31 December 2010

Haiku 2011/1

soft days fade away
feather-soft snow piles in drifts
melting forgotten

(I'm having some strange computer problems, so I don't know if it's my system or blogger that thinks I'm publishing this yesterday, but this is actually Saturday January 1, 2011.)

one for the new year

from William Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -- Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.


Peace and strength in the new year.

'twas the season 12

deflated Santa on 8th Avenue, New York, December 2009

Haiku 2010/365

bright bouquets lined up
(edges just starting to wilt)
everyone has left

30 December 2010

26 December 2010

'tis the season 7


Night-time Santa on one of the West 40 streets in Manhattan, I think outside a "gentlemen's club" (ho ho ho)

New York City, December 2009

Haiku 2010/360

half-moon hanging low
in a wet and windy sky
rain strips the branches

19 December 2010

Haiku 2010/353

a flash tears the dark
thunder rumbles somewhere near
waiting for the rain

18 December 2010

Haiku 2010/352

drinking wine with friends
flushed, I find the house too warm
outside, the rain falls

17 December 2010

16 December 2010

15 December 2010

14 December 2010

13 December 2010

12 December 2010

11 December 2010

10 December 2010

09 December 2010

08 December 2010

07 December 2010

Einstein on the West Coast

Cal Performances drops a hint that its upcoming seasons will be as exciting as this one: from 19-28 October 2012 they will be presenting the West Coast premiere of the celebrated Philip Glass/Robert Wilson collaboration, Einstein on the Beach. More information here.

Haiku 2010/341

regulated streams
jetting up from the fountain
slashed by falling rain

06 December 2010

Haiku 2010/340

a burst of yellow
leaves against white bark: drifting
wind-borne to the earth

05 December 2010

04 December 2010

03 December 2010

02 December 2010

Haiku 2010/336

somewhere in the woods
a branch snaps in the silence
deer look up, startled

01 December 2010

30 November 2010

29 November 2010

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December

It’s sugarplum month, but we don’t need to let that stop us. There will be Christmas-tinged items on this list, but that’s hardly avoidable, even if I wanted to. I will proceed along my usual arbitrary and personal lines (no Nutcrackers, but the Hard Nut would be listed if it was being staged this year in these parts, which it isn’t being). There will be Messiahs! I know it’s one of the ultimate holiday chestnuts, but this is the season for chestnuts, and even though I should be tired of it I’m not. In fact I’m listening to it right now. Because I probably won’t make any of the live performances, due to conflicts beyond my control.

Thursday, December 2, the Pacific Film Archive, Paramount Theatre, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival unite to present Carl Theodor Dreyer’s astounding 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, accompanied by a live performance of Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, an oratorio inspired by the film. Information here. Go and marvel!

John Adams and El Nino return to the San Francisco Symphony December 2-4. Later in the month there’s a little more Adams and a lot more Messiah.

Philharmonia Baroque presents Messiah on December 3, 4, 5, and 7, in various locales as is their wont. And American Bach Soloists presents Messiah on December 16, 17, and 18. If the calendar or location don’t decide for you, you can compare casts and other relevant information: here for Philharmonia Baroque, here for American Bach Soloists, and here for the San Francisco Symphony.

Magnificat mixes it up by presenting Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit, which uses old French carols as its basis, along with other seasonal music. December 17-19 in various locales; details here.

Berkeley Rep revives Mary Zimmerman’s fun production of The Arabian Nights, December 11-30.

Cutting Ball Theater extends its production of The Tempest to December 19 (my thoughts here, but in case you don't want to click through, it's a recommendation). And if you want more of the Elizabethans, Cutting Ball’s Hidden Classics Reading Series (which is free), has Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, on December 5. (Opera fans may know the play as the source for Richard Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau, though the opera is possibly done even less often than the play. I have actually seen the play staged, but never the opera.) By the way, can anyone explain to me why there is no good (that means affordable and scholarly yet meant for the public) complete edition of Jonson’s plays and masques? He must be fuming over how his rival Shakespeare has outstripped him.

I would be at Epicoene on the 5th if I didn’t already have a ticket for Elza van den Heever’s solo recital, presented by San Francisco Performances, part of their always worthwhile Young Masters series.

And Cal Performances has a full slate, including Christian Tetzlaff playing Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin on December 4, and Nicholas Hodges on the 12th, with the Hammerklavier and Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck X.

Haiku 2010/333

close your eyes tightly
tell yourself something will come
out of the darkness

28 November 2010

Haiku 2010/332

obscured by streetlights
the stars still burn around us
coldly, patiently

thus would I chant a song for you, O sane and sacred death

After a season of garish Aidas and bedraggled Butterflies, San Francisco Opera finally justified its existence by presenting Karita Mattila in her role debut as Emilia Marty, in Janacek’s great opera The Makropulos Case. “Emilia Marty” is only the latest pseudonym of Elina Makropulos, born in 1575 and still alive well over 300 years later, thanks to an experimental formula concocted by her alchemist father at the behest of Emperor Rudolf II, who ordered him to use his daughter as a guinea pig. She escapes and her father is imprisoned as a quack (as she notes, the Emperor couldn’t know that she would live over 300 years). She spends the next few centuries in various guises, always with the initials E.M., gathering lovers and acclaim as a singer.

The opera opens in the Prague law office of Dr Kolenaty, who is representing one side in a century-old lawsuit over an inheritance; the celebrated opera singer Marty shows up, rather surprisingly, and further surprises everyone with a supernatural-seeming knowledge of the location and contents of papers sealed and hidden decades ago. It develops that the original owner of the disputed property was one of EM’s lovers, and she has returned seeking the alchemical formula, which her long-ago lover took and never returned to her: her 300 years of youth are coming to an end, and she needs the formula to renew them.

Mattila is superlative, bringing a somewhat icy glamour and an incandescent voice to a role she seems born to play. (I’ve seen the DVD with Anja Silja and two other live productions of this opera, but it’s now difficult for me to imagine anyone else in the part.) Years of watching death take friends and lovers has left EM both cold-hearted and anguished. It’s in little asides (“they all die. . . “) that Mattila deftly and momentarily plumbs the grief of the character, before reverting to a Lulu-like aura which attracts a fresh generation of willing and would-be victims. There are moments even in the beginning when she suddenly moves in the jittery and uncertain way of an old and fragile person, preparing us for the revelation of her final monologue, in which she astonishes the skeptical lawyer and the other participants in the lawsuit with the story of her life.

The costuming also sets EM apart, from her first appearance in an elegant silken white outfit (this production is apparently set in the 1950s, but aside from this Marilyn Monroeish outfit the time change doesn’t really register; everyone else’s outfits look like the 1920s as originally specified, an impression reinforced by the Pierrot costume EM has on in Act 2's back-stage scenes; Pierrot was an artistic fashion in the 1920s, not the 1950s). The sets are elegantly done in blacks, whites, and grays (often cross-hatched in the manner of an old engraving), with touches of red (some roses, EM’s lips. . . .). It all has the air of the chic and the fantastic.

Each scene is dominated by an enormous clock, keeping real time. I have a bad habit (I think it is a bad one) of being obsessed with time passing during a performance; sometimes I think about just covering the time counter on my DVD player. Here the clocks are a constant urgent reminder of mortality, and the value of the fleeting; that’s live performance for you, vanishing even as you watch. This effect was even more powerful for me because there were only six performances scheduled and due to various conflicts I wasn’t able to get to a second one, even though this is the kind of powerful, rewarding evening you go to the opera hoping for (needless to say one is usually disappointed in that hope, however entertained in other ways; this production really is special).

I do have some complaints. One is that I wish the momentum of the piece had not been broken with a lengthy intermission between Acts 2 and 3 (though that did give the awful couple in front of me the chance to leave). Performed without an intermission, the opera would be about the length of Salome, which we all know Mattila sings; would it really be too taxing to perform this opera straight through? (I’m genuinely asking. When I’m doing something physical like exercise I tend to start slow and build strength as I go, so an intermission would throw me off; perhaps singers feel differently.)

I was thinking about Mattila’s Salome (which I saw on a Met livecast, the only one I’ve been to) because she brings a similar movement to both characters, towards a deeper understanding and acceptance of life that includes and ends in death (at least, Salome does this in Mattila’s interpretation). I thought her Salome was fascinating and individual because her final monologue became a movement towards spiritual insight, and not just towards the final grotesque expression of lurid sexuality. EM moves in the same spiritual and psychological direction, towards an understanding and acceptance of the power and beauty of life as enforced and illuminated by death. At the end, Janacek does that thing he does at the end of many of his operas, where the music, though still very much in character with what we’ve been hearing all night, lightens and spreads out and upward in a way that exalts the meaning of the final action, as well as the listeners.

