her
eccentricities –
like soaking eggshells in water
(to feed the plants so that
they'd get calcium).
but finally when I think of her
and compare it to other lives
more dazzling, original
and beautiful
I realize that she has hurt fewer
people than anybody I know
(and by hurt I simply mean hurt).
she has had some terrible times,
times when maybe I should have
helped her more
for she is the mother of my only
and we were once great lovers,
but she has come through
like I said
she has hurt fewer people than
anybody I know,
and if you look at it like that,
she has created a better world.
she has won.

Frances, this poem is for

Charles Bukowski

Snaggle-tooth in the title suggests a number of possibilities concerning both the woman who is the subject of the poem and the narrator's relationship with her: that she isn't quite conventionally beautiful in her appearance, and that she maybe doesn't care that much about that anyway; she's perhaps a bit eccentric, with a hint of a witch's powers about her; and the narrator has a complicated view of her (is old snaggle-tooth affectionate, a bit disparaging, some combination of both?). The word is also a clever redirect by the poet, because whatever its use suggests about her or him, it doesn't sound like the start of a love poem, which is what this poem turns out to be: a profound evocation of mature love.

But we don't know this at the start of the poem; we just know the narrator is talking about some woman he knows. She keeps buying puzzles, mostly ones involving interlocking pieces (the Chinese puzzles) that she works out methodically, logically: it's sort of an introspective amusement, but suggests a way of relating to the world that is thoughtful and determined to "solve" it into some kind of pleasing order (does she see our narrator as himself a puzzle? is he aware of this, and is that why he spends so much time talking about her approach to puzzles? is that part of his apparent frustration with her? – people who think of themselves as puzzles generally don't like to feel that they've been "solved").

He follows this with some seemingly random details about her that actually give us a pretty good picture of what she's like: she lives by the sea, she feeds ants whereas most people would poison them. So she likes nature, not only in its magnificence (the sea) but in its tiny and for humans often annoying manifestations (the ants). She maybe doesn't care that much about people; you don't get the sense that she's trying to be different or shocking, she's just going her own way. The narrator talks about her appearance, which seems to matter more to him than it does to her. She's an older woman, since her hair is already white, and she seldom combs it. He again mentions her snaggle tooth. She still has a shapely body – it's the one thing he mentions about her appearance that is conventionally "beautiful" – but she doesn't really display it, so his knowledge of its shapeliness is our first indication of an intimacy and an erotic element in their relationship, though at this point it doesn't really go beyond things a man might notice about even a casual acquaintance.

It also says something about him that his way of describing her body's beauty is to say that it's the body most women would wish they had – he's thinking along social lines, conventional lines, seeing her in relation to and compared with other women, a subject to which she is apparently indifferent. And perhaps this is part of the irritation he's felt towards her: when you're a poet, particularly a poet who writes free verse, avoiding capital letters, dwelling on your drinking and loving, there has to be a bit of a needle in realizing that you care about these conventional things. Her indifference to them seems like an indirect rebuke to him, though not an intentional one, which probably adds to the sting. He mentions another of her "eccentricities": soaking eggshells in water so the plants would get calcium (not her plants, but the plants, as if she claimed no ownership and just wanted to look after growing things in the right way). As with the sugar for the ants, she's taking a thoughtful, nurturing approach to the world living around her. These things are "eccentricities" only when seen in the context of what other people do: once again, the narrator is viewing things from a social and even conventional viewpoint, while this woman is pursuing her own course.

And then the poet says that finally when I think of her life, and finally suggests not only a summing up of his thoughts but also that he's been a long time in grappling with those thoughts. They must have known each other for many years. Finally, he says, when he thinks of her life – and again he automatically compares it to other lives, lives more dazzling, original and beautiful – he realizes that, on a basic level, showing the same thoughtfulness to people that she does to ants and plants (which is not always the case with nature lovers), she has hurt fewer people than anyone else he knows. Fewer people, so she has hurt some, but that seems to be unavoidable. The achievement is to limit the hurt you cause others, which means she must have deliberately refrained many times from wounding those around her.

