26 November 2007

the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised

I was able to go to at least one San Francisco Symphony concert this fall (big wave of my opera-singer hair to SY, who gave me a ticket); I heard Louis Lortie play Liszt’s Totentanz and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, followed after the break by Alexander Nevsky with Nancy Maultsby as soloist. I was sitting close, as is my wont, so the Steinway sounded a bit harsh, but on the whole I enjoyed the whole thing immensely. I’ve always found the Choral Fantasy very appealing. I once went into a CD store to buy a copy and astonished the clerk by having heard of it. I guess she considered it the ultimate in undiscovered Beethoven. I had heard it live with Peter Serkin and the Boston Symphony, and don’t think I didn’t drop those names on her foot. The Prokofiev made me realize that I’m more used to the soundtrack than the cantata; it veered off at the end from the path I was expecting. It has its weird witty little twists, but it’s great battle music, inspiring yet mournful. I was watching the Director’s Cut of Troy a few weeks ago and I noticed James Horner plundered it pretty freely for the soundtrack.

The playbill had a long article about “guilty pleasures” in music, which I skipped, since there are more than enough sources of guilt in my life without including music among them. For some people some indulgences, usually involving food or sex, have their oh-so-naughty air as the source of pleasure. It seems odd to restrict music in such a way that rousing glittery fortes, even those of such great artists as Liszt, Beethoven, and Prokofiev, are seen as shameful. There’s something deeply thrilling about the immense but organized noise that a symphony orchestra can make, and one of the many reasons for hating artificially amplified music is that we’ve lost the awesome sense of physical excitement that a full-blown orchestra can achieve, so that nowadays it’s not uncommon for people to think that “classical music is calming”. Beethoven, Liszt, and Prokofiev – calm or calming! I like Schoenberg string quartets as much as the next guy – actually, it’s almost certain that I like them a whole lot more than the next guy, depending of course on who the next guy is – but there’s no shame in ripping open the sky. I think of the contemporaries of Berlioz and Wagner complaining about the horrendous ear-splitting cacophony they felt those composers inflicted on the world, and I laughingly wonder what those critics would make of the screeching cars that drive by blasting monotonous thumping so loudly that windows rattle up and down the block.

I was familiar with the music and I could have sworn I was familiar with the musicians, but as soon as Kurt Masur walked out to conduct I realized I had never seen him live before. Unlike most conductors, he’s much taller than I thought he would be. If you’ve never seen a man in his 80s conducting a rousing, vigorous performance of The Dance of Death, then let me tell you it is a beautiful, beautiful sight.

25 November 2007

Dich, teure Halle, gruss ich wieder!

One little-noted hazard of the alleged graying of the concert-going population is that you’re much more likely to be killed crossing the street before and especially after concerts, when all the cranky old people with night-blindness are running red lights to get home in time for that night’s Matlock re-run. That’s the sort of thing that put me in a foul mood both before and after the recent Magic Flute (and let me admit I’m also not as spry as I used to be). The opera itself was like a sweet oasis, something to look back on with pleasure as I resumed trekking through the dry wastes. I used to have this experience when I started going to San Francisco Opera: I would walk up Market Street, and always just as the sordid filth and craziness was making me feel like Travis Bickle the Opera House would appear.

I had seen this Gerald Scarfe production a few years back in DC at the National Opera. It holds up very well. It's colorful and fantastical without being too cartoony, and it strikes a good balance between beauty and whimsy. To me this production avoided the whole awkward Monostatos the evil dark-skinned would-be rapist thing quite neatly by making him a frog-like bright green, but check out Campbell Vertesi’s write-up for a very different reaction. The conglomerate creatures drawn forth when Tamino first plays his flute justifiably bring down the house (the biggest hit always seems to be the little alligator-headed penguin in his Converse Hightops), but I did talk to someone who really objected to this scene because it distracts from what Tamino is singing. I see his point, but I still find it within the acceptable range of theatrical effects. To run down the list, I thought Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night was a little underpowered in her first aria, though that might just have been a side effect of being suspended mid-air while singing it, since she blazed through her Act 2 aria. Georg Zeppenfeld as Sarastro was basically fine but seemed a bit lightweight to me, which is too bad for me since his Act 2 aria about vengeance being forbidden within these hallowed halls is one of my favorite moments in the opera. Piotr Beczala and Dina Kuznetsova were the appealing and lyrical Tamino and Pamina; I particularly liked her plangent pianissimos. Often there’s a point when Papageno starts to get on my nerves, the way someone who is ostentatiously a regular guy would, but Christopher Maltman kept the character funny and charming. But I did miss the hilarious little moment from the DC production when Papageno (Rod Gilfry) slicked back his head-feathers upon meeting Papagena out of her old-lady disguise.

