30 April 2009

29 April 2009

Haiku 119

Subtle disrepair,
The chipped paint, dirty carpets
Sinking into dust

*******

My trip to Paris?
Those drainpipes shaped like fishes.
That place with nice cakes.

28 April 2009

Haiku 118

White rose petals stripped
And strewn before my path by
The worshipful wind

*******

Whatever is strong
Whatever we hold secure:
Stronger is the wind

27 April 2009

Haiku 117

Waking in moonlight:
Moonlight, silence, midnight blue:
Silvered ecstasy

26 April 2009

Haiku 116

(after watching Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon)

Sheep may safely graze
As lovely shepherds debate
Love's Divinity

25 April 2009

24 April 2009

Haiku 114

Bins crammed with cheap toys
Someone's plastic paradise
The sadness of bulk

*******

Disappearing clouds;
All that's left of the forecast
Is my heavy coat

22 April 2009

Haiku 112

(for Henri Duparc)

Low light through a mist
Conceals and reveals rare tints
Many hours, few songs

*******

Perfumed indolence
And condensed sighs redolent
Of love-crushed blossoms

20 April 2009

Haiku 110

Relentless Beauty
Why hunt me even in dreams
Like The Kindly Ones?

*******

Cigarette butts float
Bent in an oily puddle
Gull shit on asphalt

19 April 2009

Scandalize My Name

I recently heard David Daniels with The English Concert; personally, I found it a peculiar evening, though many there seemed to have a better time than I did, which is so often true of my life. I was suffering from allergies, and I suspect Daniels was also affected; I’ve certainly heard him in better voice (though I’ve rarely seen him looking better; he’s slimmed down, though I still appeared to be one of the few people in the audience not mad-crushing on Mr. Daniels), though after a few relatively dry-sounding numbers, and lots of visible swallowing, his voice returned to his usual richer tones.

But I’m making this sound like a David Daniels recital, which is what I walked in expecting; it was actually a performance by The English Concert, led by Harry Bickett, with Bach in the first half and Handel in the second, and arias by Daniels in both halves, stuck like plums in a pudding. I’m sure it was made more or less clear when I sent in my San Francisco Performances subscription a year ago that this was not a regular recital, but since all the advertising features a prominent solo shot of Daniels, I have to forgive myself for forgetting. Not a big deal, especially since I’m full of love for SF Performances thanks to their Elliott Carter weekend and Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts, both of which I will be posting about eventually, because they were season highlights – and certainly it’s not as irritating as Cal Performances prominently featuring Yo-Yo Ma on every single program and publicity piece this year, only to restrict tickets to high-level donors – but despite the crisp, rhythmic excellence of the band, and the delightful music they performed sans soloist (the big pieces were Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 1 in C Major and Handel Concerto Grosso in A Major, Opus 6, No. 11, and there were shorter instrumental pieces from Bach’s cantata 42 and a passacaglia from Radamisto), I frankly at this point of my concert-going life would probably not have roused myself to buy a ticket to hear these pieces in the middle of the week. Yes, I know there’s always an audience for whom the familiar pieces are new, but I’m not that audience anymore.

The first three Bach selections, as I have noted, did not find Daniels in his best voice, but he hit his customary stride for the last number in the first half, Erbarme dich – and even before the last note finished vibrating in the theater, some oaf had to be the first to shout out, “Bravo!,” which is irritating enough in an opera house, but utterly bizarre as a reaction to even an average performance, much less a superior one, of Erbarme dich, which should be followed, if not by silence and muffled sobs, then at least by a decent pause.

But then I thought it was just in dubious taste altogether to program snippets of Bach’s sacred music as if they were purely an opportunity for the soloist to shine (we heard Vernugte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust, from BWV 170, Qui sedes from the B Minor Mass, Schlummert ein, from BWV 82, and Erbarme dich from the Matthew Passion).

Years ago the Handel & Haydn Society under Christopher Hogwood performed Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater followed after intermission by Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Richard Dyer in the Boston Globe commented that it seemed in poor taste to follow a meditation on the suffering of Mary at the foot of the cross with a commedia dell’arte bit, and since I heard a performance after the review came out I got to hear Hogwood rather testily defend the programming by saying that Stravinsky had used themes from Pergolesi. But that response indicated that Hogwood didn’t see anything in the pieces but the notes (also, I don’t think the themes Stravinsky used were from the Stabat Mater, which makes his response even weaker).