This discussion of refraining from hurting others as perhaps the ultimate good in life darkens and deepens the mood: we've left the world of puzzles with logical solutions and gone into one where the only solution to the unsolvable world is to cause as little pain as possible. We've been given details of the everyday things she does that the narrator finds eccentric or annoying, but we're not told what exactly made the terrible times she has gone through so terrible, and perhaps that very vagueness allows us to feel part of the uncertainty and paranoia of emotional pain; the word terrible strikes me forcefully. Perhaps the narrator doesn't go into detail because he has been involved in or even caused some of those terrible times. First he confesses that he feels he's failed her, and maybe he should have helped her more, and then, in an outburst of intimacy – the description of her so far has been close, but also fairly detached – he confesses that she is the mother of his only child, and they were once great lovers.

It's interesting that he puts their shared parenthood first, and only then mentions their apparently wonderful sexual relationship. For a poet like Bukowski, whose work builds on his reputation for bohemian, anti-bourgeois living, it's a sweetly domestic order of things – but then, we've seen that our narrator here is keenly aware of how he and his loved ones are viewed by society. And all along that's been part of his internal struggle in how he sees this woman – old snaggle-tooth, the mother of his only child, his former lover. As they've both aged, other considerations – the dazzling, original and beautiful lives of others, their own once great love, his irritation at her habits and what others would see as her eccentricities – drop away; in the long view of a life, with its terrible times and forgotten great loves, the question that remains is: of course you were hurt, but did you hurt others, or did you refrain from hurting?

From this point of view, the narrator must give way in his long internal struggle with this former lover. There's a bit of a sheepish admission in the ambiguous exclamation well, emphasized by its isolation on its own line, with an underlying tone of another meaning of this slippery word, something done in a good or satisfactory manner. Well, this woman who believes / ultimately / in a better world has, in fact, helped create a better world. Ultimately is also emphasized by being put on its own line, and we may initially read that as some time in distant future, but this acknowledgement that she has improved the world, or at least the world around her, suggests that ultimately is really to be measured as the span of a human life. The poet gives us the resolution of his struggle with her: she has won. It's a measure of how much we've learned about both of them that it seems completely logical that he would see things this way, as a matter of winning and losing, but she would be indifferent to the victory he finally admits she has had over him: that's part of her refusal to hurt others – part of her withdrawal, whether it was deliberate or not, from some of the social relations and comparisons that haunt the narrator.

So far we've had flowing text, so the gap before the final lines brings us up short. For the first time, the poet uses the woman's name, Frances. After thinking of her (what other name did we have?) as old snaggle-tooth, she suddenly is vividly evoked and seen in a new light through the most simple and basic thing: her name. In this envoi, the poet has stopped addressing himself, or us, and speaks directly to her. He offers her, in the shape of the poem we've just read, a final admission of how she has altered him and of what he now understands about her and their life. He offers her the poem as a sign of and tribute to enduring compassionate love.

This is from Love Is a Dog from Hell by Charles Bukowski.

06 February 2016

New Century Chamber Orchestra: Daniel Hope's tribute to Yehudi Menuhin

Last Thursday I was at First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear New Century Chamber Orchestra. Violinist Daniel Hope was the guest concertmaster, and he had put together an interesting and varied program in tribute to his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, who would have turned 100 this coming April 22. Hope has a new CD out called My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin whose program is a bit different from the one I heard Thursday, a difference which shows the wide range of Menuhin's musical interests and influences. All of the pieces had some association with Menuhin; some were commissioned by him or written in his honor, others he played frequently.

Hope's mother was Menuhin's secretary and then manager, and Hope grew up in close association with the great violinist. Though I'm not a big fan of musicians talking from the stage rather than playing, I make an exception in certain cases, as when an artist is talking about his or her own work or a performer is giving some personal insight into a great composer or older musician. I have to say I found Hope's comments a bit disappointing in this regard; too often they were general remarks about the music, which could speak for itself. We did get some more personal anecdotes and insights, but I would have preferred more, with comments on the music left for the program book. That was really my only disappointment with the concert, though.