I’ve always thought that the Magic Flute would be a good introductory opera, since it contains just about every type of operatic situation or mood, and is furthermore a work on the highest level; you’re not talking down to someone, no matter what his or her age or interest, by leading him or her Flute-ward. Apparently I’m not the only one who has noticed this, since there seems to be a push among opera houses to turn the Magic Flute into the sort of family-friendly cash cow that ballet companies have in the Nutcracker. My godson told me that radio ads were marketing it to video gamers as a fantasy quest. I said, Sure, but did they also tell you it’s in German and lasts over three hours? And that the hero enters being chased by a big snake and immediately faints, and has to be rescued by three women who then sing about how pretty he is, and that it’s actually his goofy sidekick who saves the girl, and later his vow of silence keeps him from saving his girl from despair? Not quite the manly avatar most gamers go for, but I was reminded of how deeply weird the Magic Flute really is. The amazing thing is, you accept all of this while you’re watching it, and the even more amazing thing is that the whole mishmash forms a coherent work, thanks no doubt to Mozart’s gorgeous music, which illuminates low farce and high tragedy with an identical radiance that becomes wisdom.

I don’t think that most opera plots are ridiculous or incoherent, despite their reputation, but the Magic Flute does take a lot of puzzling out, or, if you prefer, has the deep dreamlike logic of a fairy tale. Why do the Three Ladies give good advice and help at one point and then try to obstruct Tamino and Papageno at another? The Queen of the Night is evil yet a loving mother – or does she just want Pamina to steal back the disc of the sun for her? What’s the deal with the disc anyway? It seems even less effective than Alberich’s ring. Why is Monostatos hanging around in the enlightened court of Sarastro, or being allowed to hang out there? And shouldn’t that enlightened ruler have more effective punishments than beating the soles of the feet? I don’t think Masonic symbolism is really that important to understanding the Magic Flute, and it’s probably best for us not to pursue too far its division between enlightened/male/white and destructive/female/dark energies. The Magic Flute’s very contradictions and confusions are what provide the audience with the most realistic picture of what it’s like to puzzle one’s way through the moral confusions of the world.

15 November 2007

It's because I said "chthonic", isn't it?

So there's a site that will tell you the reading level of your blog (a brimming hornful of mead to Sieglinde for providing the link), and it looks as if traipsing through The Reverberate Hills means that you're reading at a Genius level, but we knew that all along, didn't we? That must explain why even the porn monkeys who stumble in here, and no doubt immediately exit in bewildered terror, are searching for fancy stuff like "dance of the seven veils porn" (take a bow, resident of Ljubljana, Slovenia!). I take no credit. I'm just sitting here doing what comes naturally, warbling my native woodnotes wild. It's my readers who deserve all the glory; obviously their astonishing physical beauty is not just a reflection of inner moral perfection, but also of superior yet modestly hidden intellect. Look, if I were that smart myself I'd have figured out how to do that link thing in the text. I did it once but haven't had any luck since then. I suppose this means I'll have to read some instructions. Damn! I hate that! In the meantime, I'll just spell out the reading level site: http://www.criticsrant.com/bb/reading_level.aspx

It's a bare-bones site; there are no witty summaries or snarky analysis. I suspect it's just a version of the readability levels we used to apply to school texts long ago and far away when I was sort of involved in that, and which were frequently pointed to by those who knew they existed as one of the causes of the endumbening of American discourse. This sounds urban legendish, but I was told that the lists had not been changed since their invention in the 1940s and so words like "astronaut" were considered obscure and collegial. And don't even think about slipping a subordinate clause in there, mister. So perhaps "Genius" level these days just means that in the late nineteenth century they'd have let you have a crack at the McGuffey Readers, once the wheat harvest was all safely stowed, of course, and the cows all milked and fed.