Mentioning the ending leads to my second complaint, and this one is major. There's one other prominent female character in the opera: Kristina, the youthful daughter of the clerk Vitek. Kristina, just embarking on adult life, longs to be a great singer like Emilia Marty, whom she idolizes (at least until her boyfriend kills himself for unrequited love of Marty). The end as written has EM offering the formula to Kristina, partly as compensation for the death of her boyfriend; she then, having witnessed both EM’s final suffering and EM’s exhausted indifference to suffering, chooses to burn the formula. It’s an incredibly powerful moment: a youthful version of EM essentially looks at what that life has been and chooses a different path. In this production, inexplicably, one of the men (a descendant of EM’s, in his 30s) snatches the paper from Kristina’s hands and burns it. I have no idea why the change was made, or what we’re supposed to make of it. Given our time and place, this action is simply going to be read, and condemned, as a man imposing his judgment on a younger woman, without consulting her. I thought this was the one major misstep in the production, and I hope this inexplicable change is switched back to the superior original.

The orchestra, under the direction of Jiri Belohlavek, was superb. The entire cast was strong the night I went (in addition to Mattila, the performers are: Thomas Glenn as Vitek, Miro Dvorsky as Albert Gregor, Susannah Biller as Kristina, Dale Travis as Dr Kolenaty, Gerd Grochowski as Baron Jaroslav Prus, Maya Lahyani as a chambermaid and then as a cleaning woman, Austin Kness as a stagehand, Brian Jagde as Janek, and Matthew O’Neill as Count Hauk-Sendorf, a doddering old lover of EM’s who remembers her as the gypsy dancer Eugenia Montez who ruined and delighted his life. The performances are dedicated to the late Sir Charles Mackerras, who did so much to introduce Janacek to the world outside of the Czech Republic. San Francisco Opera had started a program of broadcasting some of their productions; if they’re still doing that, The Makropulos Case should be at the top of the list (once they correct the misguided change at the end, of course).

27 November 2010

Zenshinza Theatre Company

Last weekend I had a double dose of the Zenshinza Theatre Company, who came to Berkeley on their American debut tour. Zenshinza describes itself as “Japan’s oldest and largest repertory theater company”; they were founded in 1931 by two famous kabuki actors, Kawarasaki Chojuro and Nakamura Kan’emon, after a 1928 kabuki tour of the Soviet Union. Ironically, this first kabuki tour outside of Japan, while hugely influential on western theater, left the Japanese actors wishing for a more realistic performance style.

Saturday evening featured two works in classic kabuki style. The first, a comic curtain-raiser called Chatsubo (The Tea Chest), tells of a drunken servant carrying a chest of fine tea home to his master, a tea connoisseur. He falls asleep in the middle of the road with his arm through one strap of the chest; a clever and desperate thief comes by, sizes up the possibilities, and puts his arm through the other strap, claiming the chest is his. A magistrate comes by and quizzes the two, who mirror each others words and movements. It’s a fun little piece, expertly performed by Fujikawa Yanosuke as the servant, Nakajima Hiroyuki as the thief, and Masuki Hiroshi as the magistrate, though it’s not really the kind of thing that makes me laugh out loud. Instead I enjoyed it the way I enjoy silent movie comedies – not so much because they’re funny as because I admire their elegance and wit of movement and invention. This story of a disputed prize seemed like something Mack Sennett might have produced. The piece was first performed in Tokyo in 1921, and though it’s an adaptation (by Okamura Shiko) of a presumably older kyogen piece, I did idly wonder if there was some cross-influence to the short comedies Hollywood was producing then. They feed the same theatrical appetite, in their different styles.

After the intermission came the evening’s main event, Narukami (The Thunder God). It is the tale of a powerful priest, Narukami (Arashi Keishi), who is angered by the Emperor’s refusal to dedicate a temple to him. He traps the rain dragons by his magic and the land suffers drought until, at the Emperor’s secret behest, Princess Taema (Kawarasaki Kunitaro), pretending to be a young widow intent on becoming a nun, seduces Narukami into drinking excessive amounts of sake, which priests are forbidden to drink at all. When he passes out, she cuts the magic rope trapping the rain dragons. Both dragons and Princess flee, and when Narukami awakes and realizes he’s been tricked, he in his fury changes with spectacular visual effects into a thunder god and vows to pursue the Princess, seeking revenge.

The bold and colorful sets and costumes of both plays were a pleasure to watch. It’s also a pleasure to watch a theatrical style that has been, as far as I know, basically unchanged for centuries (although of course the bedrock of English-speaking theater is much older – Shakespeare died about a century and a half before even the oldest kabuki plays were written – the English performance style has changed constantly).

I was in the second row for this night, which was fine with me despite the neck-craning necessary to read the surtitles, but I saw some other front-row habitués move farther back at the intermission. That might actually have been a good idea for this second play, which uses the whole stage, often to significant purpose (for example, the way the Princess, who enters from stage right, and the priest over on stage left slowly move towards each other and the center of the stage as they move closer emotionally during the seduction scene). Since this is kabuki of course the Princess is played by a man; initially his stylized falsetto caused a few giggles but anyone who wasn’t expecting that sound or thought it was meant to be comic caught on quickly. Quite a spectacular show.

We had a spectacular of a different sort the next afternoon. Though I knew that Honen and Shinran was a new play (written by Tajima Sakae to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Honen Shonin and the 750th anniversary of Shinran Shonin, two monks who developed what became the largest Buddhist sect in Japan today), I thought it would be a new play in the kabuki style.
But the incidental music sounded like bits from a 1950s Biblical epic (pre-recorded for this play, though we had live music in the traditional style for the Saturday night performances). And there were actresses playing the female parts. So, no kabuki style! Instead it was a fairly old-fashioned religious pageant. Although I wasn’t familiar with the titular monks beforehand, the general arc of the story is familiar from any number of western saints and sages – from Jesus himself to Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther to the Ba’al Shem Tov: a holy man seeks enlightenment, and finally finds it not in the rules of established religion but in simple things of the spirit. He preaches and gives hope to the poor and dispossessed, offering them a direct route to the spiritual, bypassing the established priests and their complex and lucrative rules; eventually he is persecuted by the priests who are threatened by his message of spiritual equality and by the governors who are threatened by the spiritual message’s implicit message of political equality.

Though I probably would not have bought a ticket if I’d known exactly what the play was (or, more precisely, that it wasn't in traditional Japanese style), I don’t regret seeing it, though at three hours it struck me as too long. (Saturday night’s two plays were altogether about two-and-a-half hours, including intermission.) Perhaps I was just particularly impatient, having been stressed and fairly sick the whole week. On the other hand, the spiritual message of resilience and strength in the face of humiliation and rejection did resonate strongly under those circumstances, as did the realization that we’ve cycled through this particular story many times, not that we’ve ever learned much from it.

Certainly the audience was with them all the way. At one point a curtain jammed and there was a delay while they tried to get it to rise (the whole thing was quite fluidly and cinematically staged). This is normally the type of thing that reduces audiences to excited whispers and chuckles that last long after the problem has been fixed, but instead there was a respectful and reasonable silence. During a blizzard that opened the second part, the theatrical snow (little squares of white tissue paper) fell so abundantly that those of us in the front were well dusted with it. I noticed the woman next to me carefully pick the snow-scraps off her outfit and place the little pile in her purse as a souvenir. Afterwards she said to me, “Well, we got snowed on! That was something special.”

Haiku 2010/331

never so vivid
a green as the green that greens
the rain-soaked valley

not hearing Rufus

Last season at the Symphony one of the programs I was most looking forward to was the premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Five Shakespeare Sonnets, since I like Wainwright and love Shakespeare. The rest of the program (the ballet music from Faust, Vivier’s Zipangu, and Poulenc’s suite from Les Biches) was also well-chosen: French or French-inflected, sly and stylish. Of course Wainwright postponed his appearance, and Duncan Shiek appeared in his stead, with a song suite from Whisper House.

Wainwright reappeared on this season’s schedule, but once bitten twice shy, so I didn’t hurry to get a ticket ahead of time. By the time it was clear he would indeed show up with the Shakespeare piece, I had come to one of my periodic realizations that I spend way, way too much on performances, so I decided I should try for a rush ticket, only none were available. I did drop several shamelessly broad hints to my better-connected friends, but they had other guests in mind. This is where I would have posted about Wainwright’s piece if I’d gone to hear it this time around, so I figured I might as well post about last spring’s concert, since I never got around to writing about it at the time.

This was my first time hearing anything by Duncan Shiek. I had skipped Spring Awakening because (what a lesson to people like me who regularly praise theater pieces hoping other people will go see them) the raves really put me off. All that talk of how Broadway would never be the same since the voice of a new generation had arrived blah blah blah – isn’t that exactly what they said about Hair? and West Side Story? and, I don’t know, Babes in Arms? Also: amplified voices with a rock-inflected score: ah, the two things that have ruined American musical theater, together once again.

So Shiek came out after the ballet music from Faust to play his amplified, rock-inflected songs from Whisper House, a musical about an orphan boy during the Second World War who is sent to live in a New England lighthouse which is haunted by the ghosts of those who have died in the surrounding waters. The songs are probably very effective in context, but hearing six of them played straight through rendered them completely ineffective: the material (both words and music) was too thin and the songs all ran together. I could hear the Symphony’s strings under the amplified guitar and vocals, but they didn’t add a whole lot besides ambient buzz, so I really don’t know why they were there.

