28 April 2006

the subversive Steinway

Last Sunday I heard Krystian Zimmerman at Zellerbach. I was in the first row, but off to the right instead of the left (Cal Performances always has to get me in some way) so instead of watching the fingers I could only see the top of his head and then his feet. And the reflected hammers dancing in the opened lid of the instrument. But I often close my eyes during non-vocal music anyway. I've heard him in recital a number of times both here and in Boston, but this was the first time he addressed the audience that I remember. He wanted to explain why the Gershwin preludes had been pulled from the program and more Chopin put in their place (not that I'm complaining, I was happy with either one). It seems that the massive Steinway he travels with went missing at the airport for five days, throwing him off his practice/recital schedule. How do you lose a grand piano? It's probably needless at this sorry juncture to say that the reason it was missing was "terrorists." If I understood him correctly, not only was the instrument gone for five days it was returned to him damaged, with the keyboard and hammers torn up. So do they think suicide recitalists are the next wave of terror? Did someone take too much to heart Boulez's long-ago proposal to "bomb the opera houses" and put the concert halls on red alert? The ultimate point here is that a distinguished foreign artist was going to pay tribute to America by playing her music and instead was basically assaulted. Horowitz traveled with his Steinway during the Cold War and I never heard anyone think that maybe he was a double agent and they should rip his piano up. I'm enjoying the post-modern Onion/Daily Show world, and the smug feeling of being right as if I'm the only one in a 50s horror film that realizes the zombies are taking over, but could this administration please just go away and stop embarrassing us? I should at least be grateful that they're so incompetent, given their general goals.

Zimmerman ended by assuring us that "it was bad to support the terrorists and if you did you would go to jail or end up as Secretary of Defense." That got a lot of applause in Berkeley. Despite his irritation he played his Chopin and Ravel beautifully, so I like to think artistry triumphs over politics. Ultimately.

If anyone is out there you may have noticed I haven't updated recently: I've had very limited computer access for the past few weeks, except at work, where they actually, you know, prefer me to do work-related stuff. And next week I continue my Nathan Gunn tour of America by going to Houston. So the sparkling river of insight and whimsy has been backing up behind the dam, and it doesn't look as if said dam will be blown up (see how I'm tying all this together through metaphor?) until after May 7. So I may as well officially declare myself on a brief hiatus until then, urging you only to go see Mark Morris's Sylvia at the San Francisco Ballet if you haven't already. It has women warriors, pirates, orgies, lovesick shepherds, angry goddesses -- what are you waiting for? What more do you want?

14 April 2006

Keeping Them Down on the Farm

The night after I saw Impact Theatre's Hamlet I saw Last Planet Theatre's production of Franz Xavier Kroetz's Farmyard, which was everything the former production was not: shocking, well-acted, and well worth an evening out. This was my first show at Last Planet. The San Francisco papers barely cover the major theaters; the smaller ones slip under the radar unless you meet some actors. I realized later that I was coming down with the flu while I watched this play, but it was still absorbing. A married couple lives on a farm with their retarded adolescent daughter. They have a farmhand, a middle-aged man, who starts having sex with the girl; the girl gets pregnant. These are inarticulate, emotionally withdrawn people with rough lives. The fascinating thing is that the play is always on the verge of something horrible (perhaps I should say even more horrible than semi-consensual molestation of an underaged retarded girl), and until the last moment you're not sure if the parents are going to kill their daughter. Instead they help her give birth. There's nothing cheaply "life-affirming" about this action; the way I'm tempted to say there would be if this were an American play. Instead these are people who give in to their fate. The daughter was well-acted but clearly not an adolescent girl; I assume this has to do with the pool of actors available and not with the usual cushioning which prevents us from having to see, and be complicit with, molestation.
Between scenes they played different songs by Shirley Horn (again, what a contrast to the generic rock after every scene of Hamlet, no matter what the scene). What an inspired idea. This is the role music so often plays in our lives: a more beautiful and elegant version of the dreary pains we suffer. Maybe that makes it sound too decorative: a transmutation of pain, banal and tragic, into a deeper form.

