28 April 2007

I am Jack's shaky sense of identity

There was so much weirdness packed into my short trip to LA that I’ll have to get to Tristan in a later entry. I arrived late Monday morning, got to my hotel, and noticed that my suitcase had been opened by the Security people. That’s just everyday oddness, these days. What was really odd was finding in my suitcase a palm-sized, pillow-shaped object wrapped in pink tissue that I hadn’t packed. I thought, Is this what I think it is? Sure enough – it was a menstrual pad. Some Dadaist in the Department of Heimat Security slipped a random unused menstrual pad into my luggage, I guess for some added security.

I walked around for several hours both Monday and Tuesday. I had heard that LA was trying to establish Grand Avenue as a cultural destination. There’s a cluster of theaters, but of course they’re not open except for performances. There is the Museum of Contemporary Art, but it’s fairly small and closed Tuesday and Wednesday. I walked around the “historic downtown,” the “fashion district,” which is full of warehouses, the “flower district,” which is also full of warehouses, various streets that were probably an official part of some historic district but were mostly filled with dirty little shops and storefront churches (“Where Jesus Comes First!”). I walked through the central market and past the million dollar theater. There were street placards with information on these sites, left by one of the previous attempts to spruce up the area. You could date these attempts by the styles – here was the after-war attempt, here was the late 1960s urban renewal project, here was the 1980s mall. One of these was near my hotel, and boasted an “international food court,” which meant there was a Panda Express and a Sbarros as well as an Arby’s.

I resist the usual northern California clichés about LA, but I didn’t see a single bookstore in my admittedly brief visit. You’d think a Borders with a big CD section would brighten up a cultural district. I also didn’t see any of the newer healthier chain restaurants – just the usual places with fried stuff or flabby pale pastries, interrupted by the occasional GNC or Gold’s Gym to undo the damage. What I wanted was probably just in another part of town, inaccessible to a mere pedestrian. Downtown Los Angeles is not as dispiriting as downtown Detroit, but cities that give themselves over to the automobile rather than pedestrians have made a bargain with the devil. The streets are wide and lined with trees, but it feels odd to walk down them. You can walk for miles down the hot blank sidewalks and not come across anything except dirty buildings that have seen better days, filled with the junky fruits of low-level capitalism. It’s probably a matter of your outlook on life whether you find these stores hopeful signs of vitality or depressing evidence of doomed struggles to exist.

I ended my Tuesday walk in Chinatown, where I thought, forget it, Jake, it’s the 1950s and went back to my hotel. As I was walking down the extremely long corridor to my room I saw a food tray outside a door. It turned out to be outside my door. I hadn’t ordered any room service. There was a small pizza box on the tray so it was difficult to tell if it had been eaten or not. It remained for hours and hours while I wondered why it was outside my door and if I was going to have a problem with my bill. I did, but not the one I was expecting. There was a movie charge of about $16 for Monday night. I told the hotel clerk that I hadn’t watched a movie. He checked their records and said that they said I did, for half an hour on Monday night. He asked if there was anyone else in the room. Nope. I hazarded the possibility that someone on the staff had watched the movie, mostly because I couldn’t think of any other possibility. Oh, no, no, no. Eventually I asked what the movie was and – my astute or maybe just degenerate readers have probably figured this out long before I did – I was informed that it was “sexually explicit.” I immediately flashed on the scene in Fight Club in which the airport security guard explains to the narrator why suitcases might vibrate (“It’s usually a dildo. Always a dildo, never . . . your . . . dildo. . . .”). My problem in situations like this is that I’m reasonable and understand how rules work and can see the other fellow’s point of view. He was professional and polite enough and didn’t know me from Adam, and according to his records, I had watched this movie, and now I was not only claiming that I wasn't the porn monkey he clearly thought I was throughout the whole conversation, but I was suggesting that his staff of hard-working Mexican immigrant women might be. I fleetingly considered explaining that since I live alone I have no need to pay for a hotel room in order to watch porn, or possibly suggesting I have such specialized tastes that mainstream hotel porn would be of no interest to me, but it's usually best when I restrain my hysterical humor in these situations and I decided I would just cut my losses, of dignity if not of money. So I said, “Well, I didn’t watch this, but I understand your dilemma so I won’t argue it.”