Each half began with a substantial baroque work; in the first half it was Bach's Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, Strings and Basso Continuo, BWV 1043. Hope and Dawn Harms were the titular two violins. I've heard New Century fairly often, but each time I'm impressed by the richness and precision of sound they produce. Hope obviously has a great rapport with the group, and there was much generous and genial back-and-forth in the playing and during the bows after each piece. After the Bach we heard some more recent pieces, Arvo Pärt's Darf ich . . . (May I . . .)  – Hope said that when Menuhin received the piece, which was written for him, he looked at the title and said, "May I what?" That suggests some of the open-endedness of the piece. As is typical for Pärt, haunting effects were created through seemingly simple means. It's an interesting piece to have written for a virtuoso, suggesting spiritual substance rather than flash. The same was true of the next piece, Philip Glass's Echorus for 2 Violins and Strings. Echorus is meant to evoke echo rather than e-commerce; the echoing violin was played by Iris Stone. The music had that undercurrent of melancholy that I frequently hear in Glass. The first half closed with a youthful Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn – not the famous one, but one written when he was thirteen and only rediscovered in the 1950s, when Menuhin gave the modern premiere. It's an inventive, bubbling piece and provided a flashing end to the first half.

The audience had been impeccable so far, but apparently several people came down with a severe cough during intermission, and the two women behind me felt that it was very important to whisper during one of the pieces. I suppose the general audience impeccability had been too good to last, but I enjoyed it while it did. Our big baroque opener for this half was Vivaldi's Concerto for 2 Violins in A Minor, RV 522. Then, again duplicating the structure of the first half, we had two fairly brief and meditative modern pieces: first Unfinished Journey, which borrows the title of Menuhin's autobiography. It was written by Bechara El-Khoury for the tenth anniversary of Menuhin's death and was premiered by Hope. The next piece, Toru Takemitsu's Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovskij, though written in memory of someone else (the great Russian film director Tarkovsky), was composed for Menuhin. Both these pieces, as well as the Pärt and Glass in the first half, suggested an interesting portrait of Menuhin as a searching and spiritual man and artist. Other than that they were not similar pieces, but had a pleasing variety of effect. The concert ended with a lively rendition of Béla Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances. Hope told an interesting story at this point about Menuhin's deep connection with this composer: he played him one of his violin and piano sonatas, and Bartók responded that he thought a composer had to be dead for years before his music could be played like that. It was another indication of the deep commitment and searching artistry of the older violinist. I never had a chance to hear Menuhin live, but after this concert I felt I understood what he was about. What a beautiful tribute to a great man.

05 February 2016

01 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/5

First we'll have the French original (this is sixteenth-century French, so don't panic if it looks different from your remembered high school textbooks or even what you picked up in that university year abroad).

Sonnet XIX

Diane estant en l'espesseur d'un bois,
Apres avoir mainte beste assenee,
Prenoit le frais, de Nynfes couronnee:
J'allois resvant comme fay maintefois.

Sans y penser: quand j'ouy une vois,
Qui m'apela, disant, Nynfe estonnee,
Que ne t'es tu vers Diane tournee!
Et me voyant sans arc & sans carquois,

Qu'as tu trouvé, o compagne, en ta voye,
Qui de ton arc & flesches ait fait proye!
Je m'animay, respons je, à un passant,

Et lui getay en vain toutes mes flesches
Et l'arc apres: mais lui les ramassant
Et les tirant me fit cent & cent bresches.

Louise Labé

Next we have two contemporary American translations:

Diana, retired in the depth of the woods,
Having just hunted down many a stag,
Was taking the air, her Nymphs at her back:
I wandered by in my usual dreamy mood,

When I heard a voice call out to me, now
Saying: O Nymph who looks so astonished,
Why did you not turn to glimpse the goddess?
Seeing me without quiver, without bow:

Whom did you meet, dear friend, upon your way,
Who took your bow & arrow as their prey?
I took aim, said I, at some passerby,

And hurled my arrows at him, all in vain,
And then my bow; but gathering these to his side,
He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain.