I felt a better defense would be theological rather than musicological: the sorrowful mysteries are preceded by the joyful mysteries and followed by the glorious mysteries. But with Daniels and The English Concert, there didn’t seem to any logic except that the first half was Bach and most of his big hits are churchy, so that’s what we get, and the second half was Handel so we get arias. It’s not as if the instrumental as well as vocal music in the first half was all “sacred,” to be contrasted with the “profane” second half. The emphasis on vocal display rather than what the music and text meant was emphasized by the fragmentary, highly selective nature of the excerpts. It’s one thing to perform the entire Credo from the B Minor Mass, even if you don’t perform the rest of it (by the way, lovely playing on the oboe d’amore by Katharina Spreckelsen on both this excerpt and the one from BWV 170), but it seemed simply strange to perform just one phrase, because that is the one that highlights the countertenor voice.

I was reminded of a CD I bought years ago, one of the first that made me think, hey, maybe I don’t need to hang on to this one – a recording of an evening of spirituals featuring Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle. Being a fan of both singers, I bought the CD and gave it several listens, but I liked it less each time I heard it. I didn’t think Norman’s majestic instrument went together particularly well with Battle’s silvery tones; it was like a duet for flute and trumpet. But what really put me off was the whole glitzy, society-benefit aura of the performances – I recall in particular a weirdly campy version of Scandalize My Name. It was just wrong. I thought it was disrespectful to the tradition of the Spirituals, and wondered at the time if anyone would have treated Bach’s cantatas as an excuse for a gala evening.

I don’t think this is just me being fusty. The nuns were right when they told us that baptism will always remain part of you, but I think this is about more than an old-fashioned sense of propriety based on a time and place that have passed by. I have no problem going to hear sacred music performed for money and applause in a theater; whatever your motivation for going to hear the B Minor Mass or the Matthew Passion, if you pay attention you are having a spiritual experience, and it’s a matter for both debate and indifference whether your motivation is Jesus Christ or Johann Sebastian Bach.

In fact it might be helpful to remove this objection from a specifically Christian context and phrase it this way: it’s about whether words and meaning matter in vocal music, and what we feel to be the nature, purpose, and role of music. If it’s all just about purity of tone and vocal display, if you can excerpt Schlummert ein (an aria which, for many people, has been consecrated by the performance of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) and then follow it with a flashy operatic aria as if both pieces did the same thing, then is there any essential difference between the Matthew Passion and, say, Die Fledermaus?

Haiku 109

When I shut my eyes
Tangled weeds I pulled today
Reappear like ghosts

(This is not metaphorical, by the way, but a physiological phenomenon I have often experienced.)

18 April 2009

switched on

As noted earlier, I was offered a ticket to the Switchboard Music Festival, and my original plan was to stay for the whole thing, taking copious notes on each act; I ended up just sitting back and listening, partly because I eventually realized I wouldn’t be able to stay for the entire thing, and partly because that’s just the best way to experience a festival like this. I stayed for around five hours; if I had had the foresight to take the following day off from work, I might have made it to the end, but I slowly realized that even if the festival ended at the scheduled time (10:00 p.m.), and there was a good chance it wouldn’t, I still would get back to the east bay later than I would like to if I’m working the next day. Also, there was one point when it was extremely hot in the theater, and I felt the need to eat something that wasn’t chocolate-based; though they were selling food there, I decided to go out and have some delicious carnitas tacos, since I was in the Mission District.

It was my loss not to hear the entire festival. This was a tremendously fun event, and next year I hope to attend and stay the whole time, after appropriate arrangement of my precious few vacation days. The few problems I mentioned (excess heat, a little schedule slippage as the day wore on, and I haven’t mentioned this yet and it’s not the festival’s fault but – someone needs to fix the lock on the men’s room) were pretty minor – this was an impressively well-run affair. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I climbed up to the brightly painted second floor space of Dance Mission Theater, especially since this was only the Festival’s second year. I’m sure this is dully bourgeois of me, but I value efficiency, a quality often not found in black-box theaters in the Mission District. I realize I don’t give off this impression, what with my general aura of glassy spaciness, but I’m actually quite efficient myself and appreciate it even in artists.