So feeling freaky (and cheated) that I’d just paid for someone else’s porn, I arrive at the United counter of LAX. It’s an American corporation, so of course it’s understaffed by the overwhelmed. There are about three people for about twenty stations. We’re all supposed to use self-check-in machines, but since the security clamp down almost no one can get away without checking luggage, so the three are running around tying tags onto all the checked pieces. The five and a half years that have elapsed since the WTC attack have clearly not given the airlines enough time to rethink their approach to checking in customers. The self-check-in machines, once I got one to work, did not allow me to change my seat to the emergency exit row. I didn’t really mind the three noisy children around me in the back of the plane; their parents were behaving appropriately and noise is what little children do. I was more irritated by the constant hacking cough of the man next to me. At least he covered his mouth about a third of the time. But it wouldn’t really have mattered if I’d sat elsewhere – the plane was so small I bumped my head every time I stood up. At least it’s a short flight.

I didn’t leave all the strangeness behind in LA. Back at my house I found a credit card bill in the day’s mail, and there was a charge of almost $80 to a website called Friend Finder that I was sure wasn’t mine. I called them and dealt with a polite but bored man – they apparently get a lot of calls like this – who checked their database and told me that someone had indeed set up an account under my name, complete with a photograph, allegedly of me, in what appeared to be a pilot’s jacket or possibly a military uniform. Was I a pilot? Nope. Had I been in the military? Nope. Do I have friends who might have done this? Oh no, no, no. He made a big deal in a fairly condescending way about crediting the charges; I said thanks and immediately called the credit card company, who also apparently get a lot of calls like this, and they canceled the account. So, ladies and/or gentlemen, if you found this site by googling the name of that special someone you’ve started seeing, possibly an aviator or military man, please be aware that you are dating a con man whose real name you don't even know. Accept no substitutes!

After the pad, the porn, and the dating service fraud I was a bit jittery and it even freaked me out a little to receive two copies of my May issue of Men’s Health. I suppose it’s just a computer error. It’s not going to make me twice as healthy, even though I now can burn double the calories when I tear out all the cologne-reeking ad pages, crumple them into balls, and toss them into the recycle bin.

23 April 2007

to the only begetter of these ensuing. . .

In honor of the great man’s birth on the banks of the Avon 443 years ago, I’d like to report that a friend of mine recently told me that if you google “reverberate hills” your first option is not Twelfth Night but me. Damn! I should have named the blog To Be or Not to Be and really shown up that Stratford bitch.

I’m now off to Los Angeles for the first time in many years to take in The Tristan Project and shiny new Disney Hall, then back by Thursday to hear Faust damned at the symphony, capping it all off with some wry but poignant observations from David Sedaris in Berkeley on Friday.

20 April 2007

the fat lady adjusts her cup and steps to the plate

A friend of mine once pointed out that I’m the only person he knows who critiques the performance of the national anthem at each baseball game. Here comes another shameful musical confession: I love the Star-Spangled Banner. I love that its tune is an eighteenth-century drinking song, I love that no one can remember the convoluted words, I love that it’s about Baltimore (the home of Cal Ripken, John Waters, crabcakes, and kickass collections of Matisse and outsider art), I love that audiences always applaud the wrong high note, and most of all I love that no one can sing it. A couple of years ago I was at the annual World Series party given by friends of mine and when Josh Groban didn’t even attempt the high note I announced that he was a pussy. Yes, beer was involved – kids, beer and baseball are a deadly mix! The woman sitting next to me, whom I didn’t know (at this point in the story a female friend of mine started laughing at me uncontrollably and justifiably; at this point in reality I thought to myself, Whoa! Dude! Slow down on the beer! They haven’t even thrown the first pitch!), explained that she didn’t mind that I used that word but she really objected when her boyfriend said things like “what a typical woman.” It became pretty clear that their whole relationship consisted of bickering, leading me to think that they’d be either married or split in a year; at the next year’s party he was there alone. Ironically I never think of “pussy” as a word referring to women, but only as one directed towards guys. I think this because it was regularly directed at me on the playground, which is why I do not have that boyhood nostalgia about baseball or any other sport (or nostalgia about boyhood, either). I recently heard Simon Williams give a fascinating lecture to the Wagner Society, and at one point, almost as an aside, he suggested that perhaps the reason opera audiences crave traditional realistic productions is that it reminds them of the ones they saw when they first fell in love with opera at a young age. This is an interesting theory, though I suppose there’s no way to test it outside of applying a universal madeleine, and it would go far to explain the infantile nostalgia of most opera audiences and why I lack it, since I was in my 20s before I saw much opera, and I saw about half a dozen offbeat works (Rameau’s Zoroastre, for one) and Peter Sellars stagings before I saw a mainstream, conservative, and entirely inadequate production (Rigoletto done by the Met tour in Boston). The theory also makes me wonder if future audiences raised on regie theater will grow up bemoaning the lack of on-stage defecation and the reluctance of the inadequate current generation of singers to perform in their underpants. Anyway that was around the same age when, to paraphrase one of Larkin’s essays, I realized it was not sports but other children I hated. In 1986, after another legendary Red Sox loss in the World Series, I saw that, contrary to popular belief, sports are not about winning but about loss, and I finally understood. As a resident of Boston, of course what the sports writers called the Carmine Hose, those poster boys for sports as loss, became my team, though I’m actually fairly casual about my baseball loyalties, another result of not being a boyhood fan. But I just can’t cotton to the Yankees. I finally saw a game on TV this season (more and more of them are only appearing on cable stations I don’t get, and that includes ESPN) and even though the Oakland A’s put their names on their home uniforms, the Yankees do not even put them on their visitor uniforms. Please. There’s a point where tradition becomes affectation and arrogance and then finally veers off into delusion (something proponents of “traditional” staging might remember).