Shiek seems like a nice guy and was extremely earnest about the whole thing, which is possibly why I was cringing in embarrassment the entire half hour. He was there “to bring in the young people” as he put it in an interview somewhere (I forget exactly where; it was last spring, I can’t remember everything!). The young people failed to oblige. I’ve never seen Davies Hall so empty. When I was, technically, a young person, I was more interested in Messiaen and Mahler than in rock – that’s why I started going to the symphony. I really can’t emphasize that enough: the key to an orchestra’s survival in any meaningful form is that it presents an alternative to the music we get everywhere else.

My point here is not that the sacred temple of Art was profaned by the unholy sounds of Duncan Shiek and his rocking and rolling – it’s that you have this magnificent thing, the symphony orchestra, and it was being reduced to back-up buzz for a novelty act. You don’t survive as an institution by offering a watered-down, more costly version of what is easily available elsewhere. Orchestras claim that pieces like Whisper House bring in people who don’t usually go to the symphony, but so would pole-dancing. Are those people going to come back and listen to Bruckner?

I’m certainly not saying that symphonies should be closed off from the music of their time or content with their current audience; I think there is a real hunger out there for substantial art, though most of those hungering don’t look to the big musical institutions for nourishment. Ironically, this program had a perfect example of where orchestras should be going: in the direction of music like Claude Vivier’s Zipangu, which used the traditional resources of the orchestra to create striking new sounds. Vivier had a strange and almost too picturesque life story (his childhood as an orphan is fairly mysterious and after suffering premonitions of death he was killed in his mid-30s by a young man he had picked up – though, not to be callous, but given his promiscuity at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it’s likely he would have died young anyway; in either case, it was a tragic loss for contemporary music). There's a terrific DVD of his work, Reves d'un Marco Polo, that contains a fascinating documentary as well as a wonderful performance of several of his pieces, including Zipangu; I recommend the disc highly.

In addition to excellent work with the Vivier, conductor Edwin Outwater made the Poulenc crisp, elegant, and witty, and shaped a really lovely performance of the ballet music from Faust – I was so grateful not to have to sit through the dances at the Opera House a few months later, because Gounod’s opera is really long enough as it is without an extra twenty minutes of dancers hopping around in a prettified and therefore inadequate Walpurgishnacht, but the music is delightful on its own. In fact, aside from the intense embarrassment of Shiek’s piece, the whole evening was quite enjoyable. Less Shiek, more Vivier!

26 November 2010

Measha Brueggergosman

I had heard Measha Brueggergosman only once before, at a strangely disappointing recital in Berkeley, but she has been so highly and regularly praised that I was eager to hear her again last Wednesday, presented this time by San Francisco Performances. I was a little concerned because I had been up late at Cyrano the night before, and worried that the announced theme, Night and Dreams, might prove all too effective, and the artists would be treated to the sight of me snoring and drooling away in the front row. As with at least some of my anxieties, I needn’t have worried; I was alert throughout and missed nothing of the enchanting recital. I was so charmed I even stayed after to buy a CD and have her and Justus Zeyen, her accompanist, sign it. The CD is also called Night and Dreams, and though there isn’t that much overlap between the recital and the record, I haven’t listened to it yet, because I want to keep for a while longer my memory of her voice without distorting the memory with the recordings.

Her voice is indeed gorgeous; none of the breath control problems I noted in Berkeley were evident. At times it reminded me of Kathleen Battle’s voice, only in bronze instead of silver, if that makes sense. Her burnished tones were perfect for the theme. I enjoyed Zeyen’s solo turns in Schumann’s Nachtstuck in F Major, Opus 23, No 2, and Chopin’s Nocturne in D-flat Major, Opus 27, No 2. Nice to see them mix up the standard recital format in this way. I also liked the creative intercutting in the final set between three lied by Richard Strauss (Wiegenlied, Die Nacht, and Standchen) and four of Berg’s Seven Early Songs (Nacht, Traumgekront, Liebesode, and Schilflied). Her Wiegenlied stayed with me for days.

Brueggergosman is both glam and a down-to-earth total charmer; she looks like Eartha Kitt, only without the kittenish affectations. She wore two gowns (a deep red velvety number streaked with darker tones for the first half and then a silver gown, perhaps in homage to the moon) and she changed into a third for the CD signing. I complimented her on the performance and mentioned that she had changed again, and she said, “Well, I know how [the Bay Area is] about fashion.” I was wearing plain black wool pants and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, which proves my theory that the secret of elegance is long sleeves.

Oddly enough, at intermission a woman came up to me and asked if I was perhaps a singer (clearly she’d never heard me sing; as a friend thoughtfully pointed out recently, my voice still cracks) or a dancer (clearly she’d never seen me move). She was with a group from Oakland Lyric Opera and they had sent her over to find out if I was anybody. I assured her I was not. I thought it was odd only because I was asked the same question at the last Brueggergosman concert, and that is how I met Mr G/S Y (boa viagem, meu amigo!). Apparently I look extra-theatrical when I hear Ms Brueggergosman.

Haiku 2010/330

some days are filler
dirty dishes in the sink
after the party

25 November 2010

we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at The Star

When it came time to buy opera tickets this season I had mixed feelings about Cyrano de Bergerac. In decades of opera-going I had only seen the legendary – is it too early to call him that? probably not – Placido Domingo live once before, in Massenet’s Herodiade, so I ended up buying a ticket because having that as my sole live experience of one of the great singers of my time was just shameful. My feelings kept jumping over the candlestick before I bought the ticket and continued to do so after I saw the show.

I’m glad I saw Domingo . . . but why did San Francisco get this opera, out of all the more interesting roles he’s currently singing (Siegmund, Simon Boccanegra, Handel’s Tamerlano, Gluck’s Oreste, Pablo Neruda in Il Postino)? But it does give him a chance to dominate the action in a way Massenet’s John the Baptist doesn’t. Alfano’s opera has such a bad reputation that the actual experience of sitting through it is much more enjoyable than one might have feared. But I also realized I pretty much dislike the source material. And here I thought I was just tired of it. But after and overcoming all is the thrill of seeing Domingo, an accomplished and still questing musician, with a voice still recognizably the voice of his youthful performances, decades ago.

The program book, which in previous years had more articles about the actual opera and fewer pages of luxury real-estate ads and suck-up donor profiles, features one of Picasso’s “Musketeer” paintings on the cover. Enjoy it! It’s the last evidence you’ll get all evening that something happened called the twentieth century.

Alfano’s music, though not bold or particularly romantic or even memorable, certainly gets the job done. I was going to describe it as attenuated verismo but frankly I heard the performance last week (and I'm posting this a week after I wrote it, because of my Internet problems) and the music hasn’t lingered enough in my memory for me to be sure that’s what I heard, and not what I walked in thinking I might hear. I couldn’t help feeling that the elaborate and colorful production (back-stage views! giant cakes and strutting tarts! swordsmen swinging through the air!) was meant to distract from a certain lack of substance.

It’s a fun show, but the story is perhaps by now so familiar to us that instead of waiting to see what happens next we’re left dwelling on plot holes (especially in the libretto's pared-down version of the play) and psychological improbabilities. It’s all like something Douglas Fairbanks Sr would have starred in, as a rumbustious swashbuckler who, aw shucks, just can’t talk to the beauteous damsels. In fact though I’ve seen other silent-film versions of the story, I’m a bit surprised Fairbanks didn’t star in one. It must have been a reluctance to deface the famous face with Cyrano’s celebrated nose.

Oh, the nose. His jutting protuberance. His over-bold excrescence, his unmentionable extension! I’m sure the Stith Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature has a lengthy entry on nose (and foot) size as a euphemism for penis size. This isn’t some post-Freud weirdness. It’s deep human weirdness! Isn’t Tristram Shandy full of such jokes? Doesn’t castration anxiety haunt Gogol’s story of The Nose that disappeared? Of course Cyrano meets Christian when Christian breaks the regiment’s rule of silence on the subject. Some bodily parts are unmentionable in polite society. There is just all kinds of weirdness going on here if you stop to think too much. It’s best to keep moving.

I have to fault the make-up department on the schnozz – this is not a grotesque appendage that might scare off the finer ladies, but a much more tasteful bulge; for its role in the drama it’s a little too Nicole-Kidman-as-Virginia-Woolf, or possibly Alec-Guinness-as-Fagin – that is, it’s possible to see it, in certain lights and from certain angles, as striking and distinguished, rather than monstrous. The program showed the nose being applied for the Met production, and it looked much larger than the one we got here, and though I refuse to stoop to “size matters” jokes, or to acknowledge such conventional crudity, it’s an important difference.

You do have a problem with the Beauty and the Beast angle if the Beast is not particularly bestial. Cyrano's lovely cousin Roxane feels she must love a poet – you know, someone like TS Eliot – and apparently decides that the dreamy Christian, just joining Cyrano’s regiment, is the one. But Christian (who, far from being inarticulate, is quick enough with words in his initial meeting with Cyrano) can’t talk to girls either. Though perhaps the two fellas should have gone off together to explore their girl issues, Cyrano instead becomes Christian’s voice, though given the samples we get of Cyrano’s verse – all generic gush and jogtrot – I can’t help feeling that the muses’ bar is set rather low here, and Roxane would have gone roundheels for anyone who managed to come up with “There once was a man from Nantucket.”

