06 May 2008

glances backwards and forwards

"Way back when I lived in Boston I would see phonepole flyers for a group called Relentless Cookout – I never heard them, but the name stuck with me."

I remember writing that, but I couldn’t find it again when I recently made the attempt. I was looking for it because John Flaherty quoted it back to me in an e-mail with a link to Relentless Cookout’s Myspace page, and I salute his research skills. As he said, here’s my chance. For reasons too complicated (and tedious and embarrassing) to go into, I can’t really access all these crazy Myspace/YouTube sites that all you kids are grooving to these days, but I hope to change that soon. In the meantime, enjoy. I probably would have back in the day, since I used to listen to New Wave and indie stuff before I turned my back on rock/pop/whatever, at least insofar as one can turn one’s back on it in our society (you know, if you tell most people you hate God they’ll smile and nod – I mean, He sure has a lot to answer for, am I right? – but if you tell them you hate rock and roll they get really angry, with the disgusted contempt of a Republican faced with the Constitution). But I’ve opened up a bit, and am ready to accept Relentless Cookout into my heart.

When I googled the name (partly in an attempt to find where exactly I had written about them) I got their official yet skimpy website, which said that the group was often listed among bands with unusual or bad names. Unusual, perhaps, but bad – au contraire! It was the name that’s stuck in my mind all these years, conjuring up a brutal death march of enforced suburban fun the wryly cynical assessment of which seemed a basic part of New Wave. So check them out, perhaps at an upcoming Memorial Day barbecue, and enjoy that long-awaited three-day weekend!

And ChiChi Fargo, who sent me the link to LHL's Elmer Gantry aria, has posted another YouTube video, this time of Philip Glass’s The Juniper Tree, which ART did back in 1985, so it’s nice to see the precious musical flotsam and jetsam of my Boston past bobbing up and down on the vast and murky waters of the Intertubes. Check it out here. So I guess I shouldn’t give up hope that the other Glass chamber opera I saw at ART, The Fall of the House of Usher, will also show up someday. I liked both of them a lot, but as with anything very stylized, lots of people didn’t. I worked with a woman who announced (about the Fall of the House of Usher), “It made me laugh – I guess I’m just not smart enough to get it” in tones that clearly indicated I was supposed to feel that she certainly was smart enough, and if she didn't get it, it wasn't worth getting. I smiled vaguely, since I suddenly realized she was not, in fact, smart enough to get it, or at least receptive enough to the outré to appreciate it. I was just grateful my enjoyment wasn’t ruined by her moronic snickering. Look, lots of people hate Philip Glass (and Edgar Allan Poe), finding what they do too boring or repetitive or just plain whacked-out messed-up Gothic weird (well, that applies to Poe more than Glass), but that’s no reason to annoy other people with one’s ostentatious displeasure.

But people are so resistant to any change. Part of the big Boston/NYC trip I couldn’t take was going to involve going to Nathan and Julie Gunn’s Zankel Hall recital, a meditation on the monastic life that involved a dancer and video projections as well as solo piano and vocals. Since I didn’t get a chance to see it myself I obviously can’t say whether I thought the evening was successful, and I should make it clear that I respect the opinion of those who were there and found it baffling or unsuccessful. What surprised me about some of the confusion, especially given that some of these reactions were on a fansite dedicated to Nathan Gunn so you’d think people would have enough trust in his artistic judgment to give him the benefit of the doubt, was the edge of contemptuous anger in some of the assessments. I thought about responding, but since I hadn’t been there I would be urging a theoretical openness and a nuanced reaction to people who clearly felt kind of threatened by the whole thing. It was getting a little too Opera-L in there, so I let it go and just hope I’ll get a chance to see the program some other time.

