29 October 2014

Haiku 2014/302

stars & bars, wind-whipped
cracking right over our heads
in the harsh bright light

28 October 2014

27 October 2014

fun stuff I may or may not get to: November 2014

As usual November is (potentially, at least) a very busy month for performances. But this month in particular Cal Performances is really a star, with a wide range of great stuff (and I didn't even list it all – check out the whole month here).

Cal Performances presents the Théâtre de la Ville in Pirandello's modernist classic, Six Characters in Search of an Author. As with their production of Rhinoceros two years ago, the play will be performed in French, with English surtitles. That's 7 - 8 November in Zellerbach Hall. More information here.

Cal Performances also presents the return of Robert Wilson, and this time he has Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe with him in The Old Woman, by Daniil Kharms, adapted by Darryl Pinckney. That's 21 - 23 November in Zellerbach; more info here.

The Aurora Theater presents the west coast premiere of Breakfast with Mugabe, written by Fraser Grace and directed by Jon Tracy, which was "inspired by newspaper reports that [former president of Zimbabwe] Robert Mugabe . . . sought treatment from a white psychiatrist." That's 7 November to 7 December; more information here.

The San Francisco Playhouse presents Promises, Promises, with music and lyrics by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and book by Neil Simon, directed by Bill English. It's a musical version of the film The Apartment. We are promised "swinging energy"; if you've seen the movie, you will also be expecting, or hoping for, a sour edge. You can find out 18 November to 10 January; more information here.

Cutting Ball Theater presents the world premiere of Superheroes, written and directed by Sean San José, produced in association with Campo Santo. It's about a journalist investigating the crack epidemic. That's 21 November to 21 December; more information here.

The annual Olympians Festival runs 5 - 22 November at the Exit Theater. The Festival consists of readings of new plays based on a theme from Greek mythology. This year's topic is Monsters. I have searched for a useful website for the festival and haven't really come up with one, which is a little too loosey-goosey for me, but there's this from the Exit Theater and this on Facebook. I haven't made it to the Festival yet, but at least one play I really liked (Pleiades by Marissa Skudlarek; my write-up is here) has come out of it, so there's that. I also saw somewhere that Andrew Saito, playwright-in-residence at Cutting Ball, is also involved, and I really liked the play I saw by him, so there's also that.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson appears at City Arts & Lectures in conversation with Isabel Duffy on 4 November; more information here.

New & Modern Music
At the SF Jazz Center, the Calder Quartet completes its survey of the Bartók string quartets by performing Nos. 5 and 6, along with Korrespondenz by Péter Eötvös; that's on 11 November; more information here.

Cal Performances in association with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presents the first concert of four this season in Project TenFourteen, which involves ten world premieres from ten different composers, each of whom was – and I hesitate to quote this part, because it sounds like the most ridiculous boilerplate, but then it's also broad enough to signal anything goes! while being filled with enough meaningless uplift to get funding from responsible sources – "challenged to reflect upon and address the human condition, common to us all." Well, at least we don't have to hear about the "community." In any case: new music! Exciting! The premieres are "interspersed with modern masterpieces," so, once again: Exciting! (In case anyone is misreading this: I am not being snide or ironic. New music really is exciting to me.) This first concert features Crumb, Aperghis, Ortíz, and Ruehr. That's 16 November; more information here.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the second BluePrint concert of the season; Nicole Paiement leads the ensemble in works by John Glover, Conrad Susa, Lou Harrison, and Kaija Saariaho. That's 15 November; more info here.

Chamber Music
San Francisco Performances presents the Hagen Quartet in works by Mozart, Shostakovich, and Brahms; that's 1 November at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco; more information here.

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook sings Schumann's Frauenliebe und leben and Jake Heggie's The Deepest Desire; that's 17 November; details are here.

San Francisco Performances presents Dan Tepfer playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, with his own jazz variations inserted after each of Bach's; that's on 8 November; details here.

The Wagner Society of Northern California presents pianist Stephan Möller playing transcriptions of Wagner, as well as the occasional piano piece by Wagner himself. That's at the beautiful St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco on 16 November; more information here.

Baroque Music
Philharmonia Baroque presents marvelous countertenor Andreas Scholl singing arias from Handel's Giulio Cesare along with Bach's Cantata 170, Vergnugte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust. Conductor Julian Wachner will also lead the band in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 and Telemann's Concerto in F major for Violin, Oboe, and Two Horns. That's 5 - 9 November, in their usual varied locations; check here for more information.