We get the famous balcony scene, in which Cyrano under cover of darkness pours out his long-silent love for his cousin. She is swept away, though not so much that she doesn’t notice his voice sounds a bit different, an observation she doesn’t pursue to its logical conclusion. She apparently has never noticed that this is how her cousin talks, and you’d think by now she’d be so used to his nose that she’d barely notice it, especially in the subdued form it assumes in this production.
You’d think she’d also have wondered why, in the opening scene, he so angrily runs the famous actor Montfleury off the stage (never mind that others have paid to see him) because he dared to look at her with eyes of love, a charge that, given Martin Rojas-Dietrich’s relentlessly queeny swanning in the role, seems improbable; but then this is the kind of world in which actors portraying famous actors always flounce, just as aristocrats always mince and wenches are always bawdy. Also, not to be unkind, but a theme in this drama is the importance of appearances, so I have to point out that Montfleury resembles man’s life as Hobbes described it – nasty, brutish, and short – and he has no problem thinking he should get the ladies. So what is Cyrano’s problem? A certain amount of obliviousness on everyone’s part is necessary for the story, but it’s difficult not to wonder if this is willful blindness.

Christian, far from being a musclehead, is sensitive enough to understand that it is Cyrano and not himself that Roxane truly loves, and to suffer under the knowledge. In his anguish he rushes to the front lines and essentially commits suicide. I can’t help thinking that Roxane would have been better off with handsome, loving, awkward Christian, because Cyrano, frankly, is one of those tedious people who are always “on,” always in the spotlight, always drawing attention to himself, always showing up everyone else. Sometimes you just want someone to pass you the bread at dinner without subjecting you to an impromptu villanelle first. Cyrano is basically Auntie Mame, and just as tiresome and overbearing as she is, only with a bigger nose (it only makes it worse that the perceived inadequacy prompting his frantic cleverness is as plain as, ah, let me just say it, the nose on his face).

It’s a tribute to Domingo’s distinguished artistry that he makes the final scene in the convent so moving. Roxane has retreated there after Christian’s death; Cyrano visits her every Saturday, and although just before dying Christian wanted to tell Roxane the truth, Cyrano does not do so, for reasons that I’m sure are meant to be high-minded and noble and romantic but which strike me as strange and perverse and somewhat cruel (and more interesting than the high-minded reasons). I couldn’t help thinking of Vanity Fair, when Becky Sharp eventually has the kindness to release Amelia from her misplaced reverence in her late husband, killed at Waterloo, by giving her proof that he was hoping to run off with Becky after the battle. But that is a cynical work, and a romantic work like Cyrano has no truck with the liberation possible once your romantic ideals are shattered.

I still remember my shock the first time I saw or read Cyrano at a young age when his dying words were not what I was expecting (and based on the rhymes used in the surtitles last week, this is a feature of the original), which was: “I still have my . . . nose”; instead, we get “I still have my . . . panache” (translated as “spirit” in the surtitles). We can let the followers of Foucault and Freud (if Freud still has any) dwell on the overriding significance of that which is deliberately not named. For myself, I will say I was expecting irony and self-loathing, which are things I can relate to, and got more of Cyrano’s endless self-glorification/compensation. The switch has put me off the story ever since, though God knows I’ve seen enough versions of it since then. But I kept regretting versions unwritten, by playwrights who would have better brought out the role-playing and underlying sexual weirdness– Strindberg? Pirandello? Wilde? But maybe the story doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to unless you ignore all the underlying questions.

Back to the production. The autumn leaves are falling, literally and symbolically, in the convent. Cyrano, ill and dying from a head wound given him by an enemy aristocrat’s hired thug, finally reveals to Roxane that he was the one who spoke the words and wrote the letters she has cherished for years. He then dies and leaves her alone, perhaps to wonder what faults in her or him kept him from trusting her with the truth. We don’t find out, because it’s all about Cyrano, and he’s gone now.

The production was all very well done; it’s a different question whether it was worth doing. Ainhoa Arteta was a glorious, gorgeous Roxane, with a voice as bright and golden as her hair. Thiago Arancam was a strong-voiced Christian, and though he is strikingly handsome it is in a sensitive intelligent way that actually skews the drama a bit – he looks a bit too fine-spirited for the lunky role Christian is supposed to play. I hope to hear both in something more substantial. I can of course also say the same about the emperor of the evening, Domingo. His voice wavered a bit at the beginning but grew in steadiness and power throughout. His suffering in the final scene, the pain in his darkening voice as death frees him from the twisted knot of his anguish, brings the indelible power of Art to the libretto’s facile romantic tricks.

Haiku 322-329

Phone and Internet service have at last been restored, for which, on this fourth Thursday in November, I am truly thankful. Now I can go back to bitching about how slow my computer is.

Haiku 329
(for Thanksgiving Day)
and for all the birds --
soaring, singing, edible --
we humbly thank Thee

*******

Haiku 328
unseasonable
chorus of chirping crickets
now silenced by frost

*******

Haiku 327
Why was I angry.
Rain patters on the pavement.
I don't remember.

*******

Haiku 326
a self-absorbed man
leans on the wall, playing jazz
commuters rush by

*******

Haiku 325
why do we resist
certain messages sent us
by cold wind and rain

*******

Haiku 324
a second rain falls
as breezes shake the silver
from the curling leaves

*******

Haiku 323
OK, so no phone
but now I've lost DSL
AT&T sucks!

*******

Haiku 322
fallen leaves scattered
scarlet on a gray sidewalk
birds scattered in flight

20 November 2010

AT&T Sucks!

So after being without a phone for several weeks, I called AT&T and they sent someone out to take a look. And now I have neither phone or Internet. I am on an ice floe, heading out towards cold and choppy seas. Though presumably I will return at some point, and will post the backlog (haiku, Cyrano, Measha Brueggergosman, Zenshinza Theatre, Makropulos Case, and maybe more) then. Check back soon. I hope.

17 November 2010

16 November 2010

15 November 2010

14 November 2010

13 November 2010

12 November 2010

11 November 2010

10 November 2010

08 November 2010

07 November 2010

Ensemble Zellig

This afternoon I went to Ensemble Zellig’s west coast debut over at Hertz Hall in Berkeley. They are a French chamber ensemble specializing in new music (the oldest piece they played this afternoon was from 1993 and most were brand-spanking new). The group was founded in 1999 by two performers (Silvia Lenzi and Etienne Lamaison) and two composers (Thierry Pecou and Gualtiero Dazzi), and describes itself as “flexibly sized” and “fully at ease traveling through time and musical styles” – hence the eponymous use of Woody Allen’s Zelig, though the extra “l” is unexplained.

Etienne Lamaison was there, playing clarinet and bass clarinet, and so was Silvia Lenzi on cello. They were joined by Anne-Cecile Cuniot on flute and alto flute and Jonas Vitaud on piano. All were stylishly attired in black and red (of a deep brick shade). Cuniot’s dress had a chic rising-sun motif, which only added to the Japanese impression of the first number, Philippe Hersant’s Five Miniatures (1995), a solo piece for alto flute (but then solo flute music in its plangent and reedy way always reminds me of the artier Japanese films). When she left the stage the other three came out for the second piece, Don Freund’s Crunch Time (2010), which formed a nice contrast with its percussive, well, crunching, though touched with moments both jazzy and wistful.

Then we had Philippe Leroux’s PPP (1993) for flute and piano, which was more entertainingly muscular than flute/piano duos often are. That was followed by a different duo, one for clarinet and cello, Change and End (2010) by Gerald Shapiro (who was in attendance, as was Edmund Campion). There was a touching timeless quality about the piece – if you came to it with no context, it might be hard to say whether it was contemporary with us or with the French impressionists. It seemed both bucolic and elegiac (the composer’s program note mentioned that he wrote the piece while his 93-year-old mother was dying, and the piece is dedicated to her). I could see it being used for dance, the way baroque music always has underlying dance rhythms.

Next up was another collection of miniatures by Philippe Hersant, his Six Bagatelles (2007, 2010) in a new transcription for clarinet, cello, and piano. I particularly liked the second bagatelle (which I may or may not be remembering correctly as dreamy) and the fifth, which reminded me of Prokofiev’s sarcastic style. The final piece, and the first which brought all four performers on stage together, was Edmund Campion’s Auditory Fiction (2010), for flute, clarinet, piano, cello, and computer. The performers all wore earpieces connected to the computer so they could follow “in-ear click-tracks which coordinate four independent, flexible, shifting sequences of time. Each instrument in Auditory Fiction can act independently in time or join together with the quartet in perfect sync.” I’m quoting Campion’s program note, partly because I’m not quite clear what this means: does the click-track simply function as an invisible mechanical conductor? Or does it shift things around so that something different happens in each performance? The music had a very bright, clear sound, and at the beginning it reminded me of a round, where they start off together and then go off in their own directions. I was in my preferred spot in the first row, but for this piece I might have preferred being a bit further back.