I’m missing lots of great stuff, in fact, and not just the new Harbison symphony in Boston that Gunn was also performing that week. There’s Satyagraha. Yes, I like Philip Glass, which is sort of odd considering that one reason I stopped listening to rock is that the steady monotonous thumping bass just drives me crazy. Glass doesn’t affect me that way, go figure. And I see that Lee Hoiby’s Tempest was presented at Purchase College in New York in a newly revised version. I have met people who swear this is one of the great American operas. I would love to see this in a season that also included Ades’s version of the same play as well as Harbison’s version of The Winter’s Tale. (Has someone done Cymbeline and Pericles, just to round out a season of the Romances?) I’d buy tickets to that, even though on the whole, and with the exceptions of Britten’s Midsummer and Verdi’s Falstaff, I usually have very mixed feelings about operas based on Shakespeare. The omission of Verdi’s Otello from the short list of exceptions is not accidental. Much as I love Verdi, I can only admire Otello coldly. You will sometimes hear people say it’s “better” than Shakespeare’s, and usually I’m very laissez faire about people’s tastes and opinions, but they’re wrong. Just wrong. If you ask them what they mean by “better” they’ll tell you that the plot is tighter and the motivation clearer and the action less diffuse, but that’s exactly why I prefer the messy, murky stage play.

Here’s something else I’m missing, this very week: the premiere of Kirke Mechem’s opera on John Brown at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, starring the redoubtable James Maddelena. I’m planning on buying a ticket to The Bonesetter’s Daughter here in San Francisco, but is it wrong to admit my anticipation is pretty lukewarm, and I’d rather see John Brown? Besides, I hear tell that Kansas City is a beautiful city of many fountains, and I'd love to see the Royals in their home stadium since they are the Brigadoon of baseball teams ("Who are the A's playing? The Royals? Oh, yeah – I forgot they exist!") Nonetheless, I take what I can get, and will head off to the Bonesetter's Daughter this fall, and as with any evening at the theater, I will walk in prepared to be converted. I am occasionally wrong, especially when I’ve formed opinions based on airy nothings. It happens. I freely admit it.

There is some stuff I’m actually going to, since yesterday’s announcement by the SF Ballet pretty much closed out the Announcing-Next-Season season, which is sometimes more entertaining than the actual seasons. As previously noted, I have not renewed my subscription at the Opera (by the way: subscriber and donor since 1992, and absolutely no one from the Opera has contacted me to find out why I haven’t renewed, not that I’m keeping track or anything; far be it from me to begrudge anyone the rare opportunity to see a live performance of La Boheme or La Traviata, but I’m not ponying up for that, and I’m certainly not donating – that would only encourage them).

Cal Performances did drag me back in, spending more money than ever, though I’d first like to note how unbelievably offensive it is that tickets to the Yo-Yo Ma concert are only available to those who have donated at least $1200. Why rub our grimy, impoverished faces in our miserable lot by putting this in the brochure in the first place? If the motive is to make us look at that big pile of cash sitting on the dining room table taking up space and just grab it all up and send it off to Cal Performances because you’ve been meaning to tidy up anyway, they have miscalculated. I’m thinking instead that there might not be any point in giving them any money at all unless you’re starting at $1200. So, Cal Performances – please stop yapping about reaching out to new audiences and being inclusive when you’re so very clearly selling exclusivity. But what can I say? They’re bringing Mark Morris back twice, with the new Romeo and Juliet and the old L’Allegro, which is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen on stage. Plus Dawn Upshaw is back, this time in the Peter Sellars staging of Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments. There’s bunches of other stuff, including a meatier theater selection than they often have, but this is the stuff floating to the surface for me.

What floats to the surface with San Francisco Performances is their Elliott Carter weekend: the fabulous Pacifica Quartet returns with his complete string quartets, and keyboard goddess Ursula Oppens plays the complete piano music, along with lectures by Robert Greenberg – at least, that’s my memory of what’s being offered. Their brochures are still stuck at the printer. They present great stuff, but they do seem to run into these odd problems.

The Ballet is offering a Mark Morris evening, and a new Swan Lake. I love Swan Lake. You know all those oddly self-sacrificing women in nineteenth-century opera, who redeem (whatever that means in this context) the hero by jumping into the sea or off a cliff or otherwise immolating themselves? Here’s one work where the guy does it. Score one (and yeah, it does seem to be only one, unless someone can augment my memory or my knowledge) for the ladies. Anyway, I'm happy to see another Swan Lake, though I’m sure there are balletomanes who feel about it the way I do about Boheme. Maybe not, though – the classical ballet crowd seems to be even more self-contained than the opera crowd.