I can't go on I'll go on

SAMUEL BECKETT, Patron Saint of the Twentieth Century
April 13, 1906 (Good Friday)
December 22, 1989

"Nothing is funnier than other people's pain"

07 April 2006

Not To Be

So a few weeks ago I went to see Hamlet at the Impact Theatre in Berkeley. This was my second Impact Shakespeare production, since I sat through their Henry IV a few years ago, before they switched from the Julia Morgan Center to the basement of LaVal’s Pizza. And I have to say I’m completely baffled by what they think they’re doing. If you read their website or publicity materials, they’re presenting shocking, “street” theater that will rile the traditionalists. What they actually do is what every theater has done since Charles II was restored to the throne and re-opened the theaters: they chop and change Shakespeare to suit themselves. And though Shakespeare is the ever-fixed lodestar of my life, I’ve always felt that one of the reasons he, rather than say Spenser, is the Great Poet is that this adaptation happens in every era and to suit every taste. The originals are still there waiting, and in some ways are best appreciated by reading. I realized long ago that I would never see a Shakespeare production where I thought, “Well, that’s it. They nailed it.” (To rush the point a bit, no, this one didn’t even come close. It’s not even the best Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen in the basement of a pizza parlor, a title that belongs to a Pericles I saw a few years ago.)
Maybe what they do is shocking in the same imaginary world in which the egregiously awful rock music they play between scenes is considered cutting edge or subversive. (Don’t they even know that hiphop has replaced rock as the corporate-sponsored music that shows how rebellious you are?) Actually, this Cal grad from the death-to-disco days felt a sweet nostalgia in hearing punkish electric guitars while sitting in LaVal’s pizzeria, as if it were a scene from The Student Prince in Old Heidelburg. I had that drinking song (“drink, drink, drink to la la whatever”) going through my head the rest of the night. Which was, by the way, torrentially wet.
Though we were assured the play was irreverently slashed, in a way guaranteed to shock the purists, I have to say: (1) it was still three hours long; (2) swiftly moving action is perhaps not the way to capture the essence of Hamlet; (3) purists don’t exist in the theater audience; they’ve switched to opera, where they can reduce the most passionate of the performing arts to discussions over whether X held her A natural a semiquaver short and whether the Duke’s pumpkin pants were really what they wore in Mantua in 1564; (4) just about every production of Shakespeare is cut, sometimes just as radically but almost always more intelligently than this one; even Branagh’s word-for-word film, which retains even the jokes about Elizabethan child actors, is then bizarrely set in the nineteenth century (maybe Kenneth likes epaulets?) and includes a ridiculous chandelier-swing in the final fencing match, and so much for purity in the theater; and (5) did I mention that it was still three hours? In a damp basement? Where I had to sit in wet clothes after walking there through drenching rain? Surrounded by people chewing in my ear? Watching a really mediocre performance? That didn’t even start until after 8:00?
As for performance specifics, well, it seems gratuitously unkind to be too detailed. I genuinely admire and respect people who put themselves out there night after night in a thankless world. But seriously: don’t waste my time. Don’t think you’re blowing my mind open just because Hamlet is wearing jeans and a hoodie. Don’t pretend that my disapproval is only because they pull guns on each other (and apparently there’s only one gun in Elsinore, to be passed from Laertes to Hamlet to Rosencrantz; you can tell because the paint is chipped in the same places – people, it’s a small theater, pay attention to details; and along those same lines – whatever drink Claudius prepares for Hamlet during the fencing match, I’m guessing it wasn’t scotch – is Gatorade too suburban for street theater?). The director, Melissa Hillman, also played Gertrude; Claudius was a much younger man, but not much was made of this; in fact, not much was made of anything. Gertrude and Claudius go at it quite a bit, and they continue to do so even after the closet scene (which, as the fuddy-duddies will recall, ends with Hamlet making his mother promise not to make out with Claudius any more), so what was the point of the scene? Nothing builds; this production was more like those museum tours for the rushed that highlight the five paintings you have to see so you can check them off and then go shopping. Also, if you make Polonius simply ridiculous, a fubsy little fusser, and have even Gertrude and Claudius roll their eyes at him, then all their talk about “the good old man” after his death makes no sense. This may well be the only performance I’ll ever see in which Polonius was more effeminate than Osric (not that I’ve ever found much amusement in the Osric scenes – but again, if Osric is a stocky mumbler, why is Hamlet muttering about what a waterfly he is? Cut the play, sure, but cut it so that it makes sense). Polonius (and also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) have their comic side, but if you don’t also capture their menacing side you’re not really getting the point.
There was an early attempt to make the now-youthful Claudius sort of a frat brother with Laertes, aligned against the moody arts major that Hamlet obviously was, but it didn’t go far. The actor sometimes sounded like George Bush, but it was hard to tell if this was deliberate or not, or what it might mean anyway (Claudius seems a great deal more capable than Georgey boy.) And he was one of the better actors. Early on, a podium with a presidential seal (an odd accessory for someone repeatedly described as king of Denmark) is brought out for use during his address to the court, something Peter Sellars was doing with Handel a quarter century ago. There are many ways to play madness; the Ophelia found none of them. Most of the minor roles were so bad there’s no point in dwelling on them. Again, I don’t like being pointlessly cruel, but – don’t waste my time. . . . Patrick Alparone as Hamlet was fortunately one of the better actors. I wouldn’t say he was the subtlest Hamlet I’ve ever seen, but clearly the guy was getting no help at all from anyone around him. As Gertrude, Hillman was every bit as good an actress as she was director.
And at the end, Hillman bounds up from the floor to urge us to donate money on the way out, and if we liked the production to tell our friends, and if we didn’t, to “keep our fucking mouths shut.” This to an audience that had just come out in a downpour to spend an entire evening at this production – an audience about a quarter of which was made up of elderly people from a nearby retirement home, some of them in poor health and all of a generation to find such an expression extremely insulting. And, at last, for the first time all evening, I was genuinely shocked. When Shakespeare has epilogues, he always begs the audience’s indulgence and apologizes if they haven’t been entertained, but in this case as in many others Hillman appears to think she knows better than Shakespeare. I’m starting to think this theater doesn’t have a fanbase so much as it has victims of Stockholm syndrome. But what can you expect from people who think rock music is subversive.