Louise Labé, translated by Richard Sieburth


[A Meeting with Diana]

Diana, standing in the clearing of a wood
after she had hunted her prey and shot it down,
breathed deep. Her nymphs had woven her a green crown.
I walked, as I often do, in a distracted mood,
not thinking – when I heard a voice, subdued
and quiet, call, "Astonished nymph, don't frown,
have you lost your way to Diana's sacred ground?"
Since I had no quiver, no arrows, it pursued,
"Dear friend, who were you meeting with today?
Who has taken your bow and arrows away?"
I said, "I found an enemy on the path,
and hurled my arrows at him, but in vain –
and then my bow – but he picked them up in wrath,
and with my arrows shot back hundreds of kinds of pain."

Louise Labé, translated by Annie Finch

In her brief (twenty-four poem) sonnet sequence, Labé is both playing in a sophisticated way with classical and Petrarchean traditions of love poetry and writing emotionally direct poetry. This sonnet has in its background the classical myth, extremely popular in the Renaissance, of Diana and Actaeon. He was a princely young hunter who inadvertently stumbled on Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, and her nymphs bathing naked. Though he was innocent of any voyeuristic intent, Diana (in the arbitrary way of the gods) punished him by turning him into a stag. His own dogs tore him to pieces.

In this poem, the innocent human wanderer is intruded upon by Diana, who has been out hunting when she stumbles upon the poet. The goddess plaintively asks why she is no longer seeking Diana's company, and further, why she no longer has her bow and arrows. Wandering from the company of the virgin huntress is our hint that the poet has fallen in love. And indeed, the poet came across a passerby and, in the style of Cupid, shot her arrows at him, though with less success than the ruthless little god; the untouched youth gathered her arrows and bow and used them to shoot back at her, causing her the endless pains of love. In a witty reversal of Actaeon's punishment, in this case it is the mortal man who has destroyed the votary of the goddess.

Both translations gesture towards preserving the original rhyme scheme. And both have the poet hurling her arrows at the youth, which may be faithful to the original but reads oddly in English. You can hurl a javelin or a rock, but you shoot arrows. Finch preserves the cumulative effect of the and / and / and at the beginning of the last three lines, but oddly makes the encounter between lover and love-object much more violent than seems warranted by the original: Sieburth translates un passant as some passerby, which seems closer than Finch's an enemy. I also don't see where she's getting that he picked up the bow and arrows in wrath. The poet's pain is more likely caused by indifference or uncertainty; the images of lover / beloved as hunter / hunted and of love as a physical wounding are tropes that don't need to be justified by some alleged enmity. Sieburth's He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain loses the specificity and closer translation of Finch's hundreds of kinds of pain, but fired brings with it a nice sense of the flames of love, and welcoming me to a world of pain conveys the nice ambiguity of the onset of love here, which is both welcoming and a cause of immense pain. I do love Finch's green crown woven by the nymphs; green seems like a reasonable clarification of what type of crown was made by these nymphs wandering the woods.

The first translation is from Louise Labé: Love Sonnets & Elegies, translated by Richard Sieburth with a preface by Karin Lessing, in the NYRB Poets series. The second translation is from Louise Labé: Complete Poetry and Prose, edited with critical introductions and prose translations by Deborah Lesko Baker and poetry translations by Annie Finch, in the University of Chicago Press series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Both editions are bilingual.

30 January 2016

fun stuff I may or may not get to: February 2016

Local residents, and probably non-local ones, too, are no doubt aware that the Super Bowl is being played in Santa Clara on 7 February; what even some locals haven't realized is how inconvenient this is going to make life in the Bay Area for the next few weeks (and it's going to continue after the game; they need to take down all the corporate-sponsored tents and suchlike that they put up). If you're planning to go to something in San Francisco during the first half of the month, please be aware that some buses have been rerouted, some streets around the Embarcadero are closed, restaurants will be more crowded, car services will be pricier, and so on. Give yourself some extra time and bring some extra patience. Adding to the bitterness of local residents is anger at the 49ers for decamping closer to the riches of Silicon Valley, though of course neither local team was good enough to get anywhere close to the Bowl of All Bowls. So enjoy, everybody!