Cal Performances presents Apollo's Fire, led by Jeannette Sorrell, in Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers for the Blessed Virgin; that's 13 November; other information here.

Cal Performances also presents The Academy of Ancient Music, led by Richard Egarr, in Bach's Orchestral Suites, 15 November; details here.

Cal Performances presents Britten's Curlew River, an amalgam of Japanese Noh theater and medieval mystery drama, featuring Ian Bostridge as the Mad Woman; there are only two performances, 14 - 15 November (note that the 15th is a matinee performance); more information here.

San Francisco Opera is running until early December, when The Nutcracker moves into the War Memorial. Of the three operas remaining in the fall season, I'm most likely to end up at La Cenerentola, having already seen Tosca and Bohème more often than I really needed to. I am hearing, though, that the Tosca is good, and there are some interesting singers in Bohème, particularly Michael Fabiano, so check here if you're interested.

Cal Performances presents the Czech Philharmonic in Dvorák's Stabat Mater, conducted by Jirí Belohlávek, in Zellerbach on 9 November; more information here.

The San Francisco Symphony is mostly touring in November, but there's an interesting-looking concert at the end of the month: conductor Susanna Mälkki leads the Brahms 2, The White Peacock by Griffes, and the Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3, with Jeremy Denk as soloist. That's on 29 - 30 November; more information is available here.

The Oakland/East Bay Symphony opens its season with Music Director Michael Morgan leading the Tchaikovsky 5 and the west coast premiere of Brothers in Arts, a new work for jazz quintet and orchestra by Chris Brubeck and Guillaume Saint-James, commemorating D-Day (both their fathers were in France during World War II; Brubeck's father was in Patton's army and Saint-James's was a teenager). That's 7 November in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Oakland; more information here.

Haiku 2014/300

dreaming in the dark
still dreaming during daylight
dreaming dreamy dreams

Poem of the Week 2014/44

When the night wind howls in the chimney cowls, and the bat in the moonlight flies,
And inky clouds, like funeral shrouds, sail over the midnight skies –
When the footpads quail at the night-bird's wail, and black dogs bay at the moon,
Then is the spectres' holiday – then is the ghosts' high-noon!

Chorus: Ha! ha! Then is the ghosts' high-noon!

As the sob of the breeze sweeps over the trees, and the mists lie low on the fen,
From grey tomb-stones are gathered the bones that once were women and men,
And away they go, with a mop and a mow, to the revel that ends too soon,
For cockcrow limits our holiday – the dead of the night's high-noon!

Chorus: Ha! ha! The dead of the night's high-noon!

And then each ghost with his ladye-toast to their churchyard beds takes flight,
With a kiss, perhaps, on her lantern chaps, and a grisly grim "good-night";
Till the welcome knell of the midnight bell rings forth its jolliest tune,
And ushers in our next high holiday – the dead of the night's high-noon!

Chorus: Ha! ha! The dead of the night's high-noon! Ha! ha! ha! ha!

WS Gilbert, from Ruddigore

Here's another haunted poem for Halloween, though lighter in tone than last week's. It is sung by a ghost, accompanied by a chorus of lesser ghosts, in Act 2 of Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore, which has always been one of my top five favorites among the Savoy operas (the others, since you need to know, are The Mikado, Iolanthe, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers). Ruddigore is a satirical take on Victorian Gothic horror melodramas, a genre, or at least a style (as witness many of Tim Burton's movies) which has had a contemporary resurgence – I think the opera might find an appreciative audience today among fans of steampunk or vampire romances.

The lyrics manage to combine the classic signifiers of creepy haunting: howling winds, bats, black dogs, funeral shrouds, tombstones, and so forth – with a light-hearted air, skipping along on the internal rhymes: after all, this is a description of a party. (It reminds me of early cartoons like Walt Disney's The Skeleton Dance in the Silly Symphonies series.) There's a lot of movement here, much of it swift: things fly, sail, quail, sweep, take flight. This is not a still and solemn time: things howl, wail, bay, sob, and knell.

The nightly gathering occurs at midnight, and we tend to forget how dark and dangerous midnights used to be: in 1887, the year the opera premiered, electric street lights were still a fairly recent innovation in London, and it would be easy for audiences to transport themselves back to the night-time darkness of the earlier part of the century, when the action of the opera takes place.