These were all fairly brief, even intimate pieces (I don’t think any of them was over fifteen minutes) and the selection was both coherent and varied. I would happily have heard any or all of them over again. The performers were fabulously committed and keen. The set-up was perfect: about 90 minutes, no intermission, brief and efficient set-ups between each piece, and no talking at us, just music. Sweet, thank you!

Campion, who is a professor at Cal, had given a talk beforehand, but I didn’t go since I didn’t know about it (though I might not have gone anyway; I find such talks either vague and full of stuff I already know or could guess, or so technical that they’re distracting and don’t help my experience as a listener). I hadn’t received the subscriber e-mail about the concert because I decided to go at the last minute. “The last minute” for me is two days beforehand. There was a fair-sized audience (including Lisa), but there were plenty of seats available, and though I was delighted to be able to sit with no one around me, I recognize that the performers and presenters would probably prefer a full house.

I ended up being glad I had bought a ticket in advance, because when I woke up this morning it was raining heavily and out of the blue (the vanished blue) I had a splitting headache. Both cleared up enough so that I ventured forth, but if I hadn’t already paid for a seat I might have just bagged it and stayed home and missed out on a terrific ensemble and an exceptionally entertaining and well-run concert. I hope Ensemble Zellig will be regular visitors.

Haiku 2010/311

crooked-angled tree
bent by fierce and vanished winds
twisted tree remains

06 November 2010

I have done nothing but in care of thee

Last night I went to the first performance of Cutting Ball Theater’s new production of The Tempest, directed by Rob Melrose. It is a three-actor chamber version, but it is in a sense a very traditional production, in that Shakespeare’s plays have always been altered and adjusted to fit the mood and means of the time. I think this basic malleability of theater is the reason (in addition of course to great poetry and deep characterization) that Shakespeare became enshrined as the English writer par excellence, rather than say Spenser, whom Shakespeare's contemporaries would probably have nominated for the post; great though it is, The Faerie Queene is always going to be an elaborate, many-stranded allegorical Renaissance epic, written in semi-archaic though gorgeous language in a strict stanza.

I shouldn’t give the impression that Cutting Ball’s production is an outrageous variation; by and large, if you wanted, it’s possible to see it as a fairly straightforward telling of the story, with the virtuoso twist of using only three actors. The central idea here is a triangle between Father, Daughter, and the Young Lover who takes her away from him, and in the opening and closing scenes Prospero is presented as a therapist and Miranda his patient, subject to both hypnotherapy and classic lie-on-the-couch talk therapy. The whole idea works surprisingly well, with surprisingly little alteration necessary to the play, particularly in the long back-story scene between Prospero and Miranda at the beginning, after the opening tempest, when he tells her who she is and how they came to the island; and it creates fascinating resonances among the characters and situations.

The idea of the father struggling to give up his control sheds an interesting light on some scenes; for example, when he denounces Caliban’s attempted rape of Miranda, we can see that she is instead a willing participant, and the scene becomes about a father’s fear of (which includes his repressed fantasies about) his daughter’s growing sexual awareness, and how those feelings will lead her away from him. The advantage to using three actors is that as they become other characters, you see their basic situation in a new light: for instance, Ferdinand and Miranda are both losing their fathers, and when the father is played by the same actor, that brings the point home; when the father becomes Stephano, the drunken leader of Trinculo/Miranda and Caliban/Ferdinand, you get another lurid funhouse twist on the triangle.

David Sinaiko plays Prospero, Alonso, and Stephano; Caitlyn Louchard plays Miranda, Ariel, Gonzalo, Trinculo, and Sebastian; and Donell Hill plays Caliban, Ferdinand, and Antonio. Though occasionally, as I always do when I see Shakespeare performed, I wanted something a little more or a little different (perhaps a little more majesty from Prospero, a little more unworldliness from Ariel) I’m going to give all three a big compliment, which is that they speak the lines as if these were things the characters would actually say in this way, and as if they knew what they meant – many’s the Shakespeare performance I’ve heard where the actors have memorized the lines, and they come out sounding only like lines they’ve memorized. The performers distinguish clearly among the characters, using different voices as well as adjustments to their costumes (though perhaps they should rethink the short green tunic dress for Ariel, since it comes off as a bit Peter-Pan-like at times, and I think the use of an Italian accent for Alonso is a mistake; it sounds too much like a vaudeville funny voice and it raises the question why no one else from the same town has an accent).

Donell Hill is black, which lends an interesting resonance to his Ferdinand/Caliban function as The Other (as well as to moments like the one when he as Sebastian denounces Alonso for giving his daughter to an African and thereby losing her in that distant land). When Prospero says "this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" he points to his own heart rather than to Caliban, to whom the line officially refers; it's an interesting twist and a nice example of the fluid identities among the characters, and it completes the father's process of giving his daughter away. I'm glad they avoided the recent fad of presenting Caliban as a representative of native victims of European imperialism. I’m not saying there’s no element of that, but as a through-line interpretation it just doesn’t work for me: for one thing, Caliban is clearly servile by nature, as evidenced by his ready submission to Stephano as his new master when he’s fed up with Prospero. He also (in the standard interpretation) tried to rape Miranda when she was a little girl, which I think we can all agree makes him basically unsympathetic, and he is lazy and can’t be trusted with liquor – for me the notion of Caliban as aborigine just gets too close to minstrel-show racist stereotypes to be considered true to Shakespeare or the character or the themes of the play. It seems obvious to me that Caliban is basically an earth spirit (in contrast to Ariel), so like the earth he is often dull, heavy, and dirty, though also capable of moments of astonishing beauty (the most famous example being his speech in Act 3, scene 2, "Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises . . ." and ending "when I waked, I cried to dream again"). Shakespeare did that thing that makes him Shakespeare: he overwrote the part so that the richness of the character bursts through any thematic framework; and as with Shylock, the character has grown richer and more unanswerable with our current experience of history.

As usual with Cutting Ball, the set, the videos, and the ambient sounds are stylish and appealing. The raised stage looks like the bottom of a swimming pool, and there is a desk (holding the chess set and a model of a ship) and a couch such as you might find in a therapist’s office. The backdrop is a large engraving in the style of Dore of the sun setting over the ocean; surrounding that is a thick border of shiny silver foil. (Michael Locher is the set designer, Bessie Delucchi did the costumes, Heather Basarab the lighting, and Cliff Caruthers the sound.)

Personally, I’d much rather see an inventive take like this than a more straightforward production; nothing against such productions, but at this point in my theater-going (and my life with Shakespeare) I’m just not going to see a production of one of his plays where I think they’ve nailed everything. So I might as well spare myself the time and money and wait for shows that cast a different light on what I think I already know.

The movement of the play as an inner psychological struggle to allow one’s child (and her spirit, her Ariel) her freedom makes the effect of this production surprisingly elegiac; though The Tempest is often presented as Shakespeare’s farewell, this is the first time I really felt it that way.

The production runs through November 28 at the Cutting Ball's home stage, the Exit Stage Left.

Haiku 2010/310

sitting on her stoop
selling off her extra stuff
dark-haired and laughing

05 November 2010

Haiku 2010/309

ill-set summer days
dropped among the early frosts:
crickets chirp, leaves drop

04 November 2010

03 November 2010

02 November 2010

fun stuff I may or may not get to: November

This is a chockfull month, and that’s not even counting roasting the turkey on the fourth Thursday. . . . Good luck getting to even half of this list. I don’t know when I’m going to get the laundry done or the pies baked.

American Bach Soloists begin a collaboration with choreographer Todd Eckert November 5-7 at Dance Mission Theater, where he will premiere Sinfonia (to ABS recordings), the first part of a three-part piece that will culminate in live performances next July. The November performances also include works by Nol Simonse. The program details are here.

San Francisco Contemporary Music Players open their 40th season with music by Glass, Cage, Combier, and Vanoni (the latter will be there in person) on Monday, November 8, at Herbst Theater.

Cutting Ball opens its season with a three-person chamber arrangement of The Tempest.

Volti opens its season November 5-7 with another enticing collection of new pieces, in a different location each of the three nights. Unfortunately for me, none of the locations (click here) is convenient for an East Bay nondriver. Geez, what’s up, guys? Was it because I refused to sing along?

ACT offers Marcus or The Secret of Sweet, the third part of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Brother/Sister Plays. The first two parts were at the Marin Theater Company and the Magic Theater (in keeping with this month’s theme of inaccessibility to East Bay nondrivers, I’d like to note that the former is completely inaccessible and the second requires a major effort). I have been told that the plays can also be seen separately, though the experience is enriched if you see them all.

ACT is also collaborating with Nicole Paiement’s group, Blueprint, to present the Tom Stoppard/Andre Previn work for orchestra and actors, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, at the Conservatory of Music on November 20, with performances at 7:00 and 9:00. Call 415-503-6275 for tickets.

San Francisco Performances presents Measha Brueggergosman and Justus Zeyen on November 10, as well as the return of Japanese butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku on November 11-14.