Cutting Ball Theater presents Ondine by Katherine Sherman, directed by Rob Melrose. It's described as "a mermaid tale for sleepless nights" which sounds good to me, subject as I am to sleepless nights and seduced by the thought of water; it runs 5 February to 6 March.

Custom Made Theater presents the premiere of Sam and Dede: or, My Dinner with Andre the Giant by Gino Dilorio, directed by Leah S. Abrams. The "Sam" in the title is Samuel Beckett, so I'm immediately interested. The play runs from 11 February to 5 March.

The Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward presents Mrs Warren's Profession by Bernard Shaw; the show runs 11 February to 6 March.

Berkeley Rep presents Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand in Macbeth, directed by Daniel Sullivan. This is a surprisingly difficult play to pull off; you can see if they manage from 19 February to 10 April. Click here to refresh your memory with an excerpt from Macbeth, which was Poem of the Week earlier this week.

Shotgun Players is starting something new this month: the Shotgun Blast Theater Festival, a series of shows, each running for just two nights, that together cover the gamut of offbeat theater. You can check out the various offerings here.

The Lamplighters present one of my favorite works by Gilbert & Sullivan, their wonderful parody of gothic horror stories, Ruddygore; or, The Witch's Curse, in Walnut Creek 12 - 14 February, at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco 19 - 21 February, and in Mountain View 27 - 28 February. There are lots of matinees in there, so check here for further details. (Ruddygore is the original spelling of the title; it was changed to the more familiar Ruddigore because it was felt that otherwise it was too close to bloody, which at the time was used as a strangely powerful vulgarity; Gilbert is said to have retorted to someone who said the words were the same, "Not at all; for that would mean that if I said that I admired your ruddy countenance, which I do, I would be saying that I liked your bloody cheek, which I don't.")

Opera Parallèle presents Terence Blanchard's jazz-based opera Champion, based on the life of boxer Emile Griffiths (libretto by Michael Cristofer). Nicole Paiement conducts and Brian Staufenbiel stages the work at the SF Jazz Center on 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 26, 27, and 28 (matinee) February.

West Edge Opera continues its intriguing and offbeat programming with a "Doppelgänger Season" of Opera Medium Rare, a series of semi-staged performances concentrating this season, as the overall title suggests, on lesser known versions of familiar stories. First up is Paisiello's Barber of Seville (to be followed in March by Leoncavallo's La Bohème). There are two performances: a matinee on 7 February at Lisser Theater at Mills College in Oakland and an evening performance on 9 February at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. I'm disappointed to see that West Edge is also continuing its disregard for non-drivers and working people; the Oakland location is difficult to get to without a car and the Berkeley performance doesn't even begin until 8:00 on a Tuesday night.

Dianne Reeves appears at the SF Jazz Center from 11 to 14 February.

The Schwabacher Debut Recitals will take place at the San Francisco Opera's new Wilsey Center; the first one is 28 February and features soprano Amina Edris, baritone Edward Nelson, bass-baritone Brad Walker, and pianist Steven Blier.

Violinist Daniel Hope joins the New Century Chamber Orchestra as guest concertmaster to pay tribute to his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, with an eclectic program featuring works by Bach, Pärt, Glass, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, El-Khoury, Takemitsu, and Bartók. There's an open rehearsal at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center in San Francisco on the morning of 3 February and evening performances on the 4th at First Congregational in Berkeley, the 5th at First United in Palo Alto, the 6th at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and the 7th at the Osher Main JCC in San Rafael.

The Berkeley Symphony will be led by Joana Carneiro on 4 February in Zellerbach Hall in a program featuring Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto with soloist Conrad Tao.

Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony in a program of Dvořák's Carnival Overture, Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with narrator Michael Urie, and the world premiere of Vân-Ánh Võ's Lullaby for a Country; that's 12 February at the Paramount.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Stéphane Denève leads a performance of Nielsen's Violin Concerto with soloist Nikolaj Znaider along with selections from Prokofiev's Cinderella and Guillaume Connesson's A Glimmer in an Age of Darkness; that's 18 - 20 February. Herbert Blomstedt returns at the end of the month with the Bruckner 3 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto 3, with soloist Maria João Pires; that's 25 - 27 February.

