31 December 2009

One for the new year and one for the old

Both of these poems are by the late British poet Philip Larkin:
Days

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

And one more, because it's been that kind of year:

The View

The view is fine from fifty,
Experienced climbers say;
So, overweight and shifty,
I turn to face the way
That led me to this day.

Instead of fields and snowcaps
And flowered lanes that twist,
The track breaks at my toe-caps
And drops away in mist.
The view does not exist.

Where has it gone, the lifetime?
Search me. What's left is drear.
Unchilded and unwifed, I'm
Able to view that clear:
So final. And so near.

Best wishes to all for peace and health in the new year, and thanks as always to both faithful readers and occasional visitors.

Haiku 365

Artificial year,
Fare thee well -- I paid you mind,
And what do I know

30 December 2009

28 December 2009

24 December 2009

XMAS @ JFK

JFK Airport, 10 December 2009

Haiku 358

Golden french-fried sun
A sky like underdone steak
Goddam hungry day

*******

Sunrise silhouette
Trees lined up across hilltops:
Borders of black lace

23 December 2009

Haiku 357

Dawn-gilded lawns lie
Greenly glowing against grey
Sidewalks and blue skies

22 December 2009

Haiku 356

Where is dawn's quiet?
Where is noon's unguarded light?
Where is night's darkness?

21 December 2009

19 December 2009

Yes, Virginia, there is. . .

Holiday Lane, Macy's, Herald Square, New York
(maybe the miracle on 34th street is cloning)

Haiku 353

That litter of leaves
Left by the rains: why sweep them,
They'll rot where they are

18 December 2009

16 December 2009

15 December 2009

Haiku 349

Wounded little bird,
Flutter to uncaring skies;
The whole world mocks you

13 December 2009

Haiku 347

Books I rushed to buy:
Their covers covered with dust,
Their pages unread

High Culture Uplifts Both Mind and Morals

Fuckcrostic: Men's Room, The Metropolitan Opera House, New York


"Juillard diplomas": Men's Room, Avery Fisher Concert Hall, New York

12 December 2009

the Berkeley New Music Project

Yesterday evening I was dragging my jet-lagged self from work to The Hard Nut, and even on the lower level of the Berkeley BART station I could hear lilting carols, which is not the kind of thing you normally hear at the Berkeley BART station, even at this festive season of the year. So, being semi-flush with bills, when I reached the upper level I put a few in the bucket. The gentleman on the far left in the picture below said, "Thank you" and handed me a slip of paper.

One side said the Berkeley New Music Project and the other said:

"We are graduate student composers and friends of the composition program at UC Berkeley['s] Department of Music. We're raising money to support our performing organization, the Berkeley New Music Project. Each semester, BNMP presents 1-2 concerts of graduate student compositions. Recent budget cuts have left us with a funding shortage that we need to make up in order to uphold the standard of high-quality professional performance that has become a vital component of our program. A donation today will go directly toward funding our concert next semester (April 4, 2010)."

You can mail contributions to them at:

Department of Music
University of California, Berkeley
104 Morrison Hall #1200
Berkeley, CA 94720-1200
(Specify "Berkeley New Music Project")

Or you may contribute online here. And you can read about the group here. And their next concert is this Thursday, December 17, at 7:00 p.m. at Hertz Hall on the Berkeley campus.

I think it's great they're out raising money and publicizing themselves (this was the first time I'd heard of this group). And I'm sure it's good practice for their future. But I also think it's a shame they have to turn busker to raise funds rather than just to gain publicity: you'd think a major public university could finance something as basic as performances of graduate student compositions (oh, my alma mater!). It just seems like a symptom of the growing corporatization of American universities: the administration and the Board are taken care of, and so are departments that can get corporate funding, and everything else (in other words, the things universities primarily exist to preserve, protect, and expand) gets tossed by the wayside. (I should probably clarify that these opinions are mine and not those of this group; my only conversation with them was to ask if I could take their picture.)

So if you're looking for a recipient for any year-end donations, why not show some faith in the future of music and think of this group.

Double Self-Portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: French Art Deco

Haiku 346

Heavy rains whiten
Grey skies; roses bend toward
Saturated earth

Haiku 335-345

Haiku 345, Friday 11 December 2009

Absent just ten days:
The fig tree is stripped of leaves,
The pathways are strewn


Haiku 344, Thursday 10 December 2009

All this will go on
Whether I'm here or elsewhere:
Planes, birds, buildings, trees


Haiku 343, Wednesday 9 December 2009

Just a few short lines
And, like a fly in amber:
Dead loves, live sorrows


Haiku 342, Tuesday 8 December 2009

The suffering Christ,
Finely drawn, now decorates
A rich man's hallway


Haiku 341, Monday 7 December 2009

Gently drifting flakes
Snow feathering softly down
Melting at earth's touch


Haiku 340, Sunday 6 December 2009
(for St Nicholas)

Severe, suffering,
Yet to be remembered as
A kindly giver


Haiku 339, Saturday 5 December 2009

Times Square at midnight:
Flashing noise lights taxis crowds:
Pretty much like noon


Haiku 338, Friday 4 December 2009

To see this grey green
Vista you must also hear
That distant music


Haiku 337, Thursday 3 December 2009

Lozenges of light
Lined up across dark buildings,
Echoing the stars


Haiku 336, Wednesday 2 December 2009

Romantic vistas
Require constant maintenance
From romantic eyes


Haiku 335, Tuesday 1 December 2009

Trapped among strangers
No other thoughts come to me
Trapped among strangers

11 December 2009

JetBlue SUCKS

Time boarding began: 3:40 p.m.

Scheduled time of take-off: 4:10 p.m.

Actual time of take-off: 6:30 p.m.

So we were sitting there on the runway for almost three hours. They didn't even bother to offer us headsets or a second tiny bag of cashew fragments during the endless flight. But they did once thank us for our patience, as if we had a choice.

Plus they lost my luggage, which is pretty remarkable since I got on at New York and went non-stop to Oakland. Yet somehow my suitcase ended up in Fort Myers.

30 November 2009

Haiku 334

Leftover turkey
Awkwardly irrelevant
Next to Christmas cakes

(I may or may not get to post the daily haiku while I'm traveling. If I don't get to, I will post them when I return. And feel free to leave comments while I'm gone; they too will get posted when I return. Thanks to everyone for reading. Back in a few. . . .)

29 November 2009

ready, set, Christmas

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio has become a bit of an odd duck, plucked from its native environment; its six cantatas were meant to be a cycle, but not performed all at once, and the German that made it immediately comprehensible to its intended audience is a barrier for most of us. No wonder Handel’s Messiah, so handily English, is the holiday oratorio of choice in these parts, even though, unlike the Bach, it was not originally intended for Christmastime. So much for historically informed performance practices.

I’ve never quite overcome my first hearing of the Christmas Oratorio, in a freezing cold church in Harvard Square, which dragged on until somewhere around midnight, which is not a criticism of the performance so much as a criticism of icy concert venues. And that’s an awful lot of German to digest for a novice concertgoer. There were no surtitles back in those days, children. Let Grandpa tell you how it used to be!

Actually, it still is that way at the San Francisco Symphony, which eschews surtitles, and which opened its holiday concerts with, as you may have gathered, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, only shortened and translated into English. This turned out to be a very effective way of presenting it, though it’s not quite as shapely as Messiah – during the last two cantatas, the soloists were pretty much the whole show and the chorus sat waiting for their ending jubilation. Maybe I was just expecting more of the chorus because their director, Ragnar Bohlin, was conducting the concert.

The music has plenty of festive trumpets and pastoral oboes, though as in the Bach Passions the chorus often meditates and reflects in a more somber way, occasionally to the same hymn tunes as the Matthew Passion (as the man behind me felt compelled to point out during the performance). I thought they should have ignored period style enough to beef up the strings, which were overshadowed by the brass and woodwinds. Baroque music sits a bit uneasily in Davies Hall, like a hermit crab that has chosen an overambitious shell.

That may be why I found the soprano, Malin Christensson, a bit pallid. Her voice was pretty but way too small for the barn she was singing in. I noticed that she got louder as the performance progressed, so maybe she just needed to adjust. I liked the rich tones of Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the contralto. In a switch from my frequent experience, the men – Lothar Odinius (tenor) and Anders Larsson (baritone) were the stronger and more expressive singers. I love the San Francisco Symphony chorus, so their contributions were my favorite part. After working all day (I went on Friday) I enjoyed sinking into the eddying waves of choral sound.