03 April 2006

peanuts & cracker jacks (random thoughts for Opening Day)

I have about 20 minutes before I go up to the big screen to watch Barry Zito outpitch the Yank's hitters, unless of course the rain strikes again -- it's so damp here that salamanders are invading my house. So in the best sports writing tradition, I will string together random thoughts to fill out a column:
Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for the phone company.
Other than the Yankees, I'm pretty open to rooting for any team or player. (Yes, I became a fan when I lived in Boston. Duh.) This appalls at least one of my brothers, who thinks being born in the East Bay means you can't even root for the Giants (they're in the area and a different league, so why not?). He'll let me have the Red Sox, since I lived in Boston for so long, but other than that he disapproves of my diamond promiscuity. But I figure: fandom is autobiography. If you lived in a place, or like a certain player, why not follow him? If (G*d forbid!) Barry Zito leaves the A's next year, I'll still watch him with interest -- even to the shores of Yankee Stadium. . . . (What you can't do is go directly from the Red Sox to the Yanks: Johnny Damon, you're dead to me!)
And speaking of Bay Area Barrys, I may be the last person in America who thought Barry Bonds didn't use steroids (look, you can do a lot with weight training and proper nutrition! and even more tellingly -- he hasn't gotten smaller (hello, Jason Giambi) once the steroid investigations began). I still like him. I think he gets sort of a bum rap because he doesn't play along with the press, but as a cranky middle-aged guy myself, I sympathize. And yes, I do think race plays a part in it. Sammy Sosa of the ever-present smiles (when the cameras were rolling) got more of a free ride (people, he corked his bat -- and ineptly, at that). Yeah, I think America prefers its black men smiling and modest. (For the record, I'm not of African descent, unless you count the Portuguese side.) I'm not condoning steroid use, but I'd like to say: (1) No asterisks on the records, please. After all, many of his opponents are also juiced, which levels that field out a bit. And don't tell me about Babe Ruth and his hot dogs and beer: he played in segregated leagues. There's always an asterisk: a bad wind, a lucky hit, a roll in the dirt, rain that didn't happen. . . . (2) I'm not so sure steroids are really an advantage in baseball. Yes, you can get bigger (though, you know, you still have to work hard with the weights: you just don't shoot up and it happens), and even more important you can recover faster, but after a certain point being bigger works against you in baseball. It's not like football, where you run into people. The huge biceps might help you hit, but that might be cancelled out by unwieldy fielding. You have to play defense as well as offense in baseball. So I'm not so sure that "cheating" is really the right label for steroid use in baseball. And (3) sometimes there's a fine line between allowed nutritional supplements and those banned. Having said all that, yes, I'd prefer players didn't take steroids, and yes, it's been obvious for years that some of them are, so let's not pretend to be shocked, shocked! at this discovery, and (though I cannot stress enough that players should stop shooting up) I have to agree with Susan Sarandon's remark last year that steroid use in sports is maybe not one of America's current major problems. And she was in Bull Durham, so I'll take her word for it.