Cal Performances presents the Zenshinza Theatre Company in two different programs: on November 13, Narukami, an eighteenth-century kabuki play, and on November 14, Honen and Shinran, an contemporary play in kabuki style. And I will probably not be able to resist a ticket to Ensemble Zellig’s afternoon of new music on November 7.

Shotgun Players has extended its run of Mark Jackson’s adaptation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart through November 14.

Philharmonia Baroque offers Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, along with contemporary works by Corelli, Pergolesi, Durante, and Zavateri on November 5, 6, 7, 9, and 10, in several different locations (click here for details).

The Paul Dresher Ensemble presents “new music and invented instruments” by Ryan Brown, Paul Dresher, and Bruce Pennycock on November 12 and 13 at the ODC Theater.

San Francisco Opera presents the great Placido Domingo in Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as this season’s most eagerly anticipated opera (at least by me), The Makropulos Case with Karita Mattila.

Berkeley/West Edge Opera presents Handel’s great Xerxes, conducted by baroque specialist Alan Curtis and starring Paula Rasmussen, on November 13, 19, and 21.

The San Francisco Symphony presents a solid line-up of soloists (Nicholas Phan, Keith Phares, and Joelle Harvey) in Carmina Burana, along with works by Schnittke and Haydn, on November 3, 4, 5, and 8. The week after that, Rufus Wainwright is scheduled to appear for the premiere of Five Shakespeare Sonnets which was postponed from last season, along with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (per SFMike's comment below, this has been switched to Milhaud's Creation du Monde) and Weill’s Symphony No. 2. On November 17, 19, 20, and 21, you can hear Elza van den Heever singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs, along with Schubert’s always delightful Music from Rosamunde and a perhaps less delightful traversal once again of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

Chora Nova presents an all-Haydn concert on November 20 at First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley (right by the Unit 3 dorms, my old home).

The New Century Chamber Orchestra features the Goldberg Variations (arranged by Sitkovetsky) and three pieces by composer and violinist Mark O’Conner, November 18-21 in four different locations (click here for info).

And a late addition . . . Feldman's Rothko Chapel will be performed at the Berkeley Art Museum this Friday, November 5, at 7:30, along with works by Ashley, Mitchell, and Harrison.

Haiku 2010/306

lying half-asleep
a branch scratches the window
am I half awake

01 November 2010

GIANTS WIN THE WORLD SERIES!!!

Better luck next year to everyone else. . .

I'm already receiving merchandising e-mails!

Above is the Ferry Building at dawn, lit orange for the team.

Haiku 2010/305

blue skies of late fall
warm days give way to chill nights
a clear moon rises

31 October 2010

Urban Opera: The Witch of Endor

I had missed Urban Opera’s premiere production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas last year, but I’d heard enough raves to keep an eye out for any follow-up productions. Finally a new project was announced: a Purcell pasticcio called the Witch of Endor, scheduled for two performances on Halloween weekend at the Episcopal Church of St Mary the Virgin. I did hesitate a bit since this would be a BART plus bus trip, which meant that getting to and fro would likely take several times as long as the actual performance (which was announced as slightly more than an hour, but was actually a bit less). Then I saw that Shawnette Sulker, whom I had enjoyed so much in the Carter song-cycle last August, would be singing, so I decided to be adventurous and trip out to a different venue. Not only that – I sprang for a Premium ticket. I’m sure glad I did – the performance is one of the most fantastic (in every sense of the word) things I’ve seen in quite a while, and I’ve rarely seen any group do so much with what must be limited resources.

St Mary the Virgin turned out to a small and severely elegant church of dark wood, with the occasional baroque Catholic-type touch – two large statues of swirling angels, an elaborate brocade altar cloth. Director and conductor Chip Grant used the entire space, from the altar to the aisle to the organ loft in the back. All the music (except for one scene for drum circle) was from Purcell, centering on the short scene In Guilty Night, but also incorporating instrumental and vocal music from other compositions, combined with readings (from Rudyard Kipling and the Bible), movement, and film to tell the story of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor, which ends with the summoned ghost of Samuel announcing that Saul and Jonathan will the very next day join him in the world of the dead. All of these elements combined smoothly to produce something that was both new and yet faithful to the allegorical masque-spirit of the seventeenth century.

After the introductory recitation of Kipling’s The Witch of En Dor (by Gary Graves, as a wandering old street preacher) and the chaconne from King Arthur, the Reverend Dr. Jason Parkin read the relevant passages from Samuel I in mellifluous tones, a prologue that provided anyone unfamiliar with the story (which is also a key incident in Handel’s oratorio Saul) with an immediate understanding of the story we were about to experience.

Though the duration of the performance was short, it was very condensed and rich, with many touches that expanded the implications of the piece and played off one another: for example, Shawnette Sulker as the Witch wore a striking orange pleated cape and costume with a feathered headress, and the drum circle of related sorcerers carried bare white branches, and their outfits evoked the natural world and African spirit mediums and their struggle against persecution by the imperialist reformers evoked by the readings from Kipling and the film clips of British imperial coronations; the dominance and eventual collapse of imperialism is a subject, needless to say, deeply relevant to contemporary America.

The film (and it was actually a filmstrip, with that evocative whir of the projector) illustrated the backstory – the coronation of Saul and his persecution of witches and mediums – using a variety of film clips both new and old, along with images from Goya, and what I think were moments from the weird Swedish silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (the Criterion edition includes the 1968 version narrated by William S. Burroughs, with a Jean-Luc Ponty soundtrack; the date surprised me, since the total effect of that version is so 1950s hipster you can almost smell the marijuana as you watch it). The film work was done by Brendan Bolles. The striking, inventive costumes were by Anastazia Louise. The chorus make-up was by Rachel Rehmet, and I have to mention one of the most stunning strokes, the climax of the work: after the ghost of Samuel announces Saul’s impending doom, you realize that the orchestra and chorus have all been sitting in profile, because they simultaneously turn their heads to show their other profile, each made up to look like a skull, so that Saul is suddenly surrounded by a skeleton chorus. Pure and powerful theater magic, using the simplest of methods. That kind of ambitious invention is evident throughout.

I could just keep on raving about the experience. I should of course mention how excellent the musical portion was. I’ve already discussed Shawnette Sulker, who showed she could handle Purcell as well as Carter. There were also excellent contributions from John Minagro as Samuel, Colby Roberts as Saul, and Lindsey McLennan as the Goddess of Dreams. The orchestra was elegant and powerful. I’m sure I’m forgetting something or someone. Kudos to Chip Grant for spearheading the large and talented crew.

Afterwards there was a generous reception in the church courtyard, with wine and cheese and crackers and grapes. Before the performance those of us with premium tickets had been offered – I swear – fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, which were delicious; I ate more than my share. I didn’t have any of the wine afterwards, since it sometimes triggers migraines for me and I’ve been headachey recently, but if I’d been feeling better I’d have risked a glass out of love for the name of the winery: Forlorn Hope Wines.

OK, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for any upcoming productions Urban Opera might put on. It’s a shame this one isn’t running another weekend, so that word can spread.

Halloween 2: for Hieronymus Bosch


Halloween 1: for Arthur Rackham


Haiku 2010/304

raking the front yard
seems more picturesque now than
warmer weeks ago

30 October 2010

29 October 2010

if you love nineteenth-century novels of adultery, and who doesn't

. . . with their endemic atmosphere of jittery ennui, along with blackmail, sexual politics, class warfare, and oh so much more, then you need to get this book by the great Eca de Queiroz, who would be much better known if he didn't write in the comparative obscurity of Portuguese.

As a public service, I repeat my pronunciation guide to the author's name: AY – sa duh kay – ROYZH. Do that with a slight backward roll on the “R” and you’re close enough.

Haiku 2010/302

how could I resist
buying a loaf of fresh bread
so crusty and brown

28 October 2010

27 October 2010

Bagby does Beowulf in Berkeley

After hearing Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf last night at Cal (the epic unabridged, up to the feast after the killing of Grendel):

Benjamin Bagby, boldest of bards,
Harrowed the hall with the sorrowful song
Of Grendel the grim and the brave man, Beowulf –
Silence the cellphone, shining giver of rings!
Light as the wind on the latte-dark waves
Fly the fleet fingers over the harp,
Fearless the singer and fresh is the song,
Green as the hills hallowed with gold.
But sad are these days and diminished the ways
Of the hall-clan gathered to hear;
Day’s candle has dimmed and the warriors give way
To chuckling trolls and chattering trulls;
The heroes have passed and the praise of the heralds
Falls to the deep, where no man can see
What hands will grasp hard the great offered horde:
The word-horde of wanderers,
Telling the tales of brave glories gone.
The heroes have passed but the poem remains;
Let old men nod to the bardic song
Brought bold as the sea-beasts
To us, the unworthy, the weak and the yearning;
Hard is our fate, and no man is free.