It was very strange to go from an unusually deserted Embarcadero to an unusually deserted Civic Center, passing through the insanely crowded downtown shopping area. My contribution to the newest national holiday, the so-called “Black Friday,” on which we celebrate Capitalism's deliverance of its people, was to buy a burrito. And a very small box of chocolates on sale at Macy’s. I don’t know why, but I thought Davies Hall would be fairly empty, but it wasn’t. I did switch my seat at intermission, which I seem to be doing a lot lately, but not because anyone around me was particularly obnoxious: I just wanted a little more room. We do seem crammed in more tightly at Davies than at other concert halls. This isn’t even about American obesity, though I did see a number of morbidly obese patrons who were having major trouble. You get four or five standard-sized men in a row and it’s sardine city in there. Maybe I’m just dreading my upcoming flight.

I used to go to one or two live performances of Messiah each December; it was one of those things that meant Christmas to me. There’s a subcategory of warhorses made up of the things you never mind hearing again, and for me (obviously this subcategory will vary greatly from person to person) Messiah is one of those pieces, though I have to say that much as I enjoy hearing it I don’t seek it out anymore. The Christmas Oratorio nicely filled the musical space usually occupied by Messiah. I had been a little put off, purist that I am, when I heard it would be abridged and sung in English, but I was pleasantly surprised (big thanks to Mr G/S Y for giving me a ticket) and enjoyed myself very much.

After walking in the pleasantly cool night to the BART station, during which walk not a single driver tried to kill me, I arrived at the platform one minute before my train, which may be the first time this season I didn’t just miss a train and therefore have to wait twenty minutes. And not only did my train pull right in, but it was eight cars (which is what they run at rush hour; usually at at night you get hellishly crammed trains half that size) and the people in it were only mildly obnoxious. Truly, the season of happy miracles is upon us!

Haiku 333

Was the wind waiting
Until I finished sweeping
To rise up, laughing?

28 November 2009

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December

This is mostly a New York month, since like all the cool kids I’m going to the Met to see From the House of the Dead. This will be my first time hearing something at the Met that is not in English and composed before 1960 (my Met operas are Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Great Gatsby, and An American Tragedy). Anyone judging solely from my experience would have a very odd idea of what the Met is about.

In addition to the Janacek, I’m seeing Le Nozze di Figaro and the new Bart Sher production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

And after my second, Saturday matinee viewing of House of the Dead, I’m following Esa-Pekka Salonen across Lincoln Center to Avery Fisher Hall, where he is conducting the New York Philharmonic in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, and La Mer.

I have a few open nights so I’ll see what’s playing when I get there. But the night before I leave I’m seeing One Night, a Schubert/Beckett combo with Mark Padmore singing Winterreise (or, since I believe he’s singing it in translation, Winter Journey) while Andrew West plays the piano and Stephen Dillane recites (I assume) the Beckett.

Back in the Bay Area, San Francisco Performances has some wonderful pianists on its schedule: Angela Hewitt on December 1 and Marc-Andre Hamelin on December 15.

In Berkeley Cal Performances presents Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut, the only Nutcracker worth seeing. (If you disagree with me on that, check out Saturday Matinee’s guide to local Nutcracking. And if Christmas means choral music to you, check out the choral roundup at Iron Tongue.)

Cutting Ball Theater has extended its run of The Bald Soprano until December 12.

Shotgun Players presents that beloved holiday classic, The Threepenny Opera, which was my favorite musical until I discovered Sweeney Todd.

Haiku 332

Clear and cold the wind
Chastely shines the changing moon
You had left no word

Fourth Thursday in November

I can't claim credit for the rosemary rolls or the pain au levain, which are from Acme Bakery. T hoisted up the loaf and said, "That is artisan bread!" The apples are there mostly for color, because except for the cranberry chutney, this is a very brown meal. I didn't even take a picture of the oven-roasted potatoes, because some things are delicious but not necessarily photogenic.

The chutney in its little turkey dish.


Dressing, baked in my great-grandmother's Dutch oven. It's mostly bread, apples, pears, onions, garlic, and sage. And beer!

Heritage turkey from Praither Ranch.

The lighting is very yellow in this shot, even though I tried to fix it. Must be that dim glow from late afternoon in late November.

Coffee buttercrunch pie. Now on to Christmas.

27 November 2009

Haiku 331

Seated glancing eyes
Rushing crowds stopping, staring
What do they expect

26 November 2009

Haiku 330

(Thanksgiving Day)

For eagle and worm,
For ship and storm and harbor,
For all this, give thanks

25 November 2009

Haiku 329

Foods signalling feast
Quietly appear on shelves:
Brown, orange, red, gold

24 November 2009

Haiku 328

Contemplating clouds
Or bashing a noisome brain. . .
It's all aesthetics

23 November 2009

22 November 2009

21 November 2009

20 November 2009

Haiku 324

Dull green burnt orange
Still landscape; black birds start up
Shocking land to life

19 November 2009

Haiku 323

(for Sophocles)

Flow, infinite tears;
Flow into Ocean's salt womb
O Giver of Life

*******

Fingernail crescent,
Silver dimple on pale silk:
New moon at sundown

*******

Night drives as a child:
Starry hills and starry skies
Sparkle sleepy eyes

18 November 2009

17 November 2009

16 November 2009

15 November 2009

Haiku 319

(for Henry James)

Anticipation
Of poems that never come. . .
That is the poem.

14 November 2009

Symphonic Quickies

I followed up my trip to the San Francisco Symphony’s season opener Mahler 1 by going to the Mahler 5 two weeks later. In between there was what sounded like an extremely odd evening of musical bits interspersed with chat from Michael Tilson Thomas and Thomas Hampson, both of whom like to talk to their audiences a little too much for my enjoyment. This sounded like a dry run for one of the Symphony’s upcoming let-us-explain-the-music DVDs, and I was hearing Hampson in recital the next week anyway, so I had no problem skipping this.

I have to admit that though I basically liked the performance of the Mahler, I also had flit through my brain a few times the notion that it was a lot longer than I remembered. (Check here for SFMike's interesting take on this concert.) I usually attribute such thoughts to exhaustion and allergies (or allergy medications), but I had remembered the Mahler 5 being about an hour, and the performance took about an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s like seeing skin stretched so tight that you can see every vein and muscle underneath, which can be interesting but perhaps too Mannerist in effect. When I got home I pulled several Mahler 5s off the shelf (or the floor or the table or whatever bare level surface I'd scattered CDs on) and though there were a couple as long as the one I’d just heard, the majority were indeed about an hour. I have previously noted Tilson Thomas’s tendency toward the monumental, and I think the slow tempi here were part of that. It's an approach that sacrifices the wilder, more grotesque side of music but displays the strength of the structure, like seeing the echoing arches of a Gothic cathedral but none of the gargoyles or ornamental capitals.

The real highlight of that evening turned out to be the relatively brief Hymnos by Giacinto Scelsi, a composer of whose eccentricities I had heard but whose music I hadn’t. Tilson Thomas gave a little talk beforehand, in which he mentioned being with Berio at a rehearsal and meeting Scelsi, who, when a photographer took his picture, grabbed the camera, smashed it, and then immediately apologized and paid for the damage. He didn’t like having his picture taken. Well, I sympathize; I’m not particularly photogenic, and I’ve often wanted to smash cameras. Hanging out with Berio and Scelsi . . . this is a side of Tilson Thomas that I don’t think we usually see at the symphony, despite what I consider his exaggerated reputation for adventurous programming, which usually takes the form of little pieces as preludes to the main event. The Scelsi was a real discovery for me, using fairly simple materials but all just slightly off-balanced so that it was vibrant rather than monotonous. Off to the CD-mongers!

I had thought the two Mahler concerts might be it for my symphony-going this fall, since there were a lot of other things going on and not enough money for any of them, and most of the Symphony’s programs were in that vague area where I’d be happy to hear them but not particularly upset if I didn’t. But I did end up hearing Osmo Vanska's performance of John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Dvorak’s 7th (big thanks to Mr G/S Y for giving me his ticket). Antti Siirala was the soloist in the Tchaikovsky, rather than the previously announced Yundi Li, who disappeared from the schedule sometime after the season brochures were printed. I thought Siirala gave a fine and robust though perhaps not overly poetic performance. I had a fidgety child behind me and a fidgety old woman beside me, so at the intermission I moved to an empty seat a few rows away to enjoy the Dvorak in peace.

It was one of those evenings that I enjoyed a lot and I don’t really have much to say beyond that. I read somewhere that Orwell once remarked that the most difficult thing about working as a book reviewer was inventing reactions to books that didn’t make him feel much of anything one way or the other. But then I don’t write reviews of concerts, I write reviews of attending concerts.