blogs I read (and one that reads me!)

I know it's customary to provide links to one's favored blogs, but (1) I'm not sure how to do that yet and (2) I hate to sound like Miss Manners in the mosh pit, but it seems like the blogosphere equivalent of social climbing.
So here's what I look at on a frequent basis: for non-music matters, the Comics Curmudgeon at joshreads.com, who has dragged me back into reading comics I had given up on. For music, I start with therestisnoise.com, the blog by Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker. Not only do you get his commentaries, but it's a gateway blog: click on music blogs on the right-hand side and there's a cornucopia of riches, some of which, I will admit, is technically beyond me, since I am a humble listener rather than a performer. The ones I usually check in there are: vilaine fille (great stuff on Judaism as well as music), Kyle Gann, La Cieca, Maury D'annato (which I started reading once I got the name -- Tosca, Act 2, is your hint), Sieglinde's Diaries, and the Well Sungs. And one I started reading before I started reading therestisnoise is The Standing Room, also located here in the Bay Area. Big thrill for me to see myself listed in Blagues du Jour! My first listing! Thanks! And I'll link you up once I read the instructions. . . .


The last thing I wanted to hear after getting home from work today was that Lorraine Hunt Lieberson has had to withdraw from her upcoming SF Symphony performances, but so it is. Petrushka will be played instead of the Ruckert Lieder. I've been riveted by so many great performances by her, dating back to the 1980s in Boston, when both of us were starting out (she in giving and I in attending concerts), that it might be greedy to ask for more, but . . . I can't help it, that's why we keep going. Best wishes to Ms Hunt Lieberson for a speedy recovery.

02 April 2006

The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them

Just as a sidenote: Hank Ketcham is dead; why isn't Dennis the Menace? I have always loathed this strip, with the obnoxious -- no, that's not strong enough -- repellent? disgusting? -- Dennis representing some backwards view of the American Boy and of course Margaret, the girl you can tell is smart because she's homely and has glasses. Why would someone continue this mess long after the creator and whatever reality he was drawing from have long passed away?
If there's anyone who finds charm or truth in this comic, I don't ever, ever want to meet them.
This rant was brought to you by a chance glimpse of the comics page. . . .