10 November 2007

we now return to our regularly scheduled programming

All those people coming here after Lisa kindly linked to me in her Iron Tongue of Midnight write-up of the wonderful Volti concert (which I’ll get to in a few entries – I’m a bit backed up, once again), and all they’ve gotten for days and days is the same entry, which is me waxing philosophical in my jockstrap. Usually I’m a little more on the arty side, so I hope no one was scared off. (Of course, any baseball fans who stumbled here unawares, eager for any scrap of Red Sox musing, may be scared off by the arty side.) But I generally try to leave a day or two between postings anyway in order to give adequate reading time, since, as several kind friends have thoughtfully pointed out, in case I had overlooked it, my entries tend to be long. There are just as many notes as necessary, your majesties. And I’ve been dealing with old bills drifting in piles like autumn leaves, and I’ve also had those to sweep up non-metaphorically, and a new job, and major plumbing problems and minor surgery (maybe I should make it clear those were two separate situations, only one of which involved my body), so things have been in a bit of disarray – but that implies that sometimes they aren’t. Several years ago some friends of mine were coming to my house; Arby had seen it before, but his wife had not, so I started to apologize for the mess and the teetering random piles of stuff, which were due to my painting the living room, when she interrupted me to say, “Patrick – it’s OK. I’ve made that same excuse myself.” The mess really was mostly due to the room painting (honest!), but she was pointing out a larger truth. Who can keep up, or halt the entropic slide?

And what we see is only the tip of the iceberg (which is why I so often feel as if I’m traveling steerage on the Titanic). For instance, take last Wednesday. I was down by the piers, looking for a nice outdoor spot in which to eat my ham-and-cheese turnover from Acme Breads, just purchased in the Ferry Building. It’s actually quite difficult finding a nice spot to eat outdoors, which is why I usually hate it and do anything to avoid it; just as you find an empty and clean bench overlooking the laughing strand, and the playful zephyrs waft through the rustling palms carrying the gentle quarking of the gliding gulls, some pig comes stinking up the entire pier with a cigarette or a loud radio, and who can eat then? Possibly you know the hell of overly refined sensibilities. Anyway, I had found a suitable spot, and a gull came very close to me hoping for leftovers (I guess once baseball season ends, and with it the concrete smorgasbord at Major Phone Company Park, the gulls resort to working the waterfront). I was trying to remember if it was gulls or pigeons that were rats with wings, when I noticed gunky black stuff, like an oily residue, spotting the bird’s yellow legs. The residue looked oily because it was oil. There had been a huge spill in the Bay that day, which I read about in the local paper only on Friday, and I had a one-gull experience of it. I felt like Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma wondering if he had experienced the battle of Waterloo or not. If I’d known the gull was a survivor I would have shared my lunch.

I’m not yet at the “I’m comfortable reading blogs here” stage at work, and I wish my desk were configured so that I could see people approaching me, to facilitate quick screen switches, but just in case I’ve added a few more of my frequently read sites to the blogroll so I can reach them conveniently. It was actually modesty that kept me from adding more sites earlier; all these people seemed to know and link to each other, and it seemed like blogosphere social climbing to add them to my modest little roll, as if I had plopped down my lunch tray at the table with the popular kids and then watched my oily string beans and flabby tater tots congeal under that mistaken move. Then I realized that only linking to people who had linked to me first was like standing in the ballroom refusing to dance unless someone asked me first. (Please, draw no conclusions about my high school social life from these hypothetical examples – I was far too pathologically timid even to think of approaching the popular kids, and I think I was too far out of the loop to know who they were anyway.) So I’m adding away, on the assumption that there’s no reasonable cause for offense. What can I say? I’m a stranger here myself.