I was hoping to spend some of those evenings when I was discouraging Gockley’s regrettable season by boycotting Boheme in reading Vladimir Nabokov’s final novel, The Original of Laura, which his son has finally decided to publish. Nabokov, the perfectionist arranger of each lustrous detail, wanted the manuscript destroyed when he realized he would die before completing it to his satisfaction. Faced with the wrenching decision of physically destroying his father’s last work or leaving it for some ambitious Associate Professors to fight over, the son chose to publish. I thought the announcement meant that the book was imminently available, so I went on Amazon.com and searched for The Original of Laura. Their first offering was Stop Whining, Start Living by Dr Laura Schlessinger. Uh, no thanks. I’ll just sit here in the dark and wait. And I'll "whine", which I guess means express opinions different from yours, if I want to, thank you very much Dr Laura, if you are in fact a doctor.


sfmike said...

Dr. Laura is not a doctor, she is satan. And so is Cal Performances, who are the closest thing we have to an old-fashioned gangster like Sol Hurok Presenting The Greatest Artists in The World, except in the case of Cal Performances they've done Sol one better by taking over public spaces and acting as if the fucking places belong to them while charging whatever the traffic will bear. That's one nonprofit that's playing with an absurd amount of money and I wouldn't be surprised to read at some point that it's going into somebody's lovely real estate portfolio or up somebody else's nose.

Am desperate to hear what you thought about "Double Evil" at the San Francisco Ballet. Just saw it again tonight on the closing of the New Works Festival, and enjoyed it as much as I did the first time, which was a nice surprise. And the music was by that "Fall of the House of Usher" composer, M. Glass.

pjwv said...

Mike, I don't know if anything I might say about Double Evil can live up to the pressure I feel from your desperation to hear. As is often the case when I just sit there and enjoy something, I don't know if I have a whole lot to say. I did like the jerky modern movements of the tutu'd ballerinas, which you had commented on.

And I loved the music by both composers -- not only the Glass, and how nice that he's getting work, which I hadn't heard before, but the Russian (I'm forgetting his name and Sid said the ballet misspelled it anyway -- it begins with M). I do have to admit that I don't really understand the Evil part of the title -- I get Double, in several ways, but nothing really struck me as evil, much less Evil. I haven't read the article in the program yet, though I do feel that you shouldn't have to read footnotes for something on stage to make sense.

I must admit that when I first glanced at the program I thought it said Do-able Evil, which is probably what one half of the audience was thinking about the other.

sfmike said...

I love "Do-able Evil." I didn't understand the title either, and I don't think it's explained in the program. The trancelike Slavic music was by Vladimir Martynov.

This is what choreographer Elo had to say in the program about the Glass piece: "I thought it was really crazy music, different from any other things he's done. It's just mad, I find, and I later realized that it is a huge orchestra setup, 14 drums or something, so in that way it's also madness. When it starts, it's like a Mission Impossible movie, and I thought, 'This is going to be a big festival with incredible dancers, and this is the moment to use this music.'

Henry Holland said...

even though on the whole, and with the exceptions of Britten’s Midsummer and Verdi’s Falstaff, I usually have very mixed feelings about operas based on Shakespeare

I don't know what your attitude towards hyper-modernist serialism is (think: Berg, but really dissonant and loud), but Reimann's Lear is incredible, in my not-at-all-humble opinion. I saw it in Dresden years ago and it was amazing; there's a recording on DG with Fischer-Dieskau that's been a staple of my music playback systems since I got the LP's in the early 80's. It was done twice at SFO, with Thomas Stewart and the tape I have of the radio broadcast is incredible.

The Opera Scheduling Gods are taunting me again, there are productions in Frankfurt and Halle opening within a week of each other in October. Note: if you're the sort who says things like "Well, it was OK, but there were no tunes" avoid at all cost.

far be it from me to begrudge anyone the rare opportunity to see a live performance of La Boheme or La Traviata, but I’m not ponying up for that, and I’m certainly not donating – that would only encourage them

Yep. It's pretty sad when Los Angeles Opera has a more adventurous season coming up, despite The Fly, than SFO; LAO has traditionally been much more conservative, there having been budget issues ala Pamela Rosenberg at SFO. *Sigh* I'm still really bummed it didn't work out for her up there, she had some really wonderful plans that didn't involve doing 189 performances of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart each year.

pjwv said...

