"Ian Balfour, an English professor at York University, postulated, in the journal Camera Obscura, 'A principal effect of Pee-Wee's histrionics, whatever the outcome of the episode, is to unsettle cultural codified notions of masculine and feminine, indeed to twist them around.' [Paul] Reubens [who plays Pee-wee Herman] shrugged. 'When people write stuff like that, I want to go, like, "Duh." '"
from Michael Shulman's Talk of the Town article about Paul (Pee-wee Herman) Reubens, The New Yorker, January 18, 2010
Last Tuesday San Francisco Performances presented Nathan and Julie Gunn in what turned out to be an unexpectedly controversial performance of Schubert’s Die Schoene Mullerin.
I’m on the pro side; I found it absorbing and moving. Initially, given Gunn’s considerable skill as an actor, I was a little surprised that he seemed a bit distant from the character; I had expected a more fervent acting-out. As the performance progressed, though, I came to think it was a deliberate and psychologically astute move: what kind of young man kills himself because the girl he fancies rejects him for another? Not someone who’s strong, vibrant, and self-confident. He is recessive about expressing his deep inner emotions, until his rejection in favor of the huntsman (which I guess is the Beidermeyer equivalent of dumping the sensitive boy in favor of the jock) leads to his suicide in the millstream. Clearly there was characterization going on, since even without following the words line by line, I could tell when Gunn was voicing the Miller Girl or the stream. I’ve always found Gunn to be a singer sensitive to words and characterization, so if my initial impression is puzzlement I’m willing to wait and see where he’s going with his conception.
One of those who disliked the performance described Julie Gunn’s playing as “banging,” but I know exactly the moment he was referring to – it’s when she’s imitating the millstones; in other words, “banging” is not only suitable but demanded by the context, and if it doesn’t sound pretty then so be it. I don't mind a little muscle in my Schubert. I found her flowing and lyrical when the stream runs through the songs, and the final song, Des Baches Wiegenlied, where the river speaks to the young man now dead in her depths, I found deeply moving, like a mother rocking her child to sleep. The very end reminded me of the end of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, when the soul of Troilus ascends the heavens and looks down and laughs at his earthly pains and finds peace.
The only other time I had seen Julie Gunn was at their Cal Performances recital maybe six (or ten?) years ago. That was an afternoon recital so maybe she was in less formal attire. She sure glams up nicely! Let me go all Captain Obvious here and say that the Gunns are a remarkably attractive couple. He was wearing a tuxedo, and the only performance-related comment I overheard walking up the aisles afterward was one guy saying to another, “I really like his tuxedo!” The pornstache is gone, by the way.
Back to the performance. I was put me in mind of Erwartung several times, which is fine with me. For my taste, a perhaps more traditional reading, with a wholesome lad smitten by a pretty girl, and then unhappy in love, all set on the green banks of a picturesquely burbling stream, is just a little too close to kitsch, or at least is just a little too distant from anything I experience in the world around me. I enjoy Currier and Ives, but mannerism and neurosis I feel and understand. Having said that, I don’t want to exaggerate any possible eccentricities of interpretation in the performance. I found it a psychologically plausible approach to what the words and music hold.
It was over the next few days after the concert I heard from some who were unhappy with it. Normally I don’t really engage (at least here in the Hills) with other people’s reactions because people are entitled to their diverse experiences and opinions, and this is the one place where I can try to express mine freely. I value the exchange of opinions, but it’s surprisingly rare to find people who can do that without arguing, and I never argue; what’s the point? Arguing is about scoring points off your opponent – in other words, it’s about power, and I’m all about the love. But in this case there were enough objections from people whose opinions I respect so that I felt I needed to think through what they were saying or implying. The basic objections seemed to be a lack of dramatic involvement (which I talked about above) and a feeling that the performance wasn’t in appropriate lieder style.
It’s possible that being steeped in a tradition can give you a deep but not always wide view of how something should be approached. It’s possible that the more you know about something, the more conservative become your views of how that something needs to be approached; or maybe "conservative" isn't the right word; maybe it's more how I feel about Shakespeare, where I am so familiar with the plays that I have ideas about the points that should be made in every scene or even line. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by a new insight, but more often I'm thinking about what I feel was missed. I realized years ago that I would never see a production of Shakespeare that I thought hit every mark.