I have been to one game so far this year. The Giants lost to the Dodgers and the Sippy Cups performed the anthem and Take Me Out to the Ballgame for the seventh-inning stretch. The audience didn’t seem to like them. I don’t know why. I thought they did a clever job within the limits of what they could do (no high notes here!). I did understand why the old man next to us looked pained at their rocked-up version. There’s always the next performance.

I can’t remember the anthems for the last games I saw live last regular season, but I remember the games. First the A’s played the Angels in one of the best games I’ve ever seen. My favorite Barry Zito was pitching, the post-season was at stake, the game was electric and ran into extra innings, and there would be a (literal) fireworks show afterward, and yet I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I was seated next to an enormously fat father and his adult son. The old man was bad enough, but then he switched (I guess so he could slop over into the aisle) and the even fatter son sat next to me. I’m not the slip of a lad I used to be and pretty much need the whole seat, but this guy was so fat he bulged over into about a third of my space so that I was sitting at a 45 degree angle most of the night. I could feel the damp heat rising from his body. I could also smell first the strong laundry soap he used, then the orange glop on his nachos, and then the nacho cheese gas he kept passing. I was with a friend and his six-year-old son and I tried suggesting that his son, being a small person, switch seats with me. My friend misunderstood and switched seats with his son himself so that I was now sandwiched between two grown men instead of one. (Later he explained that he was afraid his son would make some loud comment about the man’s size or smell; I had to admit he had a point.) If that game were on DVD I would buy it, but I was in agony during it and because it was such a good game it wasn’t until almost the very end that the stadium emptied out enough for me to move over a few seats. That’s the problem with living in the moment: so often the moment is just excruciating. We did reunite under more physically comfortable circumstances for a first-round play-off game, but Zito, pitching again, was having an off day and the whole thing was a bit of a letdown even before the A’s were eliminated.

I was thrilled that Zito joined the Giants, since I had feared he would jump to the Yankees. Perhaps he learned from others who made the switch and ended up the worse (hello, Jason Giambi). I opened the sports page one day last January and there was a full page ad from Zito thanking the players, management, and fans of the A’s and the journalists who covered them. I’ve never seen any player do anything like that. He also is actively involved in helping wounded vets and their families who aren’t getting the help they should from the government that put them in the line of fire. Very classy guy!

I also ended up at the Giants’ last regular season game. In the few days between my buying the tickets and the actual game, the Giants went from wild-card contenders to possible spoilers to a team just playing out the string, which means I overpaid for the tickets. I hear people complain about theater ticket prices, but a few days before the game I had paid around $60 to sit about five feet away from Dawn Upshaw performing at Davies Hall and I spent almost as much to sit about a mile above Barry Bonds, and that’s not so far from the usual price for those seats. Plus I don’t think Davies Hall charges as much for beer. It was a nice way to spend a sunny fall afternoon, but the Giants lost and when I got back home my neighbor, who was having a birthday party for his children, brought over a plate of food for me and told me that he was sending his senile father back to the Philippines. In my years in this house I’ve watched this old man get increasingly obsessive about leaves and greenery to the point where he physically attacked me while I was raking up my lawn. You don’t feel at your manly best knocking down an old guy, but then he’s not that much older than I am and I’m not going to be attacked on my own property. His son and I actually kind of bonded over it. I’m a quiet and considerate neighbor, I must say, and I have several times cut back my trees at great expense and I regularly sweep their driveway during my weekly clean-up, but I’m not willing to cut everything down and pave it over with concrete because of a nutjob’s obsession. What can you do with someone who goes out in a storm to sweep leaves? Are they that potent a reminder of impending death? I realized long ago that there was no real solution here, since basically this is an aesthetic difference: he wants to see completely bare concrete, and I think a few golden birch leaves are always preferable to dead pavement. My somewhat malicious diagnosis of Alzheimer’s turned out to be accurate, which added to the feeling of a season ending when I heard that his very patient son couldn’t take anymore. I did notice yesterday that apparently the old man is back, though he looks much deteriorated. It ain’t over till it’s over.