Mike, Thanks for supplying Martynov's name. I did watch them moving all those big drums into the orchestra pit for the last piece -- maybe that's why it was preceded by the Dvorak Quintet, with the five players tucked away in a corner of the pit. I have to say that I really liked the Glass piece, but it didn't strike me as unbelievably insane -- maybe I have fantastic standards when it comes to insanity. I wish I had seen more of these programs.

Henry -- Please! Does anyone NOT adore hyper-modern serialism?

I do actually have one and possibly two recordings of Reimann's Lear. To be honest, it just escaped my mind as I was writing, probably because I've only heard it a couple of times on recordings and have never seen it live or on DVD, if there is one. (I must not have been living in this area when SFO did it.) I'll dig up the recordings and listen again, but I should maybe just declare neutrality on Lear until I can experience it in a theater (or on DVD), which can make a big difference (though my love of Falstaff is not based on the one pretty inadequate production I've seen). I'm hesitating because . . . King Lear is a lot. A whole lot of big weird amazement and devastation. And it's my favorite of the tragedies, just as Twelfth Night (hence the blog title) is of the comedies. I admire Reimann's daring, but . . . I'll just hold off until I can experience it.

By the way, no, I'm not a "there were no tunes" guy. I would even question whether "tunes" would be suitable for King Lear. Let's encore the catchy number where Gloucester's eyes are gouged out!

The thing about the warhorses is that I actually love a lot of them, and would be happy to see them. To me, that is what really indicates how safe and boring SFO's upcoming season is -- I'm OK with familiar repertoire, and I have pretty broad tastes, and I just find the upcoming selection to be really boring, and indicative of a discouraging lack of nerve.

Susan said...

I'm a bit late chiming in here... but I want to say that I too noticed that people seemed angry about Gunn's Zankel Hall recital. I made a blog post about it in April. It seemed to me that some of the people who didn't understand the recital were critical because they didn't "get" it, felt stupid and then got mad at Nathan for feeling stupid. (Imagine what I would have come up with if I had a psychology degree, lol)

I disagree that it's wrong for people to voice their displeasure on the fan site. As long as people aren't being mean, rude or otherwise behaving inappropriately, I think it's ok for them to say they didn't like something the artist did. Doesn't mean you're no longer a fan. :)

Of course, I did sell my copy of Kullervo after about 3/4 of a listen. I hope that doesn't get me kicked out of the group... ;)

pjwv said...

Hi Susan,
You didn't like Kullervo? Do you dislike Sibelius generally?

I did read your blog postings and I agree with your assessment of where the anger is coming from. But I also think the motivation is so transparent that people should stop and think about whom or what they're really angry at.

Anyway, to clarify what I said about the reactions, in case there was confusion: I was indeed objecting to the tone, which in some cases I did find mean (or mean-spirited) and rude, not the substance. I have no problem with people saying that they didn't like a performance or whatever. They were there and know what they felt. On the other hand, I do think that being a fan means having enough faith in the singer's artistic judgment to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. To give an example without getting into too many specifics about individual reactions on the Yahoo site, Gunn's journal entry explaining what he was doing really seemed to anger some people. But as anyone can tell from the way he uses words when he sings, communication is very important to him (in a way that it isn't for all artists -- some singers place more value on making pretty sounds, and there are whole schools of art that make a point of not caring if the audience understands or not). It seemed clear to me that he was just trying to explain what he did to those who were puzzled, and trying to find a way to adjust the presentation in the future to avoid confusion. So why did people have a problem with it?

I also have to say, not for the first time, that opera audiences really need to get out more -- I mean, out to something besides opera. There's such a huge lag between expression and style in non-operatic theater and what opera audiences are used to.

So, no, I don't think people posting on a fan site need to love everything a singer does (and in fact I'm interested in hearing people who can describe calmly and specifically why they didn't like something), but I think they should be respectful of his/her intentions and artistic integrity. I'm always happy (more or less) to consider the possibility that I just didn't understand something, and that if I made a slight effort to do so, I could add to my possible enjoyment.