I don’t have any pre-set ideas about how this cycle should be performed. To me the Gunns' performance was well within the range of plausible interpretations. I don’t want to give the impression that the audience generally seemed unhappy with the performance, but there did seem to be a respectable contingent who were.
People are free to ascribe my enjoyment to my ignorance of true lieder tradition or personal messed-upness or whatever. I say all this honestly in a spirit of complete respect. Certainly many’s the time I’ve given someone a list of objections to a production or movie only to be told, “Yeah, you’re right about all that, but I still enjoyed it.” And I’m fine with that. People value different things and they can take what they want from what I say but it’s what they experience that they need to go with. And I always figure, well, they enjoyed their evening, and I didn’t enjoy mine, so good for them. I’m kind of liking being on the other side of that fence for once.
And here’s my little opera news semi-scoop, probably the only one you’ll ever find here: After the performance the Gunns were signing programs and CDs in the lobby. I have a slightly silly love for having signed books and CDs, so knowing SF Performances often has artist signings after these events, I came prepared with my copy of Gunn’s Billy Budd recording. We spoke briefly about the opera and he told me that he would be singing it at the Met, not next season but the one after. So there you have it. I know companies are often weird about keeping these things hush-hush but I assume it’s OK to repeat this since he was pretty casual about mentioning it. That bit of casting wasn’t even on Brad Wilber’s Met Futures page, last time I checked. So I'll see you in New York in two years!
My main reason for going to Philadelphia last June was to see Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which the Opera Company of Philadelphia performed in the Perelman Theater, a beautifully suitable small theater in the Kimmel Center, next to Verizon Hall where the Philadelphia Orchestra plays. Last time I was in Philly, to see The Pearl Fishers, it was performed in the Academy of Music, so this was my first time in the Perelman, which is perfect for an intimate and intense chamber opera like this one. I’m not sure there’s an equivalent theater in the Bay Area. Too bad I had to fly across the country for my two best operatic experiences this year (this one and From the House of the Dead at the Met).
The story of Lucretia is one that lends itself to the emblematic. It’s both formal and deeply emotional. A good example is the end of the first act, when Tarquinius (Nathan Gunn) bids good night to Lucretia (Tamara Mumford) and her ladies Bianca (Allison Sanders) and Lucia (Rinnat Moriah). The ladies are lined up, and he says “Good night” to each of them, and each responds, “Good night.” It’s all very formal and ceremonious, and a simple moment, but thanks to Britten’s music, one freighted with anxiety and foreboding.
The libretto by Ronald Duncan puts the story within a Christian context, as the Male Chorus (William Burden) and the Female Chorus (Karen Jesse) comment on the unfolding events from the viewpoint of a Christianity that didn’t exist in Lucretia's world. This somewhat puzzling double-framing ironically increases the dramatic tension, since the problem arises of connecting the parts. My feeling is this: both the Christian love and compassion expressed by the Choruses and Lucretia’s sense of honor and love are attempts to live the good life, that is, a life guided by a sense of the virtues, a life your conscience can look back on with satisfaction. This impulse regularly and often tragically can run up against the usual definition of the good life, a life guided by emotion and sensation.
For Europeans and their descendants, Christianity and the classical world are the two major paths in their history. Both offer the possibility of morally good lives, but attempts to live that life in either philosophy often smash into the nature of the world and of people, so both try to offer some consolation to the grieving. The rape and subsequent suicide of Lucretia led to the overthrow of Rome’s tyrant kings and the establishment of the Republic. Christianity assures us that suffering in this world is replaced by joy in the next, and that sin and evil ultimately and in spite of themselves produce their own defeat, also in the long run. The problem is that we don’t live in the long run, and in the face of immediate pain and suffering the promise of future happiness can seem empty or even cruel. This is true of both philosophies and it's what joins them: the challenge of getting us to accept their ultimately optimistic views in the face of the needless suffering we have just watched people inflict on each other.
I think the only serious though minor mis-step in this production was dressing the Male Chorus as a sort of TV preacher, complete with fish cufflinks (the Female Chorus was more in general choir-director garb). TV preachers offer a parody and perversion of Christianity, and the opera attempts to deal with Christianity in a serious way. There also seemed to be some emphasis on a male/female divide as well as a Christian/classical divide, at least judging from the way the Female Chorus would at times glare (sometimes to unintentionally comic effect) at the Male Chorus as he went on. Other than those quibbles, this was a beautifully done production, very simple but with any necessary effects nicely done, like the flowers Lucretia scatters before her suicide.