There are symphonies that I have sort of memorized, just through frequent exposure, but of course many more that are just vaguely familiar, and I try to avoid the trap of comparing a performance to a record I have playing in my head – if I wanted it to sound like something I already knew, why wouldn’t I just stay home and play CDs? So I’m usually OK with most interpretations, because, as with wrong-headed staging of plays I’m familiar with, they force me to notice and to think about why I expect certain things. I get that deer-in-the-headlights uncertainty when someone asks me if I “know” a piece, because I don’t know quite what that means – have I heard it? Could I hum along? Have I grasped its structure? Have I grasped its truth? It’s the same way with books – I “know” certain books in that I’ve read them, but I always scrupulously feel that unless I’m totally immersed in the text the way the author was when he or she wrote it, I can’t truly say I “know” the book. And depending on how many years ago I read something, I may, from a technical, historical viewpoint, have read it, but can I still claim to know or even remember much of it? . . .

And then I went back Friday before last before Semyon Bychkov’s Rachmaninoff program. The first half was his setting of Poe’s The Bells (in Russian translation, where it sounds less jingly, at least to a non-Russian), and then we had the Symphony No. 2 in E minor. I bought a rush ticket about an hour before the concert started, which was $20 well spent, and I had a great seat on the right side of the orchestra. I had only bought rush tickets once before; it was the previous season, and I wanted to hear Emanuel Ax playing Szymanowski’s Symphonie concertante for Piano and Orchestra, because how often do you get to hear that?

Well, it was one of the Friday concerts that they start at 6:30, which you’d think I would be crazy for given my constant bitching about 8:00 start times, but it turned out to be just a bit too early to get anything to eat and a bit too late for me not to have to kill time before the performance started. Also, for some reason at these concerts (I assume due to some misguided notion of making symphonic music less utterly terrifying to the twitching timid rabbits who have assembled) they drop a piece of music and substitute conductor chat, so that the concert isn’t actually any shorter, it just has less of what you’ve come for.

In this case the dropped piece was the overture to the Magic Flute, which I have indeed heard many times before, but I wouldn’t have minded hearing it again, especially since the little talks tend to be nothing specific or technical about the music but just general cultural and biographical background, which is the sort of stuff I usually know anyway, and if I’m going to be exposed to stuff I already know, I’d just as soon have it composed by Mozart.

So I was in an open seating area up behind the orchestra (where the chorus sits when they perform), which is how I discovered how uncomfortable those seats are – as in, throw your back out uncomfortable. Once again, I suffer for Art, which barely knows I exist. I also discovered that when you sit up there and there’s a soloist, you have an entire orchestra, including the brass and tympani, between you and him, and there’s a reason he’s normally in front of the whole shebang, especially when it's a refined player like Ax. But still – Szymanowski live! Followed by Strauss’s Burleske in D minor for Piano and Orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

I had tried for a rush ticket for another concert last May, since the amazing Yuja Wang would be playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, and we also had a new piece by Mason Bates and the Sibelius 4, but even though I went to the box office early, at lunchtime, there were no rush seats, though fortunately for me and the Symphony’s finances there was one excellent orchestra seat available, for which I more or less happily paid full price.

I liked the Bates piece (The B-Sides), especially the first few movements, but then we got a lot of taped noise and a steady thumping bass of the sort that annoys me to the point of insanity in pop music. And I have a vague memory that there was a lot of fooling around with electronic equipment before we could get started, which used to drive me crazy at pop concerts and I haven’t gotten any more patient with the years (have I ever mentioned my theory about patience? You’re born with a certain amount, and when you use yours up, it’s cranky to the end). So I was positive on Bates but still unconverted on electronic music. And Wang is phenomenally good – so wide-ranging in her moods and effects.

The Rachmaninoff program was among other things a chance to hear the terrific Symphony Chorus. Last May I went to the all-Handel program conducted by Bernard Labadie, and since I’d been pondering the uses of subscription series and how many I should keep, that concert really brought home one of the joys of subscribing: reluctantly going to something only because you bought a series and the ticket was included, and then discovering or rediscovering how wonderful something can be. I’ve always loved Handel, but I have to say I was not exactly thrilling at the thought of sacrificing an evening (after being out on so many of them already) to hear Zadok the Priest or the Dettingen Te Deum. But there it was, a joyful noise before the Lord. I don’t think any composer does magnificence better than Handel: that grandeur, that pomp without pomposity.

In addition to the Chorus, the Bells featured soloists in each movement: soprano Nuccia Focile, tenor Frank Lopardo, and bass Mikhail Petrenko. (Gosh, I remember when Lopardo had hair, and it was black . . . how like the Marschallin one feels at times!) I had heard a recording of The Bells once or twice, but I think I had never heard a note of the 2nd Symphony. So when it comes to “knowing” these pieces, as discussed above, I feel pretty secure in saying this was all new music to me. It’s very vivid and rich and varied. (And it was a relief to be in an attentive audience for once at the Symphony, and not to spend the first half looking for a refuge for the second half.)

But there was a moment or two during the hour-long symphony when its lush beauty almost backfired for me; I thought, this is what people wish the soundtrack to their lives was like: richly and fully felt, passionately engaged, deep and arching and complete even in its sadness. And I understood, despite my genuine pleasure in the music, why the nerve-jangled modernists, their world shattered by the global wars, could not accept this music as appropriate to that world.

and Troy once more expire

So there I was Thursday before last, on my way to Philharmonia Baroque’s Purcell program at Herbst Theater, crossing a one-way street with the light, feeling secure that the cars would only come on one side, when a monstro car made an insane and completely illegal turn from Van Ness head on in the wrong direction to this one-way street, nearly hitting me as well as smashing into the cars stopped at the light. This complete moron just wanted to make a U-turn, and couldn’t possibly go up a block to a street where that would have been possible. And then she flipped me off! Yes, I had flipped her off first, but that’s only the natural order of things when a ton of steel bears down on your defenseless person when you have the right of way. The very least this idiotic (insert your favorite derogatory term here) could have done is pretend to feel some shame. I only wish I could have reached out to her with some heart-piercing empathetic words, or possibly just a baseball bat. Honestly, what has become of the simple decency of pretending to care about other people? It’s a world turned upside down, indeed it is.

And I’m not fully convinced the two next to me in the theater, hacking, chatting, and program-flipping during the first half of the concert, actually were people. The woman’s scrawny form, large empty black eyes, and bulbous forehead narrowing down to her clacking mandibles made me think she was just some giant ant transmogrified through some terrible accident, possibly involving gamma rays or suchlike, the same accident which had plucked her male companion, a snuffling old badger, from his woodland dell, and mysteriously deposited them in a concert hall for an evening of Henry Purcell. No wonder they didn’t know how to behave in such a startlingly alien environment! You see, after being nearly killed by Idiot of the Evening #1 and then finding myself seated as always next to some more Idiots of the Evening, I have decided to approach the universe with compassion and understanding, because seriously what other choice do I have?

So the concert started, and given the evening so far, and the general tenor of my days, and the known difficulty of getting, say, five people to show up in the same meeting room at the same time, it struck me that here we had roughly fifty people all come together, some to sing and some to play various instruments and all in harmonious coordination, working together and attending to each other, in an effort to bring beauty and joy to a blighted world and to let a dead artist’s works not die with him, and what a strange and wonderful thing this is. And I see it all the time, and experience it on recordings, and I’ve grown blasé about it, and I shouldn’t be.

Moments of disoriented epiphany aside, the first half of the concert, though deeply enjoyable, was also very odd, sort of a Purcell grab-bag. The concert was billed as “The Passion of Dido,” in realistic acknowledgement that we were all there to hear Susan Graham as the tragic Queen of Carthage, but it was really a surprise birthday party for the composer’s 350th. So we skipped from sacred to profane and back again, as no doubt did Purcell's comissions, first hearing a chorus (O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song) followed by the Chacony in G minor followed by another chorus (Hear My Prayer, O Lord) and then the Suite of incidental music from Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer (anyone want to join me in clamoring for a revival? . . . well, fine, forget I mentioned it!), the Rondeau of which jumped out at me with not-quite-placeable familiarity until the program-book came to my aide-memoire by mentioning that Britten used it as the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a gift from one native-born British composer to the next.

To top off the suite, Celine Ricci sang Lucinda is bewitching fair, and I must say that however bewitching Lucinda may be, Ricci did not have the same effect on me, though I can’t quite say if I simply didn’t care for her very bright voice or if her non-stop cartoony mugging just put me off too much. She’ll improve immeasurable as a performer, I think, when she learns the value of standing still. I might be surrounded by gargoyles in the street or the audience but, having higher standards for the theater, I like people on stage to resemble my fantasy of human beings.