19 April 2007

pop goes the weasel

I watched American Idol this week, after seeing nothing but the results show at V’s for what may be months, but she tipped me off to the premiere of a commercial done by David Mamet so I was once again snared in the web, semi-inexplicably, since I’m not much of a Mamet fan. Melinda and Jordin were my favorites, as I expected; everyone sounded pretty much exactly as I would have guessed, which made me feel I hadn’t really been missing much so far, though I was sorry to miss American Songbook week, since those are the only songs they do that I’m familiar with. The show makes for uneasy viewing, what with the endless kapok and the constant low-level, low-lying sniping among the judges and the contestants and slick Mr. Seacrest. Simon looked physically uncomfortable during some of the worse performances, and I can’t blame him. (Though I do side with the undistinguished Chris on his dispute with Simon about "nasally" as a distinct vocal style; I always describe the country music I do like as "the nasal, twangy old stuff.") Sanjaya seems to believe he’s in on the joke, and I don’t think he really is. I also noticed that when the bottom three had to stand on stage for the agonizingly prolonged period before hearing their fate as determined by the always astute American voting public, Blake and LaKisha held hands with each other but not Sanjaya. In any case he’s now gone, which is too bad in a way because I was hoping that during Sondheim week I’d get to hear him singing “I’m Still Here.” On the other hand, V’s theory that country week usually results in the premature booting of a black woman left us edgy about LaKisha’s fate, so Sanjaya’s farewell was a relief. Afterwards I channel-surfed and found the results show for Dancing with the Stars, another show I haven't really watched but which seemed much more enjoyable and good-natured all around. And that Apolo Anton Ohno is quite the charmer – I wouldn’t be surprised if agents were calling him about his post-Olympic career.

As for the Mamet commercial, if I hadn’t known about it – well, if I hadn’t known about it, I wouldn’t have watched it, because of all commercials, those for cars are the worst (something about the automobile drains all humor from ad agencies and their clients) and that’s why God invented picture-in-picture. I’ve really liked some of Mamet’s plays (American Buffalo, of course the inevitable Glengarry), had mixed feelings about others (Oleanna – I know the professor is supposed to be arrogant, but meeting with that woman for a third time without at least one witness? Sorry – even though I can accept male/female twins being mistaken for each other, baby-switching at birth, and reunions after decades, that just stretches my suspension of disbelief to the snapping point), and disliked most of his movies (Spanish Prisoner and House of Games – does he marry women who can’t act, or can’t he direct them?). In the ad, two pretty but grizzled guys pull their cars up next to each other on a dark, rain-slick street and, in a brief dialogue filled with repetition and catchphrases, say that whatever brand paid for the ad is faster or something than some luxury car, and the whole thing seemed like a pretty concise parody of Mamet. When you develop a very simple, highly rhythmic form, its extreme stylization can end up making everything sound alike, or like self-parody. This is a problem with a lot of Hemingway and with some of the so-called minimalist composers. I hope they paid Mamet a lot and he enjoys the new vacation home or whatever, but lots of current ads are more clever and attention-grabbing, though crafted like the great cathedrals by anonymous artisans (I particularly like the ad for Jack-in-the-Box in which an emotionally overwrought wife angrily confronts her husband over the dipping sauce stain on his shirt and he insists that he’s innocent of dipper dining without her, and the stains are from his cheating ways with his secretary Jessica. It cracks me up every time, just like the card scene in The Lady Eve.) Of course, I’m still not about to eat at Jack-in-the-Box, so maybe getting my attention isn’t enough.

Since I’m dispensing pop culture insights today based on absolutely minimal viewing time, I have a message for the people behind All My Children: the Freddy is Zarf is Zoe transsexual plot just isn’t working (I almost put “is dragging on” but I’m too tasteful for such low humor), and ironically the reason is all about style. People use “soap opera” to describe a certain type of plot, mostly involving extravagant complications among a multi-generation extended family, but the Oresteia falls into that category too; soap opera is a style, not a substance. They have a flat, slow-moving, quasi-realist performance quality that plays off the twisting storylines (perhaps this is the effect Mamet is trying for, less successfully, with the roles his wives play). The Agnes Nixon soaps in particular have a history of featuring consciousness-raising “social problem” stories and treating them in an earnest tone that is far removed from shock and satire, no matter how bizarre the storyline. And this is where they go wrong with Zarf, the tormented glam rocker who thinks he might be happier as Zoe and has been launching into agony explanations for months in Pine Valley in a style that seems to be founded on some of the more hysterical Joan Crawford films. In other words, he’s being extravagant with extravagant material, so he doesn’t fit into an aesthetic that presents a subdued normality within an extravagant world. After a while the actor’s camp stylings, which work initially as parody, make him stick out in a world based on a completely different aesthetic, and since they stick out, the viewer becomes more conscious of a certain, shall we say, repetitious quality in them; camp is not a style that does slow-moving well. Ironically, I’ve worked with some people that I knew and some that I guessed to be transsexuals, and they’re pretty much like everyone else, only sometimes a little lumpier.