This opera should be seen by anyone who feels that Britten’s obsessive theme of the corruption of innocence is just a fancy version of his longing for youths (on a linguistic sidenote, it’s interesting that “youths” always means “male youths”). Here it is a wife who represents threatened goodness. So Tarquinius was an interesting role for Gunn, famous for his Billy Budd – this time, he’s essentially playing John Claggart, only Tarquinius is given the complexity that the operatic Claggart could have used more of. Gunn captured the self-loathing as well as the pride of the prince’s privileged and useless son. There’s a streak in him of that feeling captured in the line from Fight Club: I wanted to destroy something beautiful.
The whole ensemble was outstanding (to complete the cast: Ben Wager was Collatinus and Eric Dubin was Junius). I saw it twice and would happily have seen it again. I find that the operas and the productions that I can watch over and over are the ones that give you something to think about once the immediate emotional immersion has passed. Too bad we don’t get as many opera DVDs from American companies (outside of the Met) as we seem to from European companies: this was one to watch over and over.
I’m starting to love the rush ticket thing, though the rumored $15 tickets proved as elusive as ever. I was exhausted and run down from the week and was thinking it would be OK if they were sold out, but they weren’t and I’m glad I went to hear some restorative music. I thought it was a nicely planned program: open with Ravel, then some Benjamin, then Messiaen, then (after intermission) another Benjamin, then close as we opened, with Ravel, who does seem to be the go-to guy for filling out these composer-in-residence concerts, but Benjamin, who conducted this week, seems to have a genuine connection with his music, and unlike last time the Ravel was beautifully played. We started with Ma Mere l’Oye, and I was very happy at the end of this week to enter into its fairy-tale world.
I had gone to hear Benjamin interviewed (by Laura Stanfield Prichard) at the pre-performance lecture, partly because of my morbid interest in seeing live composers talk and partly because I needed to kill some time. Even with leaving work late, walking the two miles or so to Davies Hall (at an average pace and stopping a couple of times), and having dinner, I still had well over an hour before the concert started. Remind me again why everything has to start at 8:00. And then explain why, no matter what time a concert ends (this one ended at 10:15) I always seem to have just missed a train, necessitating an almost twenty-minute wait. I didn’t get home until 11:30.
Anyway, normally I would have sat in the lobby and read, but I was so tired I knew I couldn’t concentrate on my book (Cymbeline), and besides I do like hearing composers talk about music, even while recognizing the limitations inherent in talking about music, even (or especially) music the speaker has composed. I thought Prichard did a good job asking questions about the program and then letting Benjamin take over, which is a good quality in an interviewer. The talk was pleasant but not absolutely necessary, since most of the pertinent information was already in the program book, particularly Benjamin’s view of the piano concerto: he doesn’t like most of them.
Basically, he feels the piano is a percussive instrument without sustained tones, whereas the orchestra is all about sustained tones, and “there’s a fundamental incompatibility between these resources.” But it seems to me that the incompatibility is where the drama lies (though I should note that part of Benjamin’s objection is that the forces aren’t used dramatically – that often the ensemble is just doubling the soloist). This view, with its distaste for a contrast that seems an obvious source of drama, made me curious to hear (or preferably hear and see) Benjamin’s dramatic work, Into the Little Hill.
Which brings us to Duet, the second piece last night. I assume the title refers to equality between the partners, though since any strings in the ensemble play pizzicato and percussion and harp are prominently featured for piano compatibility, the piano and the orchestra seem like extensions of the same thing rather than separate (but equal) partners – the piano goes with rather than against the orchestra. I enjoyed the piece, but the drama it had was not the clash you expect from a concerto. This may simply be a “naming is claiming” moment, since categorization sets expectations; if the piece had been described as a tone poem or orchestral essay we all just would have said, yep, that’s what it is!
Duet was followed by Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques, and if I’ve learned one thing about George Benjamin the past few weeks, it’s that he was one of Messiaen’s last pupils. It was just wonderful, though as we broke for intermission afterward one fairly young woman could be heard saying it was “excruciating.” Of course, I also saw a hipster-looking guy announce that Davies Hall was “so beautiful,” so you see there really is no accounting for taste. It was such a rich and bright performance that it’s a shame we don’t get more Messiaen from the Symphony. Nicolas Hodges was the excellent pianist for both pieces.