The Russian National Orchestra arrives under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony; there are two different programs, one on the 21st and the other on the 22nd; both feature superb pianist Yuja Wang and are conducted by Mikhail Pletnev.

Early / Baroque Music
American Bach Soloists present an all-Handel program. Jeffrey Thomas leads the group in Alexander's Feast with soloists Anna Gorbachyova (soprano), Aaron Sheehan (tenor), and William Sharp (baritone) as well as the Concerto Grosso in C Major and the Harp Concerto in B Flat Major with soloist Maria Christina Cleary. The performances are 26 February at St Stephen's in Belvedere, 27 February at First Congregational in Berkeley, 28 February at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, and (leap year!) 29 February at Davis Community Church in Davis.

Modern / Contemporary Music
Cal Performances presents new music ensemble eighth blackbird on 14 February performing works by Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman.

The Kronos Quartet presents a festival of international music, featuring many new works and special collaborators, including Wu Man, Ritva Koistinen, Mariana Sadovska, KITKA, David Coulter, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, and Vân-Ánh Võ. There are seven concerts over four days (4 - 7 February), all at the SF Jazz Center.

See Regina Carter under Violin, Dianne Reeves under Vocalists, and Terence Blanchard's Champion under Operatic.

Fabulous jazz violinist Regina Carter appears at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on 27 February. The concert is a benefit for the Homeless Prenatal Program.

San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco recital debut of Igor Levit on 11 February at the Conservatory of Music, with a program featuring Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Prokofiev.

San Francisco Performances presents Richard Goode in an all-Bach program on 25 February in Herbst Theater.

See also Yuja Wang's appearances with the Russian National Orchestra under Orchestral.

Chamber Music
Earplay opens its season on 1 February with a concert in Herbst Theater featuring works by Stefan Wolpe, Shulamit Ran, Eric Sawyer, and Andrew Imbrie.

San Francisco Performances presents the Pacifica Quartet on 12 February at Herbst Theater in a program of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Shulamit Ran.

San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco debut of the Tetzlaff Trio on 20 February at Herbst Theater in a program featuring Schumann, Dvořák, and Brahms.

Cal Performances presents the Takács Quartet in the west coast premiere of a work by Timo Andres, along with works by Haydn and Brahms, on 21 February in Hertz Hall.

Cal Performances presents the Danish String Quartet in works by Per Nørgård, Janáček, and Beethoven, on 28 February in Hertz Hall.

Cal Performances presents Shiva by the Chitresh Das Dance Company on 27 and 28 February in Zellerbach Hall.

The San Francisco Ballet presents Helgi Tomasson's version of Swan Lake from 19 to 28 February.

29 January 2016

26 January 2016

American Bach Soloists: Bach Favorites

Last Saturday I headed out to First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the American Bach Soloists, who were performing a program they called Bach Favorites. Despite the title, there was no sense of retread over pieces too frequently played; it was quite a refreshing evening. It opened with a cantata, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! pray! pray! watch!; BWV 70), which takes a surprisingly lively and even joyful view of the approaching apocalypse; granted, the text takes cheerful consolation in the redeeming power of Jesus, but I have to admit that there are plenty of times when the thought of the fire next time adds a little lift to my steps too. Right before the music started conductor Jeffrey Thomas turned to us and said that the two cantatas we would be hearing were the ones ABS performed at its first concert twenty-seven years ago. And in a spirit of authenticity, we were invited to sing along with the chorale, just like the Lutherans in Leipzig back in 1723. He led us in a little rehearsal beforehand. I declined to sing; as Sister Maria del Carmen used to tell us back in the day, her gift to God was not to sing to Him; after all, if that's what he wanted, he could have given her a better voice. I believe I was not the only one to refrain. Despite or because of this, Thomas assured us that we sounded better than had the audience in Belvedere the night before. I have no idea where Belvedere is. Thomas may well have made it up for all I know.