No need to worry; the whole day was impressively well-run and well-considered. Each act pretty much kept on schedule and adjustments were made smoothly whenever necessary, set-up time between acts was minimal and allowed for a little stand-and-stretch time (which was great because I was developing Bayreuth butt), introductions were short and appropriate, the excess heat was dealt with immediately, and the music was great. There was food for sale in a room off to the side where you could go for a break (though there were also speakers so you could still hear the music). I really have to congratulate the co-directors – Jeff Anderle, Ryan Brown, and Jonathan Russell – on a great job.

On the whole the audience was also pretty considerate and well-behaved. I had a bit of trepidation about the “come and go” policy, but movement and extraneous noise during the music was fairly minimal (though this might have been due as much to the problem of negotiating steep bleacher seats in the dark as to a sense of aesthetic propriety).

If I haven’t said anything about the music yet, it’s because the totality of a festival experience includes much more than just the music, though that is the main point of course. My personal taste is for the pieces more on the jazz/klezmer side than on the rock and/or roll side, but to my ears everything was pretty consistently enjoyable and varied. In the middle of the schedule was Melody of China, in a dazzling and fluent performance of Chinese classical music, some of which I recognized from the performances of the local man who wanders around Chinatown and the BART stations playing what I think is a samisen. This group was nicely placed, since they had a very different and refreshing sound from the other performers, and I did compare hearing them to having a sorbet course, as sfmike notes in his write-up (which, Saragossa-Manuscript style, contains further links to other write-ups). Clearly the schedule had been carefully planned to avoid stylistic monotony.

Though I wanted to hear all of the performances, I was especially sorry to miss the final group on the schedule, Japonize Elephants; even though I had never heard them (or of them) before, I was enticed by their self-description: “hard-core gypsy circus bluegrass klezmer pirate clown madness.” So I bought one of their CDs as I left (the break room where they sold food also had CDs for sale and mailing-list sign-up sheets; again, everything was thought-out and well-handled), and I listened to it the next day, and damned if they didn’t describe themselves exactly right.

It was well worth sacrificing one of the early beautiful days of spring to sit in a dark room and experience this Festival. I look forward to next year, and if you want to donate to them, you can do so knowing you're supporting a good cause.

Haiku 108

Circling hawk, swoop down
And carry off my neighbor's
Yappy chihuahua

17 April 2009

Haiku 107

Love? It's that garden
Over there, in the distance,
Through that locked window

16 April 2009

Dudamel

Some day I will actually get to see the vaunted Mr Dudamel in person myself, but in the meantime, here's a report from our correspondent in DC.

Haiku 106

Lost-eyed vagrant stands
Dead leaves stuck on his blanket
Mumbling at the sea

15 April 2009

Haiku 105

Praise allergy pills
They give and they take away
Blessed be their name

14 April 2009

Haiku 104

This animal life:
Either I think about food
Or about my hair

*******

Warm sunny spring streets
Turn icy in shade and wind;
Hot fudge sundae days

13 April 2009

Haiku 103

Bloody bus-smashed bird
Anatomized on asphalt
Pigeons peck its heart

*******

Do I hear church bells
Through sealed skyscraper windows
Or just more traffic

12 April 2009

Haiku 102

Whisper through the grass,
Glance and beckon through the trees,
Echo through the waves

11 April 2009

Haiku 101

Do migrating birds
Glance at the changing colors
Of the seas they cross?

10 April 2009

Haiku 100

Crawling hours, wasted
Dust floating past the clock hands
Who can tell the time

*******

We build false idols
Hoping vainly to be struck
Down by vengeful Truth

*******

The lost days slip by --
Friend, get drunk, read poetry,
Stagger home at dawn

08 April 2009

Haiku 98

Under drifting clouds
And the pearly light of dawn,
Putting out the trash

07 April 2009

Haiku 97

Green diamond dampened
By the late showers of spring:
Wet Opening Day

*******

Office drone dreaming:
Eating a hot dog, watching
The runner slide home

*******

Infinite changes
Within a rigid pattern,
For the observant

06 April 2009

Haiku 96

Unmemorable
Accumulated drifts of
Diurnal heartaches

*******

(for the Quilted Craftsman)

Golden sun setting
Silver slivered moon rising
Grey-blue in between

05 April 2009

04 April 2009

Haiku 94

How startling to think
That for some the daily grind
Means life in Paris

De Profundis (out of the depths or out of their depth)

The first time I heard Anne-Sophie Mutter live was back in Boston days. She is of course famously beautiful and she used to say she preferred dresses that left her shoulders bare because she played better when she felt the violin against her bare skin. During intermission I was trapped behind two slow dowagers and one said to the other in slightly bewildered tones, “Isaac Stern doesn’t need his shoulders bare.”