After the intermission, having had more than enough of my neighbors, as soon as the lights dimmed and the main event was about to start I slipped a few rows forward to one of the few empty seats where I could be blissfully surrounded by people actually paying attention. And here I’ve made you wait almost as long for the appearance of Susan Graham as we waited that night! I had been a bit let down by her rendition of the Ruckert Lieder at the Symphony in September, but she was triumphant and heart-breaking as Dido, and in full blonde glamazon mode to boot, dressed in a sort of purple-and-coppery beaded sheath, towering physically over everyone on stage, even her Aeneas (William Berger, and though I thought he started out a bit weak, he soon was supple and powerful enough to make a vivid impression in his small but crucial role). Graham astutely played against her strength by emphasizing Dido’s pain in sometimes unexpected places; lines such as “For ‘tis enough, whate’er you now decree, / That you had once a thought of leaving me”, which might have blazoned forth with offended majesty, were instead a tender reminder of the little interior bit of human dignity we try to cling to in ourselves.

Brian Thorsett was Mercury and the saucy Cockney sailor; Jill Grove was elegantly malevolent as the Sorceress. Her two assistant witches were Cyndia Sieden (who also sang Belinda) and Celine Ricci (who also sang the Second Woman); I much preferred Sieden, since Ricci had not spent the intermission taking my telepathic advice and calming down her gesticulating. There seems to be a growing tradition of having the Sorceress express elaborate boredom as her accomplices roulade away on ho ho ho; I’m not sure where this comes from (maybe Mark Morris’s staging?) and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s mildly funny, but the joke is at the expense of the repetition and virtuosic display so characteristic of baroque music, so the effect is of a subtle insinuation that the art form we’ve gathered to hear is basically strange and laughable. Would these people have the same reaction to a modern form like so-called minimalism, a form also dependent on repetition and virtuosity? An early music ensemble should be able to shake off the underlying nineteenth-century mindset.

Haiku 318

Tomatoes and plums
Vanishing from my counters
Give way to apples

13 November 2009

Haiku 317

My breath a white cloud
Vanishing like morning mist
Grey dawn on cold streets

12 November 2009

Haiku 316

This loaf, those fishes
Will last as long as paint can:
Memento mori

*******

Deaf to the music
Too absorbed in you, and you
Were blind to all else

11 November 2009

Haiku 315

Birds sing undisturbed
And the rivers run freely
Elsewhere, yes, somewhere

*******

Lawns refreshed by rain
Green Winter flows from vivid
California hills

10 November 2009

09 November 2009

08 November 2009

06 November 2009

Haiku 310

A glance to the side
And you might be miles away:
Sunlight on green grass

05 November 2009

Haiku 309

Around the corner
New birds, buildings, trees dropping
Their dead leaves downward

04 November 2009

Haiku 308

Here, it is Winter
That we long for as a change:
The dark rain, the chill

03 November 2009

Haiku 307

What does the sand feel
When the tides recede leaving
Seaweed and starfish

*******

Glowing green fresh grass
Gently waving in the breeze:
A restoration. . . .

02 November 2009

a reason to hate the world of classical music

The following item appeared several days ago in Leah Garchik’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"The third movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony has such a razzle-dazzle ending that the San Francisco Symphony audience Thursday cheered at its ending, a definite no-no because there was another movement (much quieter) to come. Afterward, an audience member approached one of the musicians, praised the concert and asked what the encore had been, an inquiry that caused big giggles among the musicians."

Well, I don’t have strong feelings on the clapping-between-movements controversy. I oppose anything that disrupts the music or the mood for everyone else, but I’m not really convinced that clapping during a pause between symphony movements does that, at least as compared to clapping between each song in a recital set or being the first to scream bravo before a song has finished. It’s the last sentence of the item that contains the irritant: the very fact that this audience member was not already immersed in concert-going etiquette, familiar (or over-familiar) with every single note of Tchaikovsky's Sixth, and had not been looking at the list of movements in the program during the performance, indicates to me that she (I’ll just use “she” for convenience; I have no idea of the gender here) was, of all things, actually listening to the music. Gee, she might even be one of those “new audience members” arts groups are allegedly so desperate to reach. So she, having no doubt paid a fair amount for her ticket, instead of rushing out immediately like most symphony-goers took the trouble to compliment the musicians and ask about the music, which obviously had touched her. For this she gets the snotty "big giggle" treatment by the in-the-know sophisticates. I hope at least they had the decency to give that member of their paying public a courteous and straightforward answer to her face before they alerted the media. Well, being a swell fiddle player doesn’t guarantee either sensitivity or sense.

pursued as by the avenging furies

Amazon.com, which either does not realize that I am apparently the only person in the western world who didn’t think August: Osage County was the greatest thing since Heartbreak House or simply wants to torment me, like poking a wounded animal with a stick to watch its eyes bug out, keeps insisting that I should buy a copy of the play, because of its similarities to the following items I have already purchased: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (uh, no), Six Plays by Bulgakov as well as his life of Moliere (no and no), the Complete Plays of Chekhov (emphatically not), and the Mark Morris production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (WTF? Now they're just shooting in the dark).

Haiku 306

A steady drumming
A migraine obbligato
A pulsing thrumming

01 November 2009

Balled soprano

Cutting Ball Theater opened its tenth season this weekend with a fast, fun, and fluid production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, directed by company Artistic Director Rob Melrose in his own new translation. I waited until after the performance to look at all the program notes, so it wasn’t until the play started that I remembered that this is the play Ionesco wrote because he was studying English and was fascinated and amused by the very precise yet nonsensical world of language texts, in which one person will ask simple questions repeatedly of the other, or one person informs the other of things they both already know.

Years ago, during various attempts to study various languages, I too was puzzled and amused by the strangely precise and arbitrary dialogue format, until someone explained to me the underlying theory: if the dialogues make intuitive sense, the student will simply assume the meaning instead of puzzling out the grammatical forms and vocabulary. Beneath the rational tone of the dialogues, the nonsensical and the arbitrary ensure that you pay attention.

In other words, the play isn’t just a random series of non-sequiturs and sketches. There’s a set-up here for a standard realistic play, with the Smiths (David Sinaiko and Paige Rogers), a proper bourgeois couple complete with a clever, backtalky maid named Mary (Anjali Vashi), waiting for the Martins (Donell Hill and Caitlyn Louchard), another proper bourgeois couple whom they have invited for dinner. The Fire Captain (Derek Fischer) also shows up.

The dialogue all makes surface sense; it just doesn’t make sense that anyone would say these things (as when Mrs Smith animatedly describes to her husband the meal they have just eaten). The pleasantries start to give way to little outbursts of rage or sarcasm. Exposition is contradicted moments later with contradictory information. Gradually the participants lose physical control and start hurtling themselves into the beautiful tangerine walls or somersaulting over the couches. After this complete breakdown into Dada, the play circles in on itself as the Smiths repeat their dialogue from the beginning of the play – only now the Smiths are the couple we’ve come to know as the Martins. Order, if not reason, is restored.

I saw this play years ago, and read it even longer ago, so I thought I pretty much had done it, and frankly wasn’t all that excited about seeing it. But I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering something I thought I knew. I continue to be amazed at how close to “real life” the Theater of the so-called Absurd really is. Just as the behavior of the people next to me during last season’s Ionesco echoed the themes of that play, so the whole contrast in this play between the banal expected civilities of middle-class life and little eruptions of rage and violence was echoed by the woman next to me, who kept crossing her legs into my space and kicking me without any sort of apology. Why are these idiots always next to me?

But she’s already seen it, so I don’t think you’ll have to sit next to her. If you have any curiosity about this play, let me strongly recommend this production, which runs through November 22. The cast is uniformly outstanding. As a Cutting Ball bonus, I should mention that Shakespeare’s caustic Troilus and Cressida is the November 8 offering in the Hidden Classics series, which I had forgetfully left off my November fun stuff list.

Haiku 305

Bright moon through black leaves
Next time I glance out, bright moon
Through black bare branches

*******

Sharp concrete edges
And bright lights soften and blur
Misty drunken nights

31 October 2009

things that go bump in the night

I’ve never been to the actual Halloween in the Castro, but last Saturday I went to Jack Curtis Dubowsky’s new opera by that name (at Jack’s invitation, and check here for an interesting interview about this work posted in his blog), so now I feel free to sit at home on Halloween, since even if I had some slight thought that maybe I should experience it once, I no longer need to, because the opera provokes thoughts about the event much more entertainingly than the real event would, proving once again that art is life distilled and improved, and with much better music.