Suitably for someone who is in but no longer of this world, this ghost uses vocabulary that is a bit archaic. A chimney cowl is "a hood-shaped covering used to increase the draft of a chimney and prevent backflow"; it also prevents birds and squirrels from nesting in the chimney. A cowl can also be the hood of a monk's robe, so perhaps the word is also meant to bring with it the aura of the mysterious monks prominent in the horror fictions of (Protestant) England. A footpad is a robber on foot (as opposed to on horseback); his victims would also be on foot. A night-bird is another term for an owl (another classic sign of spookiness). As for black dogs, I think the color just goes along with the inkiness of the clouds (like funeral shrouds), but it might be worth remembering that Mephistopheles first shows himself to Goethe's Faust in the form of a large black poodle. Except for that possible hint, the devil is excluded from this gathering; this seems like a fancy ball more than a Walpurgisnacht. To mop and mow is to grimace and make sad faces. The ladye-toast would be the woman (more precisely, ghost of a woman) that each man toasts; that is, his sweetheart. Lantern chaps would be the lower jaw or cheek, thin enough to be transparent like a lamp. Cock-crow is the traditional signal of dawn at which ghosts must return to their graves (remember Horatio, in the first scene of Hamlet: "I have heard, / The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn, / Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat / Awake the god of day, and at his warning, / Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air, / Th' extravagant and erring spirit hies / To his confine").

I took this from The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, edited by Ian Bradley, though the only annotation on this number is that it is similar to an early poem by Gilbert. Sullivan's music is appropriately haunting and sweeping; there are a number of recordings that are worth checking out, though of course when it comes to Gilbert and Sullivan you can't go too far wrong with D'Oyly Carte.

26 October 2014

25 October 2014

23 October 2014

O Don't You Cry for Me: Susannah at the San Francisco Opera

For the past five or so weeks I have been to an insane (for a working person) number of performances, along with various other events, so here I am once again trying to catch up, but as ever the horizon recedes before me, no matter how quickly I run or how far or how desperately I lunge forward, arms outstretched towards the vanishing blue distance. I couldn't (or more to the point, wouldn't) have attended this many performances unless a large number of them started at 7:00 or 7:30, so thanks to the presenters who acknowledge the way we live now by offering earlier curtains. Anyway, I was at the fourth of the five performances of the San Francisco Opera's first presentation of Carlisle Floyd's 1955 opera Susannah, a loose re-telling, set in rural Tennessee in the 1930s, of the story of Susanna and the Elders from the Apocrypha. Despite many excellent points, for me it was less than the sum of its parts, mostly because of the libretto, which was written by the composer.

Patricia Racette sang – actually, totally inhabited – the title role. I had heard some complaints about her early in the run but she was in beautiful voice the night I was there. She is an excellent actress and is at her best portraying this sort of vulnerable but tough woman. In fact, the whole cast was strong; to name only some of the more prominent roles, there was Brandon Jovanovich as her brother Sam, Catherine Cook as the vindictive Mrs McLean, James Kryshak as her disabled son Little Bat McLean, and Raymond Aceto as the conflicted preacher Olin Blitch.

There are some very moving scenes, like the church supper at which the congregation ostracizes Susannah, refusing even to eat the dish of peas she's brought (things like the dish of peas no one will touch are devastating to me, for whatever subterranean reasons). The revival meeting is striking, with solemn slithering tones giving an eerie undercurrent to the music (it sounded to me as if maybe Aceto's voice was enhanced in this scene, which is not inappropriate; whatever the cause, his voice was particularly reverberant here). Susannah has a mournful, folk-song-like aria at the beginning of the second act ("The trees on the mountains are cold and bare") that is so beautiful I'm kind of shocked I haven't heard it repeatedly in recitals or on disc, the way I have heard her other big aria, "Ain't it a pretty night?," which is lovely but more about revealing her character and therefore less detachable from its context. The music throughout is consistently engaging and suitable to the actions and emotions and conductor Karen Kamensek kept it pouring on like a clear mountain stream, but even that could not sweep away the questions I kept having about what was going on there in New Hope Valley.

The three church elders spy Susannah bathing naked in the river. In the Apocrypha, they try to seduce her and when she resists they accuse her falsely of fornication. In this version, her initial sin is . . . bathing naked in the river. That seems like a pretty feeble offense for farm folks (though indeed it's never made quite clear that that's what they are). Later we find out that Mrs McLean, wife of one of the church elders, has forced her son Little Bat to lie and claim that Susannah has seduced him. But we are only told this (why would you not include such a powerful and revealing scene?), and only told it later on, so initially it all does seem to come down to a young woman taking a bath. And though Susannah lives a bit apart from the rest of the town, and is a bit of an outsider, she does attend the church and at nineteen is, by local standards, almost an old maid, as her brother points out – so why does she not realize that bathing naked in the river violates local standards? Why does she not lash out at the elders for their voyeuristic spying? During the intermission while waiting in the line to the men's room I overheard someone saying, "Well, I don't understand why she didn't just tell them off right away." Indeed. She and her brother are oddly passive until the very end.