It didn't fall in a day, either

As part of my Nathan Gunn tour of America, I am going to Houston in a month for L'Incoronazione di Poppea (with an Astros/Cardinals game in between performance dates). I have seen it once before, in a po-mo production at SF Opera, which I liked better than some reviewers did; I think it suffered with comparisons to the Mark Morris production of Rameau's Platee that was running in Berkeley at the same time (is that the first mention of the genius Morris here? It won't be the last!) but it had a lot going for it, not least a performance of the Empress Ottavia by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson that was so intense it frankly threw the opera off balance. But I decided to watch the three available DVDs to prep for the trip. The original plan was to watch them all in one weekend. It's probably just as well that it didn't happen that way, though all three are different enough, not just in staging but in music (given the various controversies over the score and historical performance practices). Not only was the scoring different, but two had Nerone played by tenors and one by a mezzo, while two had Ottone played by countertenors and one by a baritone (this is Gunn's role in Houston).
First was a 1993 production from the Schwetzinger Festspiele, with Patricia Shumann as Poppea, Richard Croft as Nerone, and Rene Jacobs conducting. This was a good standard production, I thought, but for some reason they omit the prologue in which Fortune and Virtue argue over who has the power, only to be interrupted by Love, who points out that she (or he, in the form of Cupid) does. For some this omission will knock this one out of the running, and indeed I'm puzzled as to why they left it out. It may seem like an outdated bit of Renaissance allegory, but (1) it sets up a larger framework for the rest of the story and (2) if you don't have at least some taste for Renaissance styles you're probably not going to go for this opera anyway.
Next was the Raymond Leppard version with Maria Ewing and Dennis Bailey from Glyndebourne. I understand from those more steeped in musicology than I can claim to be that Leppard's version is controversial. I found it enjoyable, not being too caught up myself in continuo arguments and sackbut controversies. It is probably the one least likely to freak out the regular opera goer (that is, someone approaching it back from the nineteenth century works, rather than someone moving forward in time from early music), what with the absence of countertenors and, if my memory is correct, the nurses played by women instead of en travesti. I don't consider that a recommendation, but I'm not perverse enough to rule it out on those grounds either.
Third (and this was last night's viewing, so it's fresher in my memory) was Christophe Rousset's version with Les Talens Lyriques, with Cynthia Haymon as my favorite of the Poppeas and Brigitte Balleys as Nerone. This is the longest of the DVDs, and is probably the fullest and most "authentic" musically. But if you're looking for spectacle, this bare stage version is not the place to go. Also: what's with the incredibly butt-ugly costumes? Why would you hire a gorgeous woman like Haymon to sing the seductive Poppea and then dress her like Raggedy Ann? Why were they all in baggy fuzzy caftans, some festooned with what looked like carpet samples or failed macrame projects? And why was Poppea's nurse Arnalta dressed like a refugee from a Russian Constructivist version of Alice in Wonderland? This is more a version to be heard than seen, I guess.
I've heard rumors there's another version forthcoming, with William Christie conducting, but so far no sightings on the Amazon. . . .

the divine Sarah

It's no longer just the dishes in the kitchen sink crying koyaanisqatsi on my life -- I'm way behind on the blogging, too; but first I was felled by the flu and then I was out of town (cherry blossom time in DC; thanks as always to SW for her magnificent hospitality and a report on the Zambello American Rheingold is coming up). But before I move on to Events I Have Seen I have to mark the recent passing of Sarah Caldwell. Years ago, mostly in the 1980s, I lived in Boston. I saw about half a dozen rarities and oddball operas (Rameau's Zoroastre, anyone?) before I saw a standard one. In other words, I edged slowly into the opera zone but many of my early experiences were from Ms. Caldwell's company. As you can tell by the dates, her glory years were a bit past, but she still managed to put on some shows that thrill me in memory years later (along with a frustrating number of cancellations, including once an entire season -- though it probably wasn't her fault Stratas cancelled out of that Boheme, before I decided I had had enough of that opera -- but already Caldwell's legend, which seems to be the only word for it, included massive disorganization and chaos theory as well as knock-out productions). I remember seeing my first two Toscas in the same month -- first the Met tour (it was that long ago -- there were no surtitles, either) with Grace Bumbry, who gave a sweet performance, and then Opera Company of Boston with Shirley Verrett, who knocked me flat. (The production was a substitute for the scheduled Medea (done later with Barstow -- I can't remember why it fell through this time, but I felt the choice of Tosca was a deliberate gauntlet thrown at the Met). There was a dazzling Turandot, with a millefleur chorus in Chinese silks; a wonderful Makropoulos Case with I believe Silja (I cannot understand why Janacek is not one of the most popular opera composers around); and the famous Russian festival, with a surprisingly somber Dead Souls from Schedrin. It's odd that someone who accomplished so much more than many people ever manage should be seen as having such a mixed legacy, but I guess that comes from the feeling that her need for control and her disorganization held her back from a steadier career. But some people are drawn to the roller coaster.
And here's a story I overheard years ago while waiting for a Red Line T in a Cambridge station: a tall, goodlooking young guy was telling the woman he was with about his experience as a spear-carrier (literally) in a Caldwell production of Otello. He and his fellow spear carrier had missed their cue and instead of exiting the stage were trapped on it for the final scene and had to stand there slack-jawed and stunned while the murder took place. This huge mistake was singled out by some of the reviewers as a directorial masterstroke, showing the helplessness of the social organization and outside world in the face of the seething private passions that led to the murder. The train arrived before I could hear if they kept that part in for later performances.
I guess finding significance and order and art in the mistaken and the arbitrary and the chance is a huge part of theater. Vaya con Dios, Sarah.