The opera was presented by the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco at the Metropolitan Community Church, which of course being a church is not necessarily designed with theatrical sightlines in mind, but the staging by Stephanie Lynne Smith and Shane Kroll makes clever use of the whole space. Presenting a new opera was amazingly ambitious for the chorus, which is basically a small affinity-based amateur ensemble, and I really congratulate them for taking on something that, as far as I know, lies way outside their usual fare. Though the individual voices varied in quality, and some were miked while others were not, everyone was really committed to the performance, and really put across the words (also by Dubowsky) – the lack of surtitles was no problem; there were only a couple of lines I couldn’t quite catch.

Given my lack of personal associations with the Castro Halloween and my feelings about identity politics (which range from indifference to loathing), I wasn’t quite sure how I would react, but as soon as the opera opened with a lovely melancholy piano and violin tune for Arnold (described in the dramatis personae as a Bitter Queen with the drag name Miss Ann Thrippy), who laments the passing of the old Castro and the death of his lover Alan, I realized right away that the opera was going to go beyond affinity groups and tourism; its real subjects are the bind between a romanticized past and the need to live in the present, getting older, and the search for community. These are resonant themes, and by the time the third act opens, it’s easy to see the metaphorical force of a chorus for those stuck on Muni, wondering if they’re ever going to move forward.

These themes are I think particularly resonant in the Bay Area, which can seem trapped in the 1950s and 1960s (that is, the beatniks and the hippies). I attended Berkeley about ten years after the riots that its name still conjures up, and was amused even as a freshman by the number of my fellow students who didn’t quite realize that HippieWorld had passed. Maybe they didn’t need to realize it, since they weren’t really interested in being hippies (all that patchouli, ugh) but in the glow surrounding celebrated rebellious spirits. Same thing with the Beat era – you can’t go half a block in North Beach without running across a dozen poseurs who think they’re free-spirited poets because they’re smoking and drinking overpriced cappuccinos while leafing through the copy of Howl they just bought at City Lights Bookstore. And then they go back to their corporate/social climbing and think about how they’re really rebel spirits.

After Arnold's opening aria, an Unseen Spirit warns him that a violent act will again disrupt the Castro this Halloween, and then the rest of the cast marches down the aisles in Halloween costumes singing a chorus that captures the fizzy excitement of the festivities with a sort of Kurt Weill-meets-the-baroque sound. Two bar owners then debate over how exactly they are going to make money off of Halloween: one wants to stay open, and the other wants the Castro Halloween turned into an upscale destination event. (You can make a lot of money off of the aura of danger and seediness, as long as actual danger and seediness are kept far, far away.)

They express their wishes to the Politician, who of course will do what they want, since they are big donors. He holds a Community Meeting where, in an amusing echo of Gilbert and Sullivan (particularly Captain Corcoran and crew in HMS Pinafore), he listens to the concerns of the Castro Community, assures them he is one of them (even opening his shirt collar to show his studded leather collar), and then proceeds to do exactly what he had intended to do all along: “shut down” Halloween by not providing city services, though the bar owners announce they will still be open for business.

That’s the first act, and already the libretto has deftly introduced the personal and the public, the romanticized, and the lost, as well as the carnival spirit that ultimately underlies all Halloween celebrations, and shown them running up against the economic and political realities of the world. The second act expands the cast of characters. First there’s a group of vacuous gym bunnies who dress in drag as cheerleaders, and I liked the way that throwing this group in the mix broadens the themes, since they reflect (as another character points out) that apparently universal highlight of the high school rally, when the cheerleaders dress in football uniforms and the jocks dress up as cheerleaders.

In response to the Bitter Queen’s charge that the cheerleaders are just perpetuating heterosexist stereotypical paradigms, the guys sing a hilariously extended baroque-style “you go, girl!” number – I love baroque music, but if you’ve ever wondered just exactly how many times some random phrase about the purling stream or the bleeding heart is going to be beaten into the ground, then this is the chorus you've been waiting to hear.

We see a straight couple from Walnut Creek (“it’s hard to be chic / when you live in Walnut Creek”) who decide to drive in (because they're sure there will be lots of parking) to check out the craziness. They have no costumes so they put tape on their glasses and pens in their pockets and go as “nerds” (which is pretty much what they are, and which plays in to the same high school-type social structure as the cheerleaders). The woman is wearing an AIG golf visor, which sums them up perfectly and hilariously. Their excited duet about wanting to see some gays in their native habitat is given a sinister twist in the variation sung by The Miscreants, who are concealing weapons and planning to go in to the Castro to cause trouble. Back in San Francisco we get a tender, touching duet between a lesbian couple, dressing up as a plumber and a housewife, and then Sister Chiquita Piccata Mundi of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence gives us a brief history of the Castro Halloween party.

During the street party in the third act, there is indeed an act of violence as foretold by the Unseen Spirit, but with an unexpected twist I won’t give away. This was the one part where I thought the staging fell down a bit; I couldn’t see what exactly had happened until the aftermath allowed me to figure it out (and the synopsis, which I read afterward, proved me correct). I had moved to a different seat during intermission, to get away from the whisperers next to me, and the only available seat was even farther in the back, which may be why I had trouble seeing. The opera ends as Arnold makes some tentative steps towards regaining a sense of community with those around him by joining the lesbian couple in what the synopsis calls “a plaintive and hopeful song” about restoring the joyous spirit (and with it the economic and social viability) of the festival.

I had walked in thinking this might be like one of those “occasion operas” that Renaissance and baroque composers used to write for important state affairs like marriages or treaties; it turned out to be a really satisfying evening of theater and music, with much broader scope than its immediate subject. Kudos to the outstanding instrumental performers: Paul Yeager on violin, Charith Premawardhana on viola, Anthony Fanning on cello, and Ryan Connolly on piano, and to all the singers. I really hope the chorus can manage to revive the work annually; it deserves to have legs.

Haiku 304

(Halloween)

Melancholy shades
Haunt us, and the daily ghouls
Eat our living flesh

30 October 2009

Haiku 303

If the sky desires
To inspire, it should switch from
Endless crystal blue

29 October 2009

Haiku 302

That smiling old man:
What lies hidden in his heart,
Brooding, resentful?

28 October 2009

27 October 2009

Haiku 300

Songs from distant shores
Were reflected in your eyes.
You were never mine.

*******

Emerald ripples
Strong winds wave over soft grass
Dead leaves jump like fish

26 October 2009

Haiku 299

From a train window:
Pink streaks of sunrise; later
Low sun burns my eyes

25 October 2009

fun stuff I may or may not get to: November

Philharmonia Baroque presents various Purcell works, including Dido and Aeneas with Susan Graham as Dido, on November 5-8 at their usual various locations.

San Francisco Performances presents Joyce DiDonato in recital on November 16.

The Jack Curtis Dubowsky Ensemble plays in the Trinity Chamber Concerts music series in Berkeley on November 7.

Cal Performances presents the Globe Theater production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

San Francisco Opera presents the Adler Fellows in a “gala concert” on November 22.

Volti starts its 31st season on November 13-15.

Oakland Opera Theater presents a new opera by Mary D. Watkins, Dark River, based on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra has an exciting program on November 19-22 in various locations: Richard Strauss’s profoundly beautiful Metamorphosen and several works by the always interesting and entertaining William Bolcom.

Haiku 298

Green-leaved as in spring,
But paling and rippled leaves,
Waiting to drift down

*******

Delicious the cool
Of a just-silent evening,
Ripened to purple

24 October 2009

Haiku 297

Like stepping outdoors
To a day like Claire de Lune:
Distant, clear, dreamlike

23 October 2009

22 October 2009

21 October 2009

Haiku 294

Distant dog howling
A slurred and lonely voice shouts
Return to dreamland

*******

A moment is caught
But many others slip by,
Half-remembered, lost

20 October 2009

Haiku 293

Parrots and palm trees
Clatter and caw like natives
Of this fog-bound coast

19 October 2009

Haiku 292

(for an ivory statue of mother and child from Japan, old enough to have lost a butterfly perched on the mother's hands)

Childish hands reach up:
Time broke off the butterfly,
Mama's hands remain

18 October 2009

Haiku 291

A plate of apples
Cool water, soft winds, a sigh:
Someone's happiness

Bali High

I very much enjoyed what a friend of mine called the “strange and beautiful” American premiere of Evan Ziporyn’s A House in Bali at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, despite its major miscalculations and flaws.

First, it probably would have been better if they had used the much smaller theater behind the big auditorium so that they didn’t have to amplify and therefore distort, deaden, and fuzzify everything. I heard many complaints about the quality of the sound system as well, so this isn’t just a blanket objection to amplification. Without the surtitles it would often have been impossible to make out what the singers were singing (and those ugly little microphones taped to their faces don’t help the theatrical illusion, either, though I guess you could make a case they function like the masks used for a couple of the characters).