Mutter and her playing are just as beautiful as ever, judging from her appearance with the San Francisco Symphony a few weeks ago for the North American premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens. Gubaidulina, who takes her own path somewhere between Shostakovich and Arvo Part, is the first Phyllis Wattis Composer in Residence at the Symphony; I had heard some of her music back in Boston, but this was my first chance in a long time to hear her work live.

This was an amazing half-hour. I’d describe the music, but instead I’ll just say you should buy it and come up with your own evocative metaphors – just trust me when I say it’s even better, much more so, heard live. I hope Mutter, with her well-known commitment to new music, will continue to travel around with the piece.

It was such a success that the second half of the concert, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and La Valse, left me itchy and restless. Normally I love Ravel (and I have to quote my favorite Ravel line: “People call me artificial – have they never considered that I am artificial by nature?”) but after the profoundly spiritual and nature-echoing Gubaidulina the waltzes grated on me and seemed silly and shallow, especially in a coarse performance that brought out the blare in the orchestra (though I should give Tilson Thomas credit for the beautiful handling of the first half, and for the delightfully spiky American Overture by Prokofiev that opened the concert). I spent my time coming up with things that I thought would have made a better coupling: maybe something by Beethoven, or Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.

I wish I had thought of leaving at intermission. I was tired anyway. The night before I had heard Barbara Bonney in recital, and it was a dispiriting evening: her voice sounded worn and strained, dry and forced, and I wondered if she had some sort of unannounced cold or allergy problem since she seemed to have trouble with breath support. There was obviously a lot of love and respect for her in the room, which made the concert that much more painful. It was one of those evenings when I think about the time lost and look at how much I spent on my ticket and I just feel sad about life. So out of two evenings, at least I had the half hour of Gubaidulina, and that honestly made it all worthwhile.

The symphony had a more consistently successful outing the next week, and another celebrated soloist in Martha Argerich. This concert was probably one of the most anticipated of the season, at least by me; I was so excited about the Ligeti Requiem that I actually kind of forgot that this would also be my first time hearing Argerich live.

One of the great things about going to the Thursday performances in Civic Center is that the Asian Art Museum is open late that night, so instead of just wandering around killing time before the theater (which, I have to admit, is basically all I ever really do anyway), I could wander the galleries, in particular the new Bhutan exhibit, which incorporates many fascinating videos of that country’s sacred dance and music (though I have to admit to being a bit amused by the museum’s reverent insistence on the religious origin and nature of the art we were seeing – it apparently never occurs to people that all those crucifixions and Madonnas by the Old (and not always so old) Masters that line galleries all over the world also have been torn out of their religious context).

I think some of that chanted aura, and also the sense of religious works surviving out of context, went into my hearing of the concert, which opened with the SF Symphony Chorus director Ragnar Bohlin conducting an excellent performance of Gabrieli’s In ecclesiis, with some of the chorus on stage and the rest lining the two side aisles to re-create the separated choirs of a Venetian church.

After that Tilson Thomas came out to conduct the Ligeti Requiem. He spoke beforehand, and for once I didn’t mind it; in fact, I felt some kinship, because I realized he trusted the Symphony audience as little as I did. A sizeable chunk of that crowd can only even pretend to listen to music that has been certified as a masterpiece, the more familiar the better, which makes them not the most receptive crowd for modern music. Tilson Thomas cited a Rilke poem, briefly and appropriately, to set the mood. (I had a link to a blog that gave the whole poem, but that entry seems to have disappeared, so maybe we should all just go read Rilke and think about Ligeti.) (I was also grateful Tilson Thomas didn’t mention the music’s use in Kubrick’s 2001; no offense to that film, which I enjoyed when I saw it years ago, but what’s important and intriguing about this music is not its use in a film which, I suspect, most people haven’t seen very recently – yet 2001 always comes up in articles about Ligeti. We certainly live in a movie culture. But I do have to admit that during the performance I kept thinking about Kozintsev's King Lear, which I recently saw again; I think a Ligeti soundtrack would have been even better than the one Shostakovich supplied for it.)