Anyway the cantata is mostly solos, and we had a fine set of them: Mary Wilson, soprano; Jay Carter, countertenor; Derek Chester, tenor; and Mischa Bouvier, baritone. The chorus and orchestra were as always strong, clean, and lilting. Wilson sings with ABS fairly often, but I'm not sure I had heard her before; her clear soprano made a striking effect in its one solo, bringing the sort of consolation you find in the one soprano movement of the Brahms Requiem. After this rather elaborate cantata we had the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, only in a new guise: a solo violin arrangement made by our solo violinist, Tatiana Chulochnikova. Her strong, clear, steady tones seemed like an echo of the voices we had just heard. It's interesting to have the massive organ avalanche of this piece replaced by the more sinuous sound of a solo violin. After the intermission, Chulochnikova returned, this time with the orchestra, for an engaging performance of the Concerto for Violin in E Major (BWV 1042). This was, for me at least, the most familiar piece on the program, but welcome nonetheless. It was followed by a second cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life; BWV 147). This piece was written for the feast of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (mother of St John the Baptist), so I guess hearing it was my final farewell to last Christmas. It was a very satisfying end to a satisfying evening. Your next chance to hear ABS will be an all-Handel program, featuring the Handel / Dryden celebration of the power of music, Alexander's Feast. You can find out more information here.

25 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/4

A cry within of women.

[MACBETH:] . . . . what is that noise?

SEYTON: It is the cry of women, my good lord. [Exits.]

MACBETH: I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in 't. I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

[Enter Seyton.]

SEYTON: The Queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Enter a Messenger.

Thou com'st to use thy tongue; thy story quickly!

William Shakespeare, from Macbeth, Act V, scene 5, ll 7 - 29

This is a moment of high drama in the play. Macbeth, who, with the encouragement and aid of his wife, has murdered his way to the kingship of Scotland, is besieged in the castle of Dunsinane by the armies of his victims (The cry is still, "They come!"). Secure in his castle's strength, he also still feels secure in the prophecies revealed by the Weird Sisters: among them, that none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth and that he shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him (Act IV, scene 1). He feels protected against his foes, but also aware that if those prophecies are true, so are the ones that predict his will be a sterile monarchy: no children will succeed him; instead, he has committed murder to the ultimate benefit of Banquo's children. Nausea at life fills him. He has squelched the better instincts of his conscience; perhaps that is why, when he hears the women attendants of the castle screaming, he expresses himself in oddly physical, animal terms: he has almost (almost is important, it drives the uncertainty that torments him) forgotten not the feeling but the taste of fear. The suggestion that fear is nourishing him is picked up later in the speech, when he says he has supped full with horrors. Even his expression of fear seems weirdly detached and animal-like: he describes how his fell (an archaic word meaning pelt) of hair would rise as if on its own – as if there were life in it separate from him. This division between the emotional / spiritual life that eats at him and his physical / animal life will be brought home at the play's end, when (in a stage direction often ignored in productions) his head, severed from his body, is brought on stage.

There is a sense in his speech that time is deranged, things are happening both too quickly and too slowly and in either case out of order. When an attendant officer, Seyton, brings him word that the outcry from the women was due to the death (possibly through suicide, by self and violent hands) of his tormented wife, his immediate reaction is to say she should have died later, when he would have had time to feel and mourn and react appropriately. It's possible that at this point he simply does not know how to feel anymore. The Queen had urged him on in the beginning (note his use in this passage of Direness, which not only contains the sound-sense die but links back to her wish, when she first heard of the Weird Sisters' prophecy that he would be king, that she be filled from head to toe with direst cruelty). An estrangement had slowly grown between them; she is unable to help kill King Duncan (. . . had he not resembled / My father as he slept. . .); she rebukes her husband, puzzled, for the apparitions that haunt him (the air-born dagger he sees before the first murder, the ghost of Banquo after he has him killed); Macbeth increasingly acts without consulting her. Her terrible guilt, shown in the famous sleep-walking scene at the beginning of this act, overwhelms her. Though events are foretold to Macbeth throughout the play, they never quite happen as they should, in his eyes, or bring him the certainty and security he longs for. Lady Macbeth's death is another untimely event: under attack, beset on all sides, what can he manage to say or feel?