The staging was extremely strange. I was in the front row, way over on the left, about where I had been to see Mark Morris the week before, so I know that normally that seat has a fine view. But for A House in Bali, they built a platform raised about a foot-and-a-half high across the very front of the stage, so that unless the performers were standing on the platform, I could only see their upper quarter (or third, depending on the height of the performer). Even stranger, they built an actual little house behind the raised platform where a lot of the action took place and nothing was visible except for the odd elbow or face. At least someone was back there with a video camera; without the live projection onto a large screen above the stage I wouldn’t have been able to see anything. At the intermission I slipped up to the empty low box on the side of the house, which put me even farther to the left, but at least high enough so the stage was visible.

The house (never a “home”) is crucial, since this is the fact-based story of Colin McPhee (sung by the countertenor Marc Molomot), who felt trapped in the western world and went to Bali in the 1930s, looking for a community he never really found. He spent the rest of his life working on his study of the native gamelan music. He also took up with a native boy (or boys); his wife accompanied him to Bali, but she is not mentioned in his memoir, also called A House in Bali, an elision which this work also follows. There are other westerners there, particularly the homosexual German painter Walter Spies (the tenor Timur Bekbosunov) and American anthropologist Margaret Mead (soprano Anne Harley), who briskly and to comic effect informs everyone of what it is they’re actually doing, in anthropological terms, referring them to her book for deeper understanding of their lives.

Bad amplification and misguided staging were problems inflicted on the work, but there are some inherent problems, too, in the libretto. At several crucial points it's unclear what's happening on stage unless you’ve read the program notes and plot summary: for example, that McPhee wanted his house constructed in the wrong season and an inauspicious location, arrogant miscalculations which lead the villagers to rebel and barricade him inside the house; or that he is rescued from a flash flood by the thirteen-year-old boy Sampih (performed by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi), an event staged in the bathtub of the house, which made me think initially the scene was about introducing the Balinese to indoor plumbing; or that Spies is arrested at the end by the Dutch colonial authorities on charges of homosexuality – you see a man in an elaborate coat (I have a vague memory of golden epaulettes) and a Balinese-style mask steps up to Spies, extends his hands and crosses them at the wrist; Spies follows suit and the man leads him off. Since we have just seen a harbinger of World War II in the person of a similarly dressed Japanese spy disguised as a tourist I thought at first that Spies was just being arrested as an enemy alien, and not on a "morals charge."

I don't think we can get too complacent in tsking over the morals charge, because I suspect that some of the discomfort the audience felt with the show (I heard remarks ranging from “it’s kind of . . . strange” to “I left at intermission”) has to do with the sexual element. It’s never made completely explicit that McPhee’s interest in Sampih is basically sexual (if in fact it is; perhaps I should not assume that he acted on the erotic interest that led him more or less to buy the boy from his parents, who were more than willing to unload him on the foreigner, and then train him as a dancer). Spies’s sexual activities are also only hinted at. He's surrounded by young men, but he's also organizing them into a painters' collective.

Here’s where our culture’s sophisticated acceptance of same-sex liaisons runs against its hysteria about sex with the young. I’m certainly not defending these activities, because I would never defend an abuse of power. There’s clearly an exploitative sexual-tourism angle here. But there’s also a complicated relationship in which McPhee helped this boy and his family in material and artistic ways they appreciated, and there are some comic hints that McPhee was really pretty helpless in dealing with the high-spirited Sampih. But in our grossly sexualized culture, there is a salacious paranoia and anger about a relationship like this that seems to signal a deeper contemporary disturbance. Perhaps this is one of our few acceptable ways to express discomfort with the uncontrollable force of sexuality. Perhaps it’s just our own childlike panic at the realization that taboos about sex with the underaged are not moral laws inherent to all people but more culturally conditioned than we like to believe. Margaret Mead could certainly explain to us the incredible complexity and variability of human relationships. Our judgments are sometimes both accurate and beside the point.

The ambiguities of the work may simply be an effective dramatization of its main subject, which is displacement and searching for a home and the clash between the strange ways of foreigners and our own strange ways. Throughout there is a lot of spectacular Balinese dance (particularly from Kadek Dewi Aryani and Desak Made Suarti Laskmi), which still looks alien to western eyes, despite its influence on contemporary dance (I noted in particular a way of holding the hand out and fluttering the fingers in a tightly controlled way that I think Mark Morris borrowed for Empire Garden, one of the new pieces I had seen his company perform the week before). At the end one of the women dancers thrashes convulsively for a long time, and then Sampih has an odd moment of falling to the ground and sort of undulating, then stopping, then starting again a few times just when you think he’s finished. I heard baffled complaints about those moves, but to me they showed an old tradition dissolving and, in starts and stops, something new evolving.

I’d call the piece flawed but fascinating. I think in a basic way the evening reminded me that for all my kvetching I just really like going to the theater. And the music was wonderful, particularly the gamelan elements. Gamelan is like a spring rain that softens and refreshes everything. The composer conducted the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Dewa Ketut Alit led the Gamelan Salukat. It was a miserably hot and muggy weekend and even in my dressed-down and informal attire I envied the gamelan players their loose red-batiked sarongs, bare chests, and golden hats.

17 October 2009

16 October 2009

15 October 2009

Haiku 288

(for St Teresa of Avila)

Laboring, laughing,
Waiting to be pierced by the
Ecstatic Arrow

14 October 2009

13 October 2009

Haiku 286

Bent low by the wind:
Foaming gutters overflow:
Black rain falls in sheets

12 October 2009

Haiku 285

Glimpse of pale blue sky
Beneath the pale gray cloud-pall
Bristling bright green grass

11 October 2009

10 October 2009

Haiku 283

(for Sappho)

Elaborated
Passion-structures: all ruined
O Time sweetbitter

09 October 2009

Haiku 282

The clock hands have stopped
But time goes on: measuring
Is not controlling

08 October 2009

Haiku 281

Tikka masala
Has changed this paper plate to
A saffron sunset

*******

Whoever was there
Saw the hovering red hawk
Hoovering field mice

07 October 2009

Haiku 280

Yes, yes, the wind blows;
Indeed, the cherry blossoms;
Yes, it all passes

06 October 2009

Haiku 279

What can I tell you?
Most of my days have passed by.
I heard some birds sing.

05 October 2009

Haiku 278

Dripping through the leaves:
Winds shake out an after-rain
When the rain has passed

*******

Like clockwork I walk
To work, yet this morning sky
Is lit by the moon

04 October 2009

03 October 2009

02 October 2009

Haiku 275

It should be the law
That each building must contain
At least one fountain

01 October 2009

30 September 2009

Haiku 273

On a cool clear day:
Last bright flowers of summer;
Warm blanket breezes

*******

Ostentatiously
They laugh, those two women there.
Why are they laughing?

29 September 2009

28 September 2009

thanks but no thanks

Ever since I stayed there a few years ago when I went to hear The Tristan Project, the Wilshire Grand in Los Angeles has sent me occasional e-mails. Today's offered a special hotel package for August: Osage County at the Ahmanson Theater. Uh, thanks for thinking of me, but I think I'll pass. But you set up a package for Die Gezeichneten and then we can talk!

Haiku 271

Passing clouds paint walls
A light switching on and off,
Scrims dropped and then raised

27 September 2009

fun stuff I may or may not get to: October

Support your local arts organizations by buying tickets to events that look interesting!

The San Francisco Symphony concludes its Mahler Festival with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Scelsi’s Hymnos and the Mahler 5.

San Francisco Opera presents Il Trittico, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Salome. Trittico has been getting raves and has an outstanding cast, from rising stars like Brandon Jovanovich to the semi-legendary Ewa Podles; Patricia Racette sings all three soprano roles (click here for Lisa’s interview with her over at San Francisco Classical Voice). Unfortunately most of the performances of this three-and-a-half hour work started at the idiotic time of 8:00 on a work night, so I’m not seeing it until Saturday October 3, the final performance.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players begin their season on Monday October 5 with the music of Steve Reich, Edmund Campion (the contemporary composer, not the Elizabethan martyr), Charles Wuorinen, Morton Feldman, and John Harbison, with Harbison and Campion (again, not the martyr; it’s not that close to Halloween) giving a pre-concert talk at 7:15.

The touring company of South Pacific is in San Francisco, with Rod Gilfry as Emil de Becque.

Magnificat and the Carter Family Marionettes present La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini (based on the same episode of the Orlando Furioso that inspired Handel’s Alcina). Baroque opera! Ariosto! Puppets! My God, catch me; I’m swooning!

The San Francisco Jazz Festival opens. I was really tempted by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, but decided Davies Hall was not really the best venue for a ukulele recital. I’m at Salome that night anyway. But there’s lots of other good stuff on their schedule.