Susan said...

Hi Patrick,

Kullervo... part of the problem for me was the content... too much unpleasantness all around. I also just didn't care for the music. I haven't heard any other Sibelius.

That's a good question about why people had a problem with Nathan's journal entry explaining what he was doing. I agree with you. I seem to recall one snippy post that he should "get over it" regarding getting a bad review. Not very respectful! Perhaps it's an extension of the anger I mentioned before. There's never any reason to be rude or disrespectful just because we don't like or understand something. Perhaps some people think that as a member of a fan group, they are entitled to have certain expectations of the artist, so they feel personally affronted when that artist doesn't meet their expectations in some way? But as you say, as a member of a fan group, it's not very respectful to be rude to the very artists you are a fan of.

I think we're talking about two different things with regard to liking a performance vs. respecting the artist's judgment and intentions. Obviously the listener is not required to think about the artist's intention. Listening to music is very personal. Sometimes we take it as it is, other times we research what the composer, artist or other involved person intended and keep that in mind. It definitely enriches the experience when you do your research.

For me… I trust the Gunns' artistic choices about the Zankel recital - they're both very well educated and talented. I understood what they were attempting, however, it did take me a few songs to relax into enjoying it. I was also a little disappointed that I wasn't "getting" a straightforward recital. I wasn't angry though… My initial blog entry about the recital shows that I was one of the confused at first. Understanding what they were attempting to do definitely made a difference. I chatted with Nathan about it afterward and he said they were very excited about the project, and he was aware that it was something different than what people were used to.

So… we all decide what we like or dislike, research into what we're seeing and hearing enriches the experience, and finally, there's no excuse for rudeness or disrespect. :)

Henry Holland said...

Henry -- Please! Does anyone NOT adore hyper-modern serialism?

Hahahaha, there might be one or two people....

By the way, no, I'm not a "there were no tunes" guy. I would even question whether "tunes" would be suitable for King Lear. Let's encore the catchy number where Gloucester's eyes are gouged out!

Yeah, "Out vile jelly!" might not lend itself to a catchy tune, but the scene is so brutal in Reimann's opera that it's stunning. BTW, there's a video recording of the Munich production with Fischer-Dieskau and Helga Dernesch that turns up on file theft and other sites once in a while, if you trawl those places.

I'm OK with familiar repertoire, and I have pretty broad tastes, and I just find the upcoming selection to be really boring, and indicative of a discouraging lack of nerve.

I was doing some Googling about Pamela Rosenberg's tenure at SFO and it really is a shame it didn't work out for her. She had some very interesting plans that wouldn't occur to David Glockley in a zillion years. Oh well.....

Re: fans.

I'm a huge fanboy of the show LOST. I'm pretty level-headed about it, I realize it's just a show. However, some people on the boards/blogs I go to haven't gotten *that* memo and they act like you called their mom a filthy .25 cent whore if you say something against a favorite character. There's that most boring and trite of dramatic conventions, a love triangle, on the show and the viciousness and sheer nastiness by fans of the three characters involved is stunning.

You got off easy, Nathan Gunn, you could be a character on LOST, then, then you'd know what nasty, psychotic fans are like!

pjwv said...

Henry, I checked Premiere Opera -- they have a DVD of Lear with DF-D. No subtitles, which I think is a drawback. I may give it a look, though I'm making one of my half-hearted attempts not to buy so much stuff that I don't have time to watch/listen to.

As for Gockley, I really haven't given up hope yet. I'm just an incurable optimist! Though I do think his programming for the upcoming year shows a total lack of nerve and imagination, there have been enough oddball things in his career so that I still hold out some hope. Actually, I can't quite get a fix on his aesthetic, and that might be a good thing.

I haven't watched Lost myself, though I keep thinking of checking it out on DVD. But I've occasionally dipped a toe into the sort of chatrooms you discuss, and I back right out. I find the world scary enough as it is. It's odd that fans of what I understand is a pretty sophisticated show react that way -- years ago I used to hear about soap opera villains who were berated in public by fans who couldn't quite separate performance from reality, but the subtext in those stories was also, Oh, those housewives and their silly soap operas! But it's universal. No wonder so many religions are suspicious of theater.