After the intermission – and what with set-up for each of the three pieces and so forth, it’s already 9:30 – Benjamin conducted his earliest big composition, Ringed by the Flat Horizon. And if I’ve learned anything else about George Benjamin this week, besides his connection with Messiaen, it’s that he had this piece played at the Proms when he was twenty (that would be thirty years ago). Not unnaturally under the circumstances, it has a strongly Messiaenesque flavor. In fact I’m not sure I would have programmed it with the Messiaen, or at least not right after it, even with an intermission in between. It’s kind of an odd piece in that I thought it ended a couple of times before it actually did, though I assume this is deliberate since Benjamin had referred before the concert to a structural “surprise.” The title comes from The Wasteland, and I’m slightly embarrassed to say I didn’t realize that until I read it in the program book, since The Wasteland is one of those poems (along with Paradise Lost and The Rape of the Lock) I frequently just pick up and read random passages from. Well, that’s why re-reading is useful. Once you have placed the title, the mood really falls into place, a tense oppression that is never really relieved, despite passing echoes of thunder and rain.
Then we closed with Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, about a Spain which is as real and as invented as the fairy land in Ma Mere l'Oye, and I very much enjoyed it , though I have nothing to say about it beyond that, really.
I bought a rush ticket for last Friday’s San Francisco Symphony concert, the first of two weeks featuring this year’s Phyllis C. Wattis Composer in Residence, George Benjamin, whose music I was completely unfamiliar with.
I’ve heard rumors that some rush tickets are $15 this season, but I have no idea which concerts those are, since it’s always $20 whenever I go, which is still a bargain, or at least a good deal. Unfortunately this was one of those 6.5 concerts, and though the early start time is fine with me (and also with the long-time Symphony subscriber sitting behind me, who announced she tends to fall asleep at the later concerts, and yeah, we’ve all been there; maybe she kept kicking my seat in an attempt to stay awake even at the earlier hour – seriously, what is wrong with people? I’m 6’ 1”, which makes me roughly half a foot taller than this woman, and I can sit through a concert without kicking the seat in front of me even once; here’s a little tip for concertgoers: if your foot is touching something that is not the floor, you’re irritating someone) the basic concept seems flawed: the concerts seem meant for those who aren't regular symphony-goers, but I don't think that's who actually attends. They drop a piece of music, but they add in chat-time, so, if I may quote myself, and I may, the concert is just as long, only with less of what you came for. (Since Thursday's concert was in Cupertino, which might as well be the moon for a non-driver, and Saturday's would require an expensive BART ride in, I decided I would accept the sacrifice.)
Obviously you need to be an excellent communicator to conduct a symphony orchestra, but it’s a type of specialized communication that doesn’t translate automatically into speaking well in front of crowds. I keep thinking of dancing bears: sure, you can teach them to dance, but maybe you’re better off just letting them do their bear things without the circus element. Conductor David Robertson was fairly fluid and funny, going off on tangents about microphone backfeed and suchlike, and though I’m not in any position to criticize someone else going off on a tangent, most of what he said was, however entertaining, pretty basic and not particularly illuminating. That’s not a criticism of Robertson, who was better at this than some I’ve heard; it’s a criticism of the concept.
Speakers generally try to be funny, and that’s not always the best approach to hearing a new piece of music. And a lot of what was said seemed, as it often does, aimed at an audience of schoolchildren, and the only schoolchildren in attendance Friday night were members of The Crowden School Allegro Chorus, who added their pure and harmonious voices to Jubilation, the first piece on the program.
Maybe I overestimate what audiences know. I assume long-time concert-goers have picked stuff up osmotically, and that newcomers will eventually figure stuff out (like why the configuration of the musicians changes between pieces – come on, they even do that at rock concerts; it’s not a difficult concept, but this was something explained to us Friday evening). I am regularly surprised at comments I overhear indicating people don’t know things I thought were common knowledge, at least among regular concert-goers. Here’s an exchange I overheard in the men’s room (well, not really an exchange, since the probably aged speakee mumbled softly and unintelligibly): “Do you know John Adams? [mumble] Do you know John Adams? John Adams? [mumble] He’s a composer. [mumble] He’s different from this guy. What is this guy? Benjamin something?” And that was after we'd heard Benjamin's music and seen him in person. Ah, the hazard of having a first name as your last name! Art is always uphill. Forget art; life is always uphill.