18 April 2007

politic convocation of worms

Part of the appeal of gardens is that they are a ceaseless source of meditative metaphors, despite or partly due to their total indifference to what we think. I try not to give in too much, but after a long-overdue turning of the compost pile to prepare the pots for my heirloom tomatoes, I have to say:

Compost is the greatest, most hopeful stuff in the world.

I don't know whether to go watch the Ring Cycle or the Lion King.

15 April 2007

Don Carlo/s (rainy day fun)

I’ve always thought there are two types of food, the ones that need chocolate and the ones that need garlic. Yesterday, under the influence of spending a rainy Saturday making soup stock and watching back-to-back versions of the same (or same-ish) opera, Don Carlo/s, I started to wonder if rich versus pungent might be a universal method of classification. First was a Don Carlo in Italian from the Met, sumptuous, sensuous, and luxuriant throughout, and next up was Don Carlos in French from the Chatelet in Paris, vibrant, invigorating, and austerely beautiful. My theory broke down on closer examination, since much chocolate also has a bitter bite and garlic can mellow into roasted sweetness, so perhaps my theory is all about the oneness of all things, or the folly of pursuing theories too far.

The differences in the productions might be due to changing tastes in staging, since the Met production is from 1983 and the Chatelet from 1996; both dates are longer ago than I like to think they are. They might also be due to local preference. There’s clearly a lot of money and historical research tastefully lavished on the New York stage (no overdone Zeffirelli vulgarity here), though of course I didn’t have to sit there waiting while they shifted those elaborate sets around. But the simpler sets in Paris, with broad blocks of subtly varied single colors and the cast mostly in black, white, or crimson, struck me as more beautiful, like a painting in which you could stare at a patch of color for hours. I could be happy with either version. The Paris cast tends in the current way to move (and push and wrestle and clasp) a lot more, but that’s not quite the same thing as being better actors. I have mixed feelings about all the movement – these people are aristocrats, and that’s not how aristocrats moved. This is not the same thing as saying that I need to have elaborately embroidered pillows and whatnot in every scene in order to believe; it’s a way of saying that their movement should convey their restricted lives. It reminds me of Branagh’s film of Much Ado About Nothing, which, despite some virtues (Keanu is Don John), completely misses the distinction between court life and village life, opening as it does with a scene of the court lounging in golden fields wearing open-necked shirts, kind of like peasants only cleaner. That’s very much a contemporary view of privilege and ease. Perhaps it’s just the consistency of their internal logic that makes each of these productions work.

Despite recent panic that fashion model looks will supplant the glorious history of waddling middle-aged sopranos pretending to be consumptive girls, both these casts are pretty evenly matched when it comes to acting and physical verisimilitude. I preferred New York’s Nicolai Ghiaurov, carefully costumed to look like portraits of Philip II, to Paris’s Jose van Dam; great as he is, his more authoritarian portrayal seemed more one-dimensional. You could understand how Ghiaurov’s more conflicted king is both the burner of heretics and the defender of the liberal Posa, which made his “she never loved me” aria more heart-breaking than van Dam’s more sombre and bitter rendition, which was in any case marred by some strange staging: he sings the aria while the Queen (in case we didn’t realize she was the one he was singing about) lies fully clothed but presumably asleep in what is apparently their shared bedroom; halfway through she stands and walks (sleepwalks?) out of the room to allow him to finish up his lamentations before his meeting with the Grand Inquisitor, which also takes place in the King’s personal bedroom, thereby conflating the distinctions among the King’s personal anguish, his secret statecraft, and his public persona. The Inquisitor himself hobbles in to weird and absurd flashes of flame, eventually throwing back his cowl to look as green and amphibious as any Alberich. Even without his threatening music it’s pretty clear we’re not going to be rooting for the Grand Inquisitor, but his music is also dignified and somber, and that’s the quality that needs to be presented in order to keep him from being a cartoon villain. To complete the bizarre staging of the scene, he is almost knocked over as he leaves by the Queen, who apparently woke up in some other room and then rushed back in to the bedroom to complain to the King about her stolen jewel box. It seems unlikely that anyone, let alone an aristocratic French woman in the very Catholic Spanish court, would barrel into an elderly crippled priest without an apology or even a glance in his direction.