In case you're wondering, that's a recommendation. It's a very different theatrical experience, even though it is, in a way, a recreation of the first one-man shows, and we can see plenty of those these days. The audience was by and large quite into it, though I admit to expecting, and being a little disappointed at the lack of, the more overtly entertaining manifestations of medieval/early music/Ren-Faire weirdness in the crowd. There really was one annoying little troll-man sitting four down from me who kept chuckling very loudly at the weirdest things. If anyone can tell me what is so goddam funny about lines such as:

The great Healfdane, a fierce fighter
Who led the Danes to the end of his long
Life and left them four children,
Three princes to guide them in battle, Hergar
And Hrothgar and Halga the Good, and one daughter
Yrs, who was given to Onela, king
Of the Swedes, and became his wife and their queen*

then I would be thrilled to be enlightened.

You have three more chances to experience the run; click here for information.

*That's the Burton Raffel translation, which is different from the more stripped-down one used in the surtitles.

Haiku 2010/300

my desk was so clean --
sad papers now cover it
like dead autumn leaves

26 October 2010

Haiku 2010/299

dead leaves underfoot
crunching the moonlit silence
of a dark cold night

Denk: Ligeti, Liszt, Bach (with some Adams at the end)

Last Sunday I trekked through the steady rain to Berkeley, to hear Jeremy Denk play Ligeti and Bach. I'm sitting in Hertz Hall, feeling both damp and overheated, and it gets to be almost fifteen minutes after the start time, and I'm starting to wonder what's going on, even though, honestly, I don't really have anyplace else to be, when Matias Tarnopolsky, the Director of Cal Performances, comes out, apologizes for the delay (which he says is weather-related), and then he says that there is a slight change to the program: instead of both books of the Ligeti Etudes, Denk will play only the first book, minus the third piece, followed by Liszt's Dante Sonata. No reason was given for the change. Sadness! It was Ligeti that led me to buy a ticket and brave the rain! And though we are indeed getting a first half filled with Hungarian virtuouso pieces, still. . . . The second half remains the Goldberg Variations, so no complaints from me there. And we are invited to stay afterwards to hear John Adams talk with Denk.

Denk comes out and sits at the piano for a moment, and then says they need a rack. The missing rack is found and put on the piano so he can put his music there. And then he starts playing. He snaps right into it, without any posing or fussing caused by the delays and the necessary adjustments. The first etude is strong and bright and rhythmically forceful in a way that makes me think it an embodiment of everything the Italian futurists ever dreamed of. The second etude, by contrast, is dreamy but muscular rather than languid. I don't keep notes during concerts, so I'll just say the rest of the etudes made me wish we were getting the whole set.

Though I certainly enjoyed the Liszt, still, as I reflected last season when I heard the SF Symphony performing the symphonic poem Tasso: lamento e trionfo, listening to Liszt is sort of like reading Shelley, in that it can be difficult for us moderns to distinguish what was once bold and original but has now become sort of an ur-text of generic Romanticism, and to distinguish those things from what was conventional even in its time.

After intermission came the strong and meditative flow of the Goldberg Variations. They were just wonderful, though I still mourned the dropped Ligeti etudes, which is admittedly greedy of me, especially since Denk, who had given us plenty, first repeated the Etude #5, Arc-en-Ciel, as an encore and then stayed for almost an hour talking with John Adams. Denk is a pianist who acts out – he throws his head back, he shuts his eyes, he pulls his mouth down into a grimace like the mask of tragedy, his eyes roll as if he's watching the notes physically fly past, he glances right at the audience but in an unseeing way, as if we're not there. It's not distracting (or it's easy enough to follow his example and close one's eyes if it is); it's fascinating and sort of enviable, to be so utterly absorbed in the physical act of playing and so drawn into that world of sound he's spinning around him. He seems to have a lot of nervous energy. He kept tapping his foot during the conversation.

The conversation with Adams was quite interesting and Denk is a thoughtful and graceful speaker. About half of the very full house stayed for the talk, though a number of them should have left, since checking their electronic toys was so very urgent and important. There was a rude amount of whispering during the conversation, too, though fortunately not during the music. I'm sure Messrs Adams and Denk were quite relieved that the old lady behind me kept letting us all know that she agreed with what they were saying. There was a lot of static and feedback from the microphones, so Denk and Adams had to keep remembering not to touch the bottom portion of the mikes.

Adams opened by talking about the effect of World War II on the composers who came of age during or right after the war – some, like Boulez, became very ideologically rigid, as if that was the only way to stave off chaos, whereas Ligeti, who had the same sense of the underlying seriousness and importance of art, rejected the deadening hand of ideological rigidity and had a kind of verve and wit throughout his musical career. They discussed the various influences on Ligeti, including jazz -- Adams described one etude (sorry, I don't remember which) as like Takemitsu remembering a Bill Evans tune. This was followed by an interesting and semi-technical discussion of how Denk learned these very challenging pieces, with their constantly shifting rhythms, and how the first etude was put together. At one point during the discussion of form Adams said he thought one of the difficulties of being a modern composer was that there were no standard forms (either to follow or rebel against, was what I took that to mean) – it’s sort of an anything goes time. There was quite a bit of discussion about this entry from Denk's blog.

Adams initiated an extensive discussion of Liszt by mentioning other composers who were deeply read in literature (Berlioz with Virgil and Shakespeare was one example) and asking Denk if he thought Liszt was a deep reader of Dante. It was clear Adams was not exactly simpatico with Liszt. Denk didn’t quite disagree, but pointed out the difference in sensibility from Liszt and his era to us and our era, and mentioned how the wide and partially absorbed influences on Liszt (musical and literary) all came out sounding like Liszt. Adams mentioned an episode from Cosima Wagner’s diaries: the Wagners were having a party, which Richard left early to go to bed. Liszt starting playing the slow movement from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, and when he finished they saw that Richard had returned, and was standing on the stairs with tears in his eyes. Adams, who was clearly restraining himself from just coming out and calling Liszt superficial, said it was difficult to imagine him playing the slow movement of the Hammerklavier so profoundly that it could make Richard Wagner cry. Denk pointed out that Liszt’s playing was a phenomenon of the days before recording and so forever lost to us and that it must have been something extraordinary. The Liszt discussion ended with a mention of some stylistic links between the last Ligeti etude he played, Automne a Varsovie, and the Liszt.

There were a few questions from the audience. Someone asked if Denk was planning to record the Ligeti etudes. He said he hoped to someday, after he had lived with the pieces for a while. His new Ives recording was mentioned; he’s a big fan of Ives (and he suggested that Adams was also an Ives fan, with perhaps some reservations). The last question was about the encore. Denk apologized for not naming it before playing it, and said that it was a repeat of the Ligeti Etude #5, Arc-en-Ciel. He said that the etudes go by so quickly when you’re listening to them that he thought it would be nice to give us another chance at that one; also, he had no idea what else to do as an encore after the Goldberg Variations. Very true on both counts!

Lovely afternoon, even if I can’t help regretting the lost Ligeti. . . .

25 October 2010

24 October 2010

23 October 2010

LET'S GO GIANTS!!!



two views of San Francisco City Hall, lit orange for the Giants' National League pennant race; the other team color is provided by the black night sky

random previews: symphony

I almost folded the symphony preview into the opera preview, because I feel pretty much the same way about the San Francisco Symphony as about the San Francisco Opera: the programming is certainly respectable, but not all that exciting. I’ve read through the entire season at least three times, and ten minutes after each time I have only the vaguest memory of what’s being presented. All of them are programs I wouldn’t mind hearing, but most aren’t programs I would go out of my way to hear.

There are some exceptions, of course, notably the Missa Solemnis at the end of the season with some terrific soloists, including Christine Brewer. Most of the other standouts involve the Symphony’s terrific chorus: the revival of El Nino, the Bach Mass in B Minor, a Carmina Burana with excellent soloists. . . . But there isn’t a lot of ambitious, mind- and ear-stretching new/modern music. We do get the Rothko Chapel, but sometimes I think Tilson Thomas only programs Feldman so that he can tell little Borscht-Belt-type anecdotes about him beforehand. I’ve never really bought into the cult of personality the Symphony has attempted to build around Tilson Thomas; I like him fine, am baffled by his reputation for daring programming, and wish he would stop talking during concerts.*

I think it’s the cult aspect that slightly puts me off his Mahler performances; they seem to be a “thing” in a way that isn't really about the music, as if people were there to see a local sight, like the Golden Gate Bridge or Beach Blanket Babylon, one of those things you check off a list. But we are getting the 2nd, 6th, and 9th. And the wonderful Yuja Wang is showing up at the end of the season, and John Adams is the Project San Francisco composer in residence, though he isn’t presenting any premieres.

There was a notable lack of excitement several months ago when the Symphony announced its season. Some speculated that they were saving the sizzle for their centennial celebration next year, but I don’t really understand that reasoning: I mean, a year is a long time, in some ways, and there’s really no reason for professional musicians to stint on what they do for their paying customers. I think it's more that, as with the local opera audience, there’s a large lump of the symphony audience that simply doesn’t like to hear new things, and as with the Opera, they’ve decided to dedicate themselves to that particular segment of the audience, and the rest of us can go fend for ourselves.