Tilson Thomas then conducted one will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of this season at the San Francisco Symphony. I realize there are people who find Ligeti “difficult”, but I only realize that because they say so; to me this music is so jaw-droppingly beautiful, and so nakedly and immediately available, that other responses seem a bit unreal to me. Not witty like Le Grand Macabre (though writing a Requiem Mass when commissioned to celebrate a new music festival is, as Thomas May’s characteristically excellent program note remarked, “characteristically provocative”), it has a similar mood-altering effect, in its somber way. Talking with Ms TS afterwards, I found that I was not the only one to feel it as cries and moans emerging from a swirling mist. There’s a part at the end when the cembalo startlingly shivers in, and I was reminded but in a good way of Beecham’s quip about harpsichords sounding like two skeletons making love. Hearing Ligeti live is always amazing and enriching. And while Hannah Holgerson, the soprano, and Annika Hudak, the mezzo, were outstanding, I think the Symphony chorus was the real hero of the performance. I hope the Symphony revives this piece soon.

During intermission I was yet again blocked behind two dowagers making their slow way up to the lobby. One was noting to the other with implied disapproval of what we had just heard that “Mozart’s Requiem is much more melodic.” I’m sure Mozart would be horrified to discover that his funeral mass is now preferred for its prettiness. I’m not sure why “melodic” is a great recommendation in a lament for the dead, anyway. Times and places and musical styles change, but dowagers do not.

After the intermission Martha Argerich came out to play the rather Gershwinesque Ravel Piano Concerto in G major, and this time Ravel did not seem like an irrelevant intrusion after a profound contemporary work. I mentioned to Lisa at the intermission that after the Ligeti, and after all I’d heard about Argerich, I was going to be disappointed if she didn’t make the piano burst into flames. Well, guess what? She did. She came out, looking rather shy and stumbling slightly. She sat down and ripped through an electric performance that was poetic and strong, fleet without being rushed, dazzling and deep. She had to repeat the third movement because the audience wouldn’t let her leave.

Where do you go after that? Home might have been best, but there was one more piece. Liszt’s tone poem Tasso: Lamento e Trionfo was in the unfortunate position of being a double anti-climax after Ligeti and Argerich. I enjoyed it, and it actually had some interesting submerged links with the rest of the program (Hungarian composers, political oppression, an individual against society), but it was really in an impossible position, and the music though often striking and beautiful also has its Romantic clichés, or what strike us as such; talking with Lisa afterwards, I wondered whether some of Liszt was like the Tarantino of Pulp Fiction – an innovator whose innovations were so rapidly absorbed that they don’t strike latecomers as innovations at all.

It’s nice when a concert you’ve been anticipating since it was announced actually lives up to your hopes.

Somewhere amid all these concerts I heard soprano Nicole Cabell (accompanied by Spencer Myer) in Berkeley (and I just checked my calendar because I could have sworn this concert was after the Ligeti/Argerich concert, but it was before, and I heard several other things in those weeks as well; how busy I am!). She and her voice are both fresh and lovely, though a few members of the audience, more querulous than I, felt that she sometimes sacrificed expressiveness for sheer beauty of sound. I saw their point, but I was happy to bask in the sheer beauty, though merely lovely sounds can become a bit monotonous.

To me any problems had more to do with her program. The second half had a cycle of five songs (I Hate Music) by Bernstein, which was five songs too many, and I have to say that nine Spanish songs in the first half were kind of a lot of Spanish songs; once again I couldn't help noticing a certain similarity in theme and style, and in the spirit of my generic Russian Song, I offer a generic Spanish Song, titled, of course, Mi Corazon:

Mi Corazon
My hair is dark and curly,
My eyes are black and sparkle,
But a dog has bitten my heart
Ay yi yi yi yi yi, yi yi yi

I play guitar and sing,
And the boys all come to listen,
But a dog has run off with my heart
Ay yi yi yi yi yi,
Ay yi yi yi yi yi yi . . . .

03 April 2009

02 April 2009

Haiku 92

Tender pale green leaves!
Did the soft pink blossoms fall
While I glanced away?

*******

Bright pink splashed on green:
It's the first rose of summer,
Nodding to no one

01 April 2009

Haiku 91

Naked mannequins
Jumbled, gesticulating
Headless in the dark

*******

Let the grass grow long,
Long enough for breeze to bend,
Long enough to sway