The Chatelet’s queen, Karita Mattila, gives another finely detailed performance, full of moving little touches – burying her face in Carlos’s portrait in the Fontainebleu scene, touching a lock of his hair when she realizes she has been given to his father instead. The New York Elizabeth, Mirella Freni, is gentler and more melancholy. Both are excellent but my personal preference was for Mattila. Though, without bothering my pretty head about the opera’s complicated history or deconstructionist theories about the instability of text, I wish the Paris production had kept the opening New York used: the peasants gather in the forest, searching for food and firewood, complaining about the sufferings caused by the war. When Elizabeth arrives, she listens to them and dispenses charity, and her compassionate concern explains why she agrees to marry Philip rather than Carlo when she is offered the chance to refuse. Without this scene, it’s puzzling that Mattila’s much more vivacious Elizabeth agrees to the switch, especially since the cajoling crowds are not suffering peasants but elegantly dressed aristocrats. Instead of a tragedy of people caught in historical events they mistakenly think they’re controlling, we end up with the tragic consequences of being a girl who can’t say no.

Eboli is Grace Bumbry for the Met and Waltraud Meier for the Chatelet. With her eager assumption that Carlos loves her and her obvious attempts to eavesdrop and her rendition of the Veil Song, so pointedly about a King who doesn’t love his Queen, while oblivious to the uncomfortable shifting of the other women, Meier is oddly comic up until the end, which adds an interesting perspective to the self-involved turmoil that always surrounds her. Somewhere between 1983 and 1996 Eboli loses her eyepatch. I’m guessing the historical woman wore one, since otherwise it’s an odd detail but it shows up pretty consistently in productions. It actually would have helped in the Paris version, since the court is full of angular women with frizzy reddish hair in shoulder-baring long black dresses and the eyepatch would have singled out Eboli.

Thomas Hampson, the Chatelet’s Posa, had it all over the Met’s forgettable Louis Quilico in looks and style. Like Mattila, he gives a finely detailed performance, deepening his bromance with Carlos with every line. Much directorial ingenuity is expended in making it less obvious that Alagna as Carlos barely comes up to Hampson’s shoulder. Alagna himself is fine, but I have to give full honors to Placido Domingo, the Met’s haggard and unhinged Carlo. Here’s a singer who shows that the musical and the dramatic are not mutually exclusive.

12 April 2007


Cherokee Purple, Oregon Spring, Isis Candy, Christmas Grape, Green Zebra, Snow White, Black Cherry, Currant, Green Grape, Ginger Golden Delicious, Great White, Aunt Ruby’s German.

Those are all heirloom tomato varieties that I will be planting once my lower back stops stabbing and the wind lowers so my allergies aren’t as bad. I tend to buy plants based on their evocative names. I once rejected a spectacular pink rose – and it had to have been spectacular, because I’m usually drawn to the crimson, purple, or orange roses rather than the pink, which should only be made out of icing – because it was named Sexy Rexy. I like Rex Harrison fine, but I just couldn’t do it. Once in Boston I was very late for work because I wanted to hear the end of whatever Bach piece was on the radio. Another time I was very late because the light through the raindrops was so dazzling I couldn’t move from my spot on the sidewalk. And another time my whole day was thrown off because I spent about half an hour staring at the lapping sculptural waves of the Charles River. And one of the happiest hours of my life was spent sitting in the Pantheon watching the circle of light from the center of the dome making its slow progression over the amber walls. On the other hand, I still remember my annoyance trying to get to the BART station one evening rush hour while a young woman kept beseeching or ordering us to stop and look at the sunset. It was a particularly spectacular one – I’d spent about twenty minutes in a conference room with a good view watching it before I left the office – but I now wanted to get home and was anyway a bit irritated at being cast in the role of a blindly rushing bourgeois in her drama. All this is a roundabout way of saying I have no idea if I would have stopped to listen to Joshua Bell playing at the L’Enfant Plaza metro stop (even though I’m the type of person who can’t hear “metro station” without thinking “petals on a wet, black bough”).