That may explain some of the appalling marketing e-mails I receive from the Symphony, which skirt delicately around the fact that you are expected to go and sit more or less still and quiet for whole consecutive minutes at a time, taxing your attention with music. Instead it’s all about “one-of-a-kind social events you won’t want to miss” and suggestions for a “Girls’ Night Out” subscription pack, or a “Football Widows’ Pack” (homage to Anna Russell: I’m not making this up, you know!). Sure, gals: slip on the Manolos, sip your girlietinis, and listen to Mahler brood on mortality for 90 minutes. Then go grab some nibbles at a trendy café!**

What I find so off-putting about this sort of advertising, besides its pointed exclusion of men, is its pointed exclusion of music lovers. I wonder if anyone considers the marketing blowback from this sort of fatuous vulgarity? I know people love to talk knowingly about “putting butts in seats” by, I guess, any means necessary, as if you can trick people into listening to Stravinsky, like hiding your dog’s medicine in a doggie treat – and I love that people who say that clearly love the slight crudity of the expression, because if there’s one thing people love more than sounding in the know, it’s sounding knowing – but frankly the whole “butts in seats” thing is not my problem. I’m more concerned with where I’m seating my butt, and there’s nothing here that’s making me feel the Symphony is a place I need to be, or where I would be particularly welcome, what with my whole “play more Schoenberg!” attitude, plus of course the whole “having a penis” thing.

What’s especially disappointing is that, though there are some smaller local groups taking up the banner of operatic adventure (listed at the end of my opera preview), there’s no one else locally providing the symphony experience on a regular basis (yes, there’s the Berkeley Symphony and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, but both only present four or five concerts a year). It’s a shame, because the symphony orchestra is one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century, and can produce sounds nothing else can. And if you simply cater to the placid tastes of those who consider a symphony concert the sort of conspicuous consumption suitable for their class, you risk irrelevance. That’s what’s always bothered me about the “Davies After Hours” concerts (which are basically a hipper version of the opening night party) – to me the implication is that we’ve had our “it’s good for you” music, and now we can go listen to the music we really connect with and enjoy. There’s no reason to seal symphonic music off in this way. A symphony orchestra is not a natural organism – it needs care and maintenance, and it needs some connection to the life – not just social, but artistic and intellectual – of its time.

* Alex Ross quotes Riccardo Muti: "After the explosive finale of Respighi's Pines of Rome, Muti did some deft stand-up: 'Conductors should never speak.... After a few words, conductors say nonsense. È vero?' " Si, maestro, e vero!

** I labor mightily to be amusing, but I'm not really out-doing the original: "Don your dress, slip on your stilettos, and grab the gals -- it's Girls' Night Out at the Symphony! Enjoy the best in classical music with your best of friends and make it a night on the town. Gal Pal Tip: Kick off the night with cocktails before the concert at the trendy bars and restaurants in nearby Hayes Valley." I think "Gal Pal Tip" is sheer genius, if your intention is to be satirical.

Haiku 2010/296

listening to Bach
glancing at gathering clouds
waiting for the rain

11 June 2016: I've noticed that this particular haiku is suddenly getting a lot of hits. I'd be interested if someone can tell me why.

22 October 2010

random previews: opera

The San Francisco Opera season is well underway, but the one genuinely exciting, do-not-miss production is coming up in a few weeks: Karita Mattila in The Makropulos Case. As for the rest of the season, it doesn’t exactly heat the blood. For a while I thought Gockley’s aim was to turn the local house into the Met Lite, but at this point I’m thinking we should be so lucky, given the Met’s more adventurous repertory and staging in the last few years. We’re eating their dust out here in the West, not that I think the majority of the local audience minds. They seem quite in tune with Gockley’s advocacy of – well, let’s try for something neutral between “beloved classics” and “exhausted warhorses” – the more familiar works in the repertory, sung by already well-established names.

Anyone in search of anything more adventurous or challenging than People You’ve Heard Of, In Works You’ve Already Heard (or even those just searching for novelty) is out of luck. Gockley and the bulk of the San Francisco audience seem perfectly suited to each other. That’s not a compliment. Any potential audience members intrigued by works like Le Grand Macabre or St Francois are once again left to fend for themselves out there in the avant-garde wilds. Thank goodness for DVDs! What we're getting here are brand-name works presented in a more or less plush and traditional way. Nothing here is going to frighten the horses. Going to the opera in San Francisco now isn’t like going to the Museum of Modern Art; it’s like going to Bloomingdale’s.


By the way, I don’t really buy the claims that what San Francisco Opera is currently doing is “all about the voice”; everyone says that these days casting the big Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner works is difficult to impossible, whereas we’re living in a golden age for Handel and Rossini singing. So are we getting Radamisto or La Donna del Lago? We are not. We’re getting inadequate productions of the big Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner works, because a large segment of the audience isn’t interested in anything unfamiliar and no one is interested in convincing them that new stuff can be fun and engaging.

Yes, Aida and Madama Butterfly are great works, and there’s no disgrace in presenting them, but for a veteran of the opera house there isn’t a lot of urgency in hearing them; that’s the thing about Top 40 programming – sooner or later, and probably sooner, you’re going to get another chance to hear that piece. Yet opera is a strange and addictive drug: a few months ago I looked up the performance dates of Aida for a friend, and suddenly was strangely excited at the thought of hearing the opera – Aida, of all things, an opera that has never interested me much outside of Leontyne Price’s involvement with it.

I ended up feeling I didn’t really need to pay those prices for another Aida, though Zajick was definitely a temptation. It turns out to be just as well, since I could have written the reviews without seeing it: the Zandra Rhodes designs were eye-catching but didn’t always work well, and the cast was vocally uneven. (I had seen Zandra Rhodes’s production of the Pearl Fishers and though I loved the colors I thought the setting was too cartoony.) Sung drama is the most basic form of drama, and an art form that has survived in varying forms for centuries deserves an audience that thinks of it as something more than candy-colored camp.


As for the rest of the season, I enjoyed Werther; and though Nozze di Figaro is one of my favorite operas, I loathe this production, which I’ve already seen in two different revivals (my mostly negative thoughts on that 2006 revival are here, and it was actually less vulgar than the first); I love Madama Butterfly, but feel I’ve seen it enough for a while. I did spring for a ticket to Cyrano, because I’ve always admired Domingo and the only other time I’ve heard him live was in Herodiade. And then there’s the Janacek; I assume we have Mattila’s star power to thank for bringing us one of this great composer’s fascinating works. I honestly don’t understand why he isn’t as popular as Puccini – to me he has that same kind of emotional directness and melodic richness. And Jenufa has one of the few happy endings I find convincing, even inspiring. So that’s the one can’t-miss for me this season.


I’m not excluding the upcoming June Ring Cycle from that assessment, either; I hoped that Walkure last June would guide and convince me one way or the other, but apparently I got the vocal off-night, which seems to be how these things go for me (so if I end up not buying tickets, you can be assured you’re in for a treat!). The production itself is not very interesting (my thoughts on Walkure are here, and in there is a link to my thoughts on the Rheingold, which I saw in both DC and here).

Fortunately other local groups are taking up the operatic slack for those who maybe don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for their hundredth Butterfly:

On October 30 and 31, Urban Opera is presenting a Purcell pasticcio, the Witch of Endor. They’re a new group and though I missed their previous presentation, Dido and Aeneas, it was highly praised.

Cal Performances is presenting Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival Opera in two Britten works, The Rape of Lucretia on March 24 and 25 and Albert Herring on March 26 and 27.

Ensemble Parallele is presenting Philip Glass’s Orphee, one of his Cocteau operas, on February 26 and 27, as a follow-up to their kick-ass Wozzeck.

Berkeley West Edge Opera is in a nifty new space in El Cerrito and has some interesting programs, starting with Handel’s Xerxes on November 13, 19, and 21, followed by an adaptation of Carmen called the Carmen Fixation and a new opera by Clark Suprynowicz and Amanda Moody called Caliban’s Dreams.

Festival Opera hasn’t announced its 2011 productions as far as I know. For a while they were doing one warhorse and one more unusual work (like Rorem’s Our Town or Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) but lately it’s been two warhorses. I hope they resume their more adventurous ways. But even if they don’t, they present solid productions in a nice smaller theater, at a much lower cost than San Francisco Opera.

The other big opera excitement for me is the James Levine 40th anniversary CD and DVD sets. Cumulatively the sets are expensive, though the per-disc price is quite low. (And by not buying tickets to Aida, Butterfly, and Figaro, I more than covered the expense.) And click on those links and look at what you get! What I really love and admire here is the commitment to new or “difficult” works (there was a time when Mozart and Wagner were considered difficult. . . ). Two recordings each of Wozzeck and Lulu, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Les Troyens and The Great Gatsby. . . everyone will have his or her particular jewels here, but anyone who doesn't find this collection thrilling . . . uh, is probably a big fan of the current programming at San Francisco Opera. I haven’t watched any of the DVDs yet, and have only listened to about half of the CDs, but I’m thrilled with the set and can’t recommend it too highly. My one complaint so far: the packaging is flimsy and difficult to use. I almost wrecked the DVD box trying to get the tray of discs out, and removing the CDs means reaching into the cardboard envelope and sliding them out by touching the disc – so a fail on the packaging, but the recordings are sheer gold.