As a long-time theater-goer I should probably be slightly embarrassed that I’ve never seen anything by Tony Kushner. Berkeley Rep is offering Tiny Kushner, a night of one acts, so I have to decide if that’s the place to start.

Volti has a 30th-anniversary concert and CD-release party on October 18.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus presents music by Betinis, Holst, and Tavener based on prophetic words and mystic visions from Hafez, Mohammed, and the Rig-Veda.

Cutting Ball Theater officially opens its season with The Bald Soprano. Their previous Ionesco production, last season’s Victims of Duty, was outstanding.

Thick House presents The Creature by Trevor Allen, a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky has a new opera: Halloween in the Castro, A Horror Opera. This sounds much more fun and interesting than the actual thing. Art so often does!

Haiku 270

"What sad dreams you have" --
How sweetly you acknowledged
Dwellers in sad dreams

26 September 2009

Haiku 269

baseball enters the last week of the regular season

Wins may mean nothing
But the diamond still beckons
You still slide to home

gypsies, tramps, & thieves

Last Tuesday was my first visit to the San Francisco Opera this season, for a mostly wonderful Il Trovatore, though I think I love that opera too much to be completely happy with any production. This performance was also my first experience with Sondra Radvanovsky, who as Leonora amazingly managed to live up to all the praise heaped on her the past few years. As with Swenson’s Lucia a few seasons back, it was just a voice that rang thrillingly in the War Memorial Opera House, like a huge sheet of water falling, pure and clear and strong.

Stephanie Blythe also has a powerful, beautiful voice, but I had wondered how she would be as Azucena, since the obsessive gypsy doesn’t seem simpatico with Blythe’s persona; some singers are beloved because they’re crazy, and some because they’re down-to-earth and sane, and Blythe is one of the latter. She’s not the possessed woman Dolora Zajick was, but she makes her normality work for her – you feel that Azucena would have led a relatively happy, regular life if she hadn’t been hit with the tragic, absurd deaths of her mother and baby. I did have the feeling she’s still working her way into the emotional rather than musical aspects of the character.

I had heard that Dmitri Hvorostovsky was having a somewhat rough time earlier in this run, but he seemed to be recovering from whatever it was he had; he sang powerfully throughout, though Il Balen was a bit leathery and he was breathing very audibly before each phrase. He gave a very convincing performance, showing the Count di Luna slipping inexorably from unrequited love into bitterness and sadism in a clearer way than I have ever seen.

I’m guessing this is Hvorostovsky’s take on the character, since the direction by David McVicar (or possibly the revival director, Walter Sutcliffe) didn’t help him much; for every lovely touch (di Luna intentionally cutting himself with his sword right after Il balen; Manrico gently covering Leonora with his large coat, which di Luna takes off of her and throws aside once he thinks she is giving herself to him; the poisoned Leonora’s fingers inching up Manrico’s shoulder to his neck and then sliding down as death takes hold of her) there was one of those “was that really necessary” moments: overacting whores and their generic bawdiness during the soldiers’ chorus; di Luna manhandling Leonora during the first scene (even if you believe a Spanish aristocrat would treat the woman he loves that way – and this is before he realizes he has no chance with her – it’s implausible that he would do it in front of Manrico without the troubadour defending the woman, and putting his hand on his sword hilt and trying to glare don’t count); di Luna gratuitously pushing a nun onto the ground – again, I can believe a Spanish aristocrat would abduct a woman from the convent before she’s taken vows, but shoving an old nun so that she goes flying – sorry, even if you think this is plausible, it’s an unnecessary piece of stage villainy, like kicking a puppy. I get it, he’s a bad guy, but il balen shows us some of his tormented interior; he’s not a bully or a coward. It’s his destiny as an operatic baritone to be unlucky in love, but you should be able to see that his character is not all that dissimilar from (spoiler alert!) his brother the tenor.

I guess that brings me to Marco Berti as Manrico. I feel a little bad saying this about someone who’s working hard, and who wasn’t exactly bad in the role, but I found him completely generic, and he doesn’t bring much dash or stage presence to the part (certainly nothing to compare with the silver-haired Siberian; this is not the first time the realities of casting have undercut the requirements of the storyline).

Nicola Luisotti conducted his first performance as music director; I had heard reports of eccentric tempi in earlier performances (again with the earlier reports! that's the problem with talking about operas; no one sees the same performance), but I didn’t hear any. I did notice lots of beautiful orchestral details in the fourth act of an opera I’ve heard plenty of times, and there seemed to be some interpolated notes in the traditional nineteenth-century style and he seemed attentive to the singers. To me it seems like a compliment to Luisotti that I have to remind myself to describe his contribution; that means nothing obviously failed or was willfully eccentric.

The staging is quite smooth, with good use made of a rotating set (Charles Edwards is the set designer), though as I’ve mentioned there was too much action of the sort that’s only supposed to fool you into thinking something is happening besides singers standing there belting it out. It’s a very solid production, but it’s the singers (mostly the women) who have made it the talk of the town. Personally, I liked the last production SF Opera did; I thought the weird bursts of flame and the suspended horse heads and the shiny creepy walls like black tar captured something of the opera’s surreal and absurdist cast. At least it looks as if the conventional wisdom is slowly moving away from considering Trovatore’s brilliant libretto the height of absurdity; my feeling towards that is why do people assume it’s not meant to be absurd? Absurd like Waiting for Godot or Oedipus the King.

The gentleman next to me didn’t seem to have gotten that particular message, since he chuckled at every plot twist, flipped through his program for entire scenes, and chatted with his egregiously silly wife not only between each scene but increasingly during scenes until I leaned in and told them to shut up. I’m surprised Luisotti didn’t say it himself; we were close enough. I didn’t hear a sound from a single other person in the section. Why are these people always right next to me? During the intermission he angrily informed me that “there’s a nice way to say things.”

Well, thank goodness someone is standing up for civilized values. I love it when inconsiderate people froth indignantly when they’re called on their rudeness. He clearly considered himself a cultured, even refined person, pausing his program-flipping to applaud each aria loudly, announcing “Well done Andrew” to show he knew Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack was singing Ruiz (yes, I agree: well done, Andrew! he’s been good in everything I’ve heard him in), yet he wasn’t even aware of the boorishness of his behavior.

We had a brief exchange during which I considered telling him that “shut up” is, in fact, my nice way of expressing that particular sentiment. Instead I pointed out that the rudeness was his first in talking during a performance so maybe we could call it a draw. That seemed to mollify him, but I knew full well that after intermission he was going to force me to engage in chat about the production to demonstrate that he was gracious enough to overlook my crudity and sheer uppityness in demanding silence during a performance for which I had shelled out a substantial pile of cash (well, credit – future cash – but you see my point). Those people on stage carry on, but sweet Jesus on Sunday morning, if you ask me I’m really the one who’s suffering for art.

25 September 2009

24 September 2009

23 September 2009

Haiku 266

Bright unsleeping night
Lights on sleepless streets of night
Turned-inside-out day

22 September 2009

21 September 2009

20 September 2009

On Motifs of Mark Morris

Mark Morris brought two west coast premieres to Berkeley this week, along with a revival of V. I was at the Saturday performance. Visitation is set to Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1; after a pause we saw Empire Garden, set to the Ives Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, S 86. After an intermission comes V, set to the Schumann Quintet for Piano and Strings in E-flat major, Op. 44. The excellent live music was provided by Michi Wiancko and Cordelia Hagmann on violin, Jessica Troy on viola, Wolfram Koessel on cello, and Colin Fowler on piano. There was much excitement halfway through V when the cellist announced that he had broken a string and we had to pause. The dancers were lined up in the dark and after a moment went back to the wings. By the time someone made an official announcement explaining the pause, we were ready to go again; the dancers ran back out to their diagonal line and the audience fortunately quieted down fairly quickly.

The applause was more vociferous for V; some of that might be increasing familiarity, since it’s been here before, and some might be because it’s in the familiar Morris style: lyrical yet earthy, with witty touches. Both Visitation and Empire Garden are more somber pieces. Even the lighting (by Nicole Pearce for these two pieces) is more subdued. Visitation’s costumes (Elizabeth Kurtzman for both these pieces) are in subtle shades of gray and maroon and dark green. For a while I thought Visitation didn’t have any lifts or leaps; then I realized that it did, but in a smaller-scale way. It’s a piece that’s more psychological than spectacular, and I think would only get more interesting on repeated viewing. Because of the smaller-scale movements, it has a tremendous effect when a dancer goes up on the front part of the foot, like going on tippy-toes. There were some interestingly odd boxing/martial arts sort of moves, but again enacted as if the dancer were suppressing them.