BART has buskers a-plenty, some good, some bad (there’s one morning guitarist at Civic Center who is particularly annoying, especially when he orders us to smile). Some play classical and some jazz saxophone; sometimes it’s Chinese instrumental or Mexican vocal or gospel. One old black man plays the blues and he’s not that good but I’m convinced he gets money because he looks the part – he tends to wear a loose white wifebeater even when it’s chilly out, and he's ready to be a cover photo for a delta blues CD. One grimy angular old man with a long white beard shows up at night wrapped in a blanket and when the opera or symphony audiences come down he’ll start playing a reedy triumphal march from Aida on his flute, and it makes me wonder who in his past loved him enough to give him flute lessons and tell him about Aida and the opera and what happened so that he’s begging for change from the audience instead of being part of it. I hurry past some of the performers (especially if they’re just playing rock, which is irritatingly omnipresent anyway) but sometimes I give them money and sometimes I stop to listen, but usually I’m in the station because I’m going someplace and I need to get there, no matter how beautifully the busker is playing. There are only so many times you can explain tardiness by saying that a trance of unbearable beauty had rooted you to the spot. If you’re open to it, random poetry besieges you constantly. If you’re given to viewing the world aesthetically, you are already living in a world of private sensation and memory that is only open askew to even the sympathetic, and that can make for difficulties in most offices. Over the years I’ve learned not to advertise a lot of my interests at work – even those who like opera aren’t necessarily going to be simpatico with my operatic preferences. It’s not that I think I’ll be giving the wrong impression – actually, I’m afraid I’ll be giving the right impression, and I like to put that off as long as possible.

I’ve probably enacted many of the L’Enfant commuters over the years. Sometimes I’m indifferent to the music, sometimes I can’t be late for work, sometimes I want to get to my morning tea or the restroom or just out of the crowds. It would have been nice if people had been able to stop and listen to Bell, but the need to get to work, no matter how boring or pointless the job is, sometimes has to take precedence. How else in this world are we going to pay for whatever is our form of aesthetic delight? I’m surrounded by books and CDs and DVDs, each printed or digitally encoded with some novel fascination, and all I need to do is pay attention, once I get the time. That’s why I like concert halls, for all their drawbacks – they are the frame that makes me look and listen with attention. I often play music in the background that should only be played to the silent and attentive, but I’m reading or washing the dishes or surfing the Net – but I just don’t have the time otherwise, or I’m too easily distracted, or I don’t have the energy, or something. Sometimes you have to rush off to conserve your energy and earn the money so that you can stop and pay attention later.

04 April 2007

lazy Sunday

I missed Measha Brueggergosman’s Mahler 4, so last Sunday’s recital was the first time I’d heard her voice, though I’d been hearing about her voice for a while now. Maybe it was high expectations or just my bad luck, but I was disappointed. She has a louche glam persona that fit in well with her languorous fin-de-siecle selections, but I was starting to think that, much as I like that sort of thing, maybe it would be nice to hear something else. To me she sounded breathy, with some notes (particularly in Hahn’s L’heure exquise) that just couldn’t be right. Nothing sounded clear or sustained and the piano covered her voice a couple of times – not what I expected from someone who sings Mahler with a full orchestra. Maybe it was an off day; even with a fairly short recital (a bit over an hour if you don’t count the intermission and pauses) she seemed to be taking a long time backstage between sets, and she stopped for a drink in between songs. I did think concert improved as it went on. The penultimate group was Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras, and she clearly loved characterizing another set of sultry songs, but frankly the lyrics for some of them are about a banjo away from a minstrel show – a high class minstrel show, and I liked the songs, but nonetheless. She finished with some of Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs – nice, and vividly done, but I still like Voigt’s performance better.

The one encore was Amor, a delightful song by Bolcom that, fan of his work as I am, I hadn’t heard. She preceded this with a lengthy monologue about visiting Berkeley and eating at Chez Panisse and the after-effects of her yoga workout that hovered between funny and WTF? She ended by saying that she had never been propositioned as often as she had on her trip to Berkeley, hence her choice of Amor to close out. She does seem like someone who would get propositioned a lot as she strolls around. I don’t think I’ve ever been propositioned in Berkeley, even when I lived there, but since this was the end of the concert I can’t attribute my reaction to envy.

The people around me seemed to love everything, but I wonder if some of it is just Brueggergosman’s very appealing stage presence. Certainly they seemed to spend a lot of the concert chewing gum and flipping through the program reading the donor lists rather than listening, but who knows what comes through to people. Though one woman nearby completely lost her aesthetic standing with me by stating that Bolcom’s Surprise is “just a funny song.” It’s a funny song, but not just a funny song.