Despite the chaos and unease swirling around him, he temporarily, extraordinarily, pauses time with a nihilistic aria expressing the disgust he now feels with life. The plodding repetition of tomorrow, the creeping, the petty pace: all suggest and reinforce a feeling of life as a drawn-out dullness, an endless series of trivialities. Macbeth at this point still thinks his life is safe from attack, not yet realizing that there might be a technical evasion hidden in none of woman born. This might seem like the security that he has ached for, but, like the kingship, it brings with it a sense of futility and restless discontent. The days arise and are extinguished, their light serving only to guide fools (that is, humanity) as they return back to dust. Despite the sense of time dragging on, Macbeth refers to time (or is it life? are the two distinguishable for us?) as a brief candle – a flame that burns itself out in short order. He speaks of time as both eternal and brief. Is time stretched out because there is so much of it to endure, or does it seem stretched out because it is simply unendurable? Out, out, brief candle provides another echo of Lady Macbeth; in the sleepwalking scene that occurred shortly before this scene, the Queen enters carrying a taper (now afraid of the dark, she has light by her continually. 'Tis her command.) and repeatedly cries Out to the imaginary blood she is trying to wipe from her hands.

Macbeth reflects on the transitory and unreal nature of life, finding horror rather than beauty (or even consolation) in this "floating world" quality. In a meta moment, he compares life to that most transitory of human creations, live performance: life is a poor player, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage and then heard no more (this is a concise and despairing version of the already edging towards despair Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, which begins by telling us All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players). Calling life an actor suggests that it is controlled by puppet-master forces, and we do not act on our own volition; Macbeth throughout has questioned the role of destiny in his life (If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me); now, he feels himself caught up in the mechanism of Fate (his assurance against harm depends on believing in the Fateful pronouncements of the Weird Sisters). Calling the player poor suggests he is inadequate to his task as well as impoverished (that is, a victim of his own deficiencies or society's); it also suggests a conflicting glint of sympathy ("that poor man!"). It is part of a series of descriptors – petty, dusty, brief – that reinforces a sense of existence as a degraded thing.

Macbeth also finds existence, at this point in his life, a meaningless thing: he moves from describing life as an actor strutting and fretting (strut suggesting vainglory and conceit, and fret suggesting worry and wearing away) to describing life as a tale, but one told by an idiot (which here means not so much just a stupid person, as we use the word now, but a mentally disturbed one). Creating a tale – creating art, telling a story, like the playwright who sends the player out on the stage – is a way of imposing order and meaning on the world. Macbeth here declares that the tale we tell ourselves about life is equivalent to the ranting gabble of a madman – the sound and the fury signify not just nothing, but nothingness. He has moved from comparing life to an actor – a relatively rational albeit "poor" human being – to comparing it not to the idiot, who may be irrational but is still a human being, one whose condition might actually raise pity in the on-looker – but to the "tale", that is, the ranting, of the idiot. Life is no longer even represented as a human; it is words, garbled, crazy words, furious and meaningless air. Earlier there had been hints of a rational order underlying existence; Macbeth sees time stretching out to its last syllable. A syllable suggests an on-going flow of words, of words as history. But finally the words are just random syllables, units of sound lacking meaning – the tale told by a madman.

This relatively brief speech has leapt out of Macbeth, stopping the action and crystallizing his anguish. By its end, he can go no further into despair. He reverts to the world of frenzied action, demanding of the newly arrived Messenger that he tell his story, and tell it quickly. He is back in the world where we pretend stories make sense. But the Messenger has a tale to tell that seems senseless, though it's one we saw coming when we heard Duncan's son Malcolm, in the scene preceding this one, ordering his troops to cut down branches of Birnam Wood to carry before them while marching to Dunsinane, thereby misleading Macbeth as to the true extent of their forces. In short, the hapless Messenger must inadvertently report that the first protection promised Macbeth has fallen: Birnam Wood is marching against Dunsinane Hill.

This is from the Signet Classic edition of Macbeth, edited by Sylvan Barnet. I'm planning on doing a Shakespeare entry at least once a month, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the poet's death.

22 January 2016