I couldn't help feeling puzzled by the brother – why, instead of fighting back, does he immediately tell his sister that there's nothing to be done but to wait out the community shunning? Why does he desert her at the peak of the crisis with the feeble excuse that he has to go check his traps? (Yes, they live on the game he captures, but given the seriousness of his sister's situation – the whole town is listening to sermons denouncing her sinfulness – and the uncertainty of actually finding anything in the traps, why couldn't he wait a day?) The problem fell into place for me at the end when we are told (again, why are we not shown such a striking scene?) that he has hidden behind a bush and shot Preacher Blitch: my immediate reaction was, no, he wouldn't hide behind a bush, he'd stand right up and shoot the man who wronged his sister. It was then I realized that the role really only makes sense if the brother is more broken down, more defeated – if his much-discussed constant drunkenness is an escape rather than a rebellion. It's just one of the oddities that comes from opera casting: Jovanovich sings beautifully, and gives a committed and forceful performance, but it's inherent in him to exude a sort of sunny virility that renders Sam's actions puzzling.

Much was made in the program of Floyd's father the preacher and Floyd's childhood in the sort of rural and pious Southern town he put on stage in this, his first opera. This presumably is meant to assure us of the eyewitness accuracy of what we see, but I was instead getting the sense that there was perhaps a bit of axe-grinding going on. Basically, and much to the detriment of possible complexity and texture in the work, Floyd fails to take religion seriously as anything but an excuse for hypocrisy. When the amorous Blitch, realizing after he seduces her that Susannah was a virgin, informs the church elders and their wives of her innocence (though not of his guilt), he is peremptorily and immediately shut down, mostly by Mrs McLean. So much for the authority of the church. The reactions of the townsfolk are far too monolithic, and everyone is far too easily led by the vindictive Mrs McLean. There was another wife of an elder who extended a compassionate arm towards Susannah once or twice, only to be stopped by the death-glare of the inevitable Mrs McLean (Catherine Cook's awe-inspiring glare really should be harnessed and redirected towards socially positive purposes, like towards people who talk during performances, though I have to say the audience was really well behaved). But I suspect this attempt at the complexity of compassion was added by director Michael Cavanagh, since it is not indicated in the words or music.

No one in this group of pious Christians reaches out to save the lost lamb – no one even tells her at first what her great crime is. Rather oddly for a group of fundamentalist (or maybe they're evangelical?) Christians, no one quotes the Bible, which contains plenty of gospel advice to love the sinner (and no one seems to recognize that Susannah's situation echoes that of her namesake saved by the prophet Daniel). There is no dispute among these believers about the appropriate place of mercy versus strict justice, an argument which is central to Christianity. These things might have made the townspeople look less like ignorant bigots and more like people struggling to figure out right and wrong, given their time and place. I was surprised to read in the program that when the opera premiered comparisons were drawn between the stage action and the McCarthy blacklisting – the community, as portrayed here, seems self-contained in its small-mindedness to the point of caricature, and so disconnected from any life that any opera audience would live. It's all too easy for such an audience, particularly in San Francisco in 2014, to watch these people from rural Tennessee and think only "those people are like that" rather than "people are like that" or even "I am like that – at least, occasionally."

The program also mentions Floyd's concentration on the role of Susannah (which presumably explains why important scenes that involve her only indirectly, like the forced and false confession of Little Bat and the shooting of Blitch, take place offstage). This provides a big role for the soprano (and Racette took every advantage of it), but it also means we are given only one perspective and everything is consistently flattened. Nature is good! Christianity is bad! Susannah bathes in the river because she is pure! Those being baptized in the river pollute it! The drama is simplified to the point of implausibility: even in a Bible-belted community like this one, you'd think some of the women would oh so helpfully, and with only of course the very kindest of intentions, point out to Mrs McLean that her lack of Christian charity is all too obviously motivated by sexual jealousy of Susannah (who is apparently the only young and attractive woman who has ever appeared in New Hope Valley). If you compare the rich and varied portrayal of the town inhabitants in Peter Grimes, and think of how much depth they add to that opera, you can see what is lacking here. By the end of the opera, things start taking some interesting turns and we start seeing some intriguing changes in Blitch and Susannah, but I'm afraid by then it was too little too late for me as well as for them.