Afterwards I ran into a member of the SF Symphony chorus who recognized me from the audience and asked what I thought. He pretty much agreed with me, which made me think that maybe it wasn’t just that I was the one having an off day. He also asked me if I sang opera because I “look like an opera singer.” I wasn’t sure how to take that – are we talking Nathan Gunn or late-period Pavarotti? I’m not a singer – it’s that “lack of vocal talent” thing – but last time I was in New York people kept asking me if I were an actor. I’m not an actor either (on stage) – I’m the wrong type of self-absorbed – but the questions made me wonder what air of arrogant desperation I’m projecting.

03 April 2007

an army of one

This year I keep seeing plays I first saw years ago in Boston. I’ve also seen a few better known as operas: first Salome and then the Cutting Ball production of Woyzeck. I attend and generally love all the Cutting Ball shows, even when I’m feeling a bit out of it and drugged on allergy medication as I was last Thursday. The set (by Melpomene Katakalos) and sound (by Cliff Caruthers) are both excellent, as is usual for this company. The set covered the length of the stage with a series of compartments containing various items relevant to the different scenes; everything was white, which gave it a Louise Nevelson look. (It was reminiscent of the set for I Am My Own Wife, only less cluttered and all one color). The cast is strong, though I wasn’t as satisfied with the female performers. Most of them are minor except for Marie and I really just wanted more depth from her -- she seemed to have a narrow range of expression. Woyzeck is an actor new to me, Chad Deverman, and I really liked him; he walked the fine line between being believably crazy and too obviously so. Ryan Oden was the doctor and he's also very good -- I'd seen him in other Cutting Ball shows. The Drum Major could have had a little more swagger. And I'm not sure I have this guy's name right, because he was in a variety of small roles with generic names, but I think John Russell is the one who impressed me with his few lines.

Adriana Baer did an excellent job directing, but there is one huge miscalculation: when Woyzeck shaves the Captain, the latter smokes the whole time. The stink just brought me totally out of the moment. I realized from the coughing and rustling around me and from conversations afterward that I wasn’t the only one bothered by this. My point here is not about any miniscule health risks (it wasn’t even a tobacco cigarette but an “herbal” one, whatever that is) but about semiotics and practicality. On a practical level, that theater (the Exit at Taylor) is just too small for the stench and smoke, which lingered into the next scene. On the semiotic level, smoking is just too complicated these days to be done on stage casually – it ends up being a “thing,” which makes it a distraction. I know people bitterly divided over tobacco addiction who can share a laugh over the way only evil characters on soap operas smoke on-screen. On a more ridiculous level, sometimes we’re told that characters smoke to establish that they’re independent-minded – I’m sure Big Tobacco is thrilled that its advertising dollars are not being wasted, but it should be obvious that you can’t symbolize independence with an addiction. Besides, I always get the impression that people juvenile enough to believe that are probably also going to make a big deal about not going to the prom when they get to high school because it’s full of phonies. Anyway, back to Woyzeck -- why is the Captain smoking while being shaved anyway? The dialogue already establishes that he is rude and self-centered and a bit crazy, so smoking seems like one of those redundant flourishes that make the subtext too obvious. Also, thanks to the hilarious novel My Search for Warren Harding, I automatically assume anyone smoking on stage is a bad actor (because they don't know what else to do with their hands). I know David Sinaiko (the Captain) is a good actor because I've seen him in other things, but during the entire scene, which is pretty important, I was barely paying attention to him -- I was too annoyed by the smoke, wondering when he'd flick the ash, wondering when he'd put it out, wishing I hadn’t worn my contact lenses which were starting to burn, and so forth. I was surprised to see such a distracting cliché in an otherwise excellent production. This is a lot to say about a fairly minor matter, but then again it's a short play and the cigarette really pulled me out and it takes a while to get back in (which is why I don't much like intermissions, which fortunately this show lacks).

I stayed for the talk-back afterwards, and was reminded once again that I assume a certain level of knowledge about the work that maybe I’d be better off not having. One guy said he was sympathizing with Woyzeck until he killed Marie. It honestly didn’t occur to me that anyone who would go to see Woyzeck wouldn’t know what happens. I also know that a lot of people feel the need to sympathize with a protagonist, but I’ve never really understood this exactly – I want them to hold my attention, which isn’t quite the same thing. I did walk out feeling uncomfortably close to Woyzeck, so maybe I’m just supposed to sympathize with myself, which is hard enough to do most of the time anyway.

Anyway, it’s playing for another week, and is well worth seeing once you brace yourself for the smoke.

02 April 2007

the gamut from A to B

from an e-mail offering tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra's upcoming Sommerfest (their spelling):

"From romantic Strauss waltzes to Puccini's intoxicating opera, La Bohème, this year's Festival offers something for every musical taste."

Sounds like every color of the rainbow from violet to indigo.