It seemed like a very inward piece, as if it were about the complicated emotional relationships among the specific group of people dancing. It would be interesting to see it with different dancers in the roles. I realized several years ago that I’ve been watching the Mark Morris Dance Group long enough so that I recognize the dancers and the different qualities they bring, though I’m definitely not at that stage with any ballet companies (hearing from someone who does have that familiarity with the San Francisco Ballet is one of the pleasures of reading Saturday Matinee).

Empire Garden seemed inward in a different way, as if it were about a community rather than a group of individuals, a politically contained community. At several points two of the dancers are next to each other and bend forward so that a third dancer can climb on their backs and kneel forward towards the other dancers, mouth open in a big “O” as if they were political orators, or gargoyles (or both). The marches and traditional tunes Ives uses also contributed to the political air, as did the costumes: martial tunics, most with broad horizontal or vertical stripes. The tunics were brightly colored but the effect was not cheerful or bright. I particularly liked the busy second movement, with its mélange of people marching and moving and even doing what I think is called the pony.

I wonder if we’re seeing the beginnings of a different style for Morris (I almost said a late style, but I hope there’s much more to come, so I’ll just say different), a more somber, inward, and reflective style. Watching Romeo and Juliet: On Motifs of Shakespeare last year, I wondered if it was a turning point or a detour. I went to three performances, and did not regret it, though the reactions of others generally seemed more subdued. I think people were hoping for a masterpiece to set beside L’Allegro ed il Penseroso, or The Hard Nut.

Romeo and Juliet frequently reminded me of The Hard Nut, since both works basically deal with adolescents coming to grips with their sexuality. There was one lovely moment for Lady Capulet and Juliet, when the mother, remembering her own young life, mirrors the movements of her daughter; it reminded me of my favorite moment in The Hard Nut, when Drosselmeyer starts by mirroring the movements of the Nutcracker Prince, then dances with him, and then urges him toward Marie, his future partner.

But the Hard Nut has a fragmentary story, and Romeo and Juliet is more like a traditional story ballet than anything else Morris has done. That means there’s a lot more pantomime. And while people remember the intense passion and poetry of Romeo and Juliet, I think they tend to forget the plot mechanics: the plotting Friar, and the starving apothecary, and the poison that mimics death, and Count Paris’s marriage proposal, and Rosaline, Romeo’s first beloved, and so on. It’s not just passionate pas de deux; there’s a lot of plot to get through. And in the great tradition of ballets that grind to a halt in the third act so all the main characters can gather and watch the minor characters have their moment to shine, we get some delightful but totally extraneous dances from the Capulet servants while Juliet, feigning acceptance of Paris’s proposal, sinks into her poison-induced coma. (The poison takes effect long before the dances are over.)

The subject wasn’t chosen by Morris, and he doesn’t usually deal with the passions of first love, which is fine with me, since it’s not a subject I’m particularly drawn to either. No doubt he was intrigued by the challenge, since you have not only one of the archetypal love stories but a series of interlocking communities. I loved the way the dances in private homes (as in the Capulet ball) are aggressive and martial, while the public square is frequently filled with the sort of light-hearted dancing you might expect at a ball.

Much was made of the so-called “happy ending” to this work, as if it came from Morris or some general American resistance to tragedy. But it was Prokofiev and the happy-think art commissars of Soviet Russia that wanted the lovers united. And people have been sticking happy endings onto Shakespeare since the Restoration (check out the hilarious production of Romeo and Juliet at the end of Part One of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby). Even the recent Baz Luhrmann film insisted on letting the lovers revive at the same time so that they could die together (in Shakespeare, Romeo is already dead when Juliet revives). And the thing is: I’m not convinced that what Morris gave us was exactly a “happy ending.”

The lovers have run off together. With ironic abruptness, the feuding families declare peace and Count Paris takes a new bride. The last scene shows the two lovers dancing together in the dark blue as the candle-lights turn to stars. The light fades out as they circle each other round and round, and crucially, it seems to me, not quite touching. Wherever they are, it’s pretty clear they’re not coming back to town, and you don’t get the sense there will be any grandkids. In effect, they’re dead. And life is going on without them.

Irony, separation, distance: maybe these struck me in the new works as well as Romeo and Juliet because Morris is a genius at conveying convincing joy, which I think is a fairly rare quality. I’m not talking about the exhilaration of watching skilled dancers, I’m talking about joy as a quality expressed by dancers as the meaning of their dance. Bodies are inherently tragic, sagging broken back to the earth; even when you admire the youth and beauty of the dancers, it’s inescapable, and part of the poignant appeal of dance, that those qualities will not last long. That may be why I loved Morris’s version of 4 Saints in 3 Acts so much: like a painting by Fra Angelico, what might seem insipid and saccharine is instead strong and lifts up the heart into realms of rose and sapphire and gold.

Haiku 263

Red rose petals drift
Over yellow nasturtiums
Blue sky and green grass

19 September 2009

Haiku 262

Poised on the woodpile
Pleased and self-possessed bluebird
Berry in his beak

18 September 2009

Titanic

I went to the Symphony on Thursday night excited about the Ruckert Lieder, but it was the Mahler 1 that thrilled me. As they say, that’s why they play the games.

Not that there was anything particularly wrong with Susan Graham’s performance; her voice was lovely, soft and gleaming. But to me she sounded underpowered (and she was completely drowned by the orchestra at the end of the final song, Um Mitternacht); she had conviction but not force. We were asked to be especially quiet, since the songs were being recorded. I thought this was a reasonable request, but it brought out the rebel in some around me. Being asked to be considerate of others can do that. I’d say they should just grow up but if these people were any older – well, they’d be dead. There was chatter between each song (“That was lovely!”), much rustling and creaking, and even thumb-twiddling by the woman next to me.

Things weren’t helped by the Symphony’s decision to print the text of the five songs on three pages, and then to change the order in which they would be sung, which led to much audible page-flipping and pointing back and forth. Once again I'm baffled that the Symphony doesn’t use surtitles and tell people to put the programs away, especially if they’re going to record.

I ended up fleeing to an empty seat a few rows back during the intermission, which didn't make a whole lot of difference, thanks to an old woman a few seats away from me who flipped through her program restlessly and relentlessly and wanted to illuminate the evening for the rest of us with her keen insights (“This is some symphony!”). When Mahler said that the symphony should encompass the world, I wonder if he was including the annoying noises of symphony patrons.

But the irritations didn’t matter too much, because though I tend to run hot and cold on Michael Tilson Thomas, this was definitely a hot evening. The symphony flowed beautifully and clearly in its varied moods; I sometimes think he can make pieces pound too much, but this time I really felt that I had walked through the woods and mountains of Austria because I’d heard this music performed this way. He looked quite happy, smiling and bobbing up and down as he led the bucolic first movement.

I particularly liked the third movement, the funeral march based on Frere Jacques. It reminded me of a segment in Kurosawa’s late film Dreams, in which a wanderer stumbles onto a fox-spirit funeral procession (I just checked my memory at IMDB – it’s a wedding procession, not a funeral; I retain my original error instead of silently correcting it as a tribute to the Vienna of Mahler and Freud). The line of well-dressed fox-spirits is in midshot, walking slowly and ceremoniously, and they all turn their faces simultaneously to the observer when they sense his presence. This performance of the funeral march had that same touch of the otherworldly and grotesque under a strange and moving solemnity, ending in quiet splashes of sound (perhaps the cymbal?) before we switched to the awesome trumpet blasts of the finale.

So that was pretty delightful – at least, the musical portion of the evening. I had gone to the Asian Art Museum beforehand, and came across an announcement in the lobby that from October through January the museum would no longer hold late Thursday hours. So much for having something fun and interesting to do while I'm killing time before the inevitable 8:00 p.m. curtain. No reason was given for the change. I think this is a real shame, as it eliminates the best time for office workers to go to the museum. Now I guess we get to trek back in to San Francisco on weekends, when the museum is sure to be crowded. If the closure is for financial reasons, I wish they had considered closing an extra day during the week, which would probably save them more anyway.

And then starting this very week BART reversed one of the few things it’s done in recent years that have helped riders: non-rush hour trains are now back to arriving twenty minutes apart, instead of fifteen. I know that may not sound like much, but it actually makes a tremendous difference in the timing of the trip home, particularly when you have to work the next day. They needed to cut costs so that they could continue to give grossly inflated salaries and benefits to their worthless, lazy employees. Of course I arrived at the station about a minute after the train had left. To make matters worse, they run short trains (only four cars, out of a potential ten) at that hour, so they're already packed and noisy by the time they reach Civic Center. I guess in a way I have to salute BART’s total dedication to making each expensive ride as lousy as possible.