Even given the possibly unspongelike nature of an audience’s grasp, I really don’t understand the panicked need for this sort of dog-whisperer calming talk about music. The assumption seems to be that, like Brussels sprouts, this is supposed to be good for us even though no one really likes it, though maybe we can be jollied into playing along. It’s like going to a restaurant with exotic or surprising cuisine and getting endless speeches from the waiter rather than just tasting. We’re already in the concert hall. I think that might indicate we’re available to listen to music. Instead we get talks about how sometimes music is pretty, and sometimes it’s loud, and sometimes it’s not pretty so we should brace ourselves. (What world does the audience live in? You wouldn’t believe the ugly noisome pop music shit I’m forced to listen to on every BART ride home. And I’m supposed to be frightened by Alban Berg? Please.) The approach is not that music is a bomb that needs to be disarmed; it’s more that music is like some matted hairy creature, some sort of skunk or opossum, possibly dead, lying in our driveway – see, it’s not so scary! You just pick it up with a shovel and pray it's not living!
I know this is an odd thing for blogger boy here to say, but I honestly feel the best approach to music, or any art, even (or especially) ones you think you might not immediately like, is to stop having opinions. Just sit there and pay attention. There's a reason mindful sitting is a crucial component of those mystic traditions that try to lift us above the mundane.
The source of my irritation here, besides the general low blood-sugar caused by the 6:30 start time, is that the first half of the concert consisted of two pieces by George Benjamin: Jubilation and Dance Figures. Each piece is about fifteen minutes long. And in between we had half an hour of stage chat (trust me, I was checking my watch regularly during chat-time). At least Robertson did have the orchestra play a few sections of the music. But in the same amount of time they could have played each piece twice, and repetition being what it is and our minds being what they are, that would have been a much better introduction to the music – about which, I realize, I have said nothing. Well, I don’t feel that hearing two fifteen-minute pieces once really qualifies me to wax either poetic or analytic on the art of George Benjamin. But I liked what I heard enough to plan to go to the second week of concerts, and to plan to get some of his CDs. I could definitely hear a reminiscence at times of his teacher Messiaen, but with a leaner and less mystic quality. But the program book emphasized the wide range of possibilities in Benjamin’s sound-world, and I think the Symphony could have offered us more than two short pieces on this program, especially with the amount of kapok we were given.
Robertson also had George Benjamin come out during chat-time. You know who’s even less skilled at speaking to crowds than conductors? Composers! I say this even though I personally find it thrilling when a composer appears to take a bow – I have vivid memories of my excitement when Messiaen himself came on stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall after the US premiere of scenes from St Francois. But as with writers, a composer who is a crowd-pleasing speaker is the exception. Benjamin seemed like a very nice, low-key man, very courteous; my impression is that he is probably a wonderful teacher (as I understand he actually is), being attentive and considerate and not so impressed with himself that he has to impose his style on the student. But that very courtesy and reticence make him a perhaps less than sparkling public speaker, outside of his chosen language, music.
So I do understand to some extent the excitement of the personal touch, but I don’t understand why it’s considered vital that we are verbally stroked into musical acquiescence. You’ve already told people what you’re playing, and they can attend or not. I’m not that frightened by music, and if symphony-goers are, then you have the wrong audience, and you need to shoot them and start over again.
After the intermission we had a galloping rendition of Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, which I enjoyed (the majestic ending was particularly strong), though I did wish at moments for a less driven, more blooming performance. It seems strange to think that Scotland was once a major cultural touchstone, and even stranger that it was pretty much all the doing of Sir Walter Scott. I have a fairly unreasonable aversion to reading Scottish dialect, but let me recommend Old Mortality at least; just get an edition with a glossary in the back. Uh, maybe I should point out that I’m part Scottish? I don’t want angry comments from the Scottish Anti-Defamation League. Look, I just don’t like Robert Burns that much. Sue me. There’s a very funny passage in Mark Twain’s Following the Equator in which he settles a dispute between two Scotsmen on how Scottish peasants pronounce “three” by inventing a couplet supposedly by Burns, whose authority is beyond question, even to the most argumentative Scots. See? You just tell people that something is so, and even the cantankerous will usually accept it. The Symphony should really take that approach with new music.
Update: Check here for Lisa Hirsch's account of the Sunday concert, which gives much more detail about the music, and I'm jealous that I didn't think of the color-field painting comparison.
In honor of their big day, here are Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, in a rather strange detail from Polyptych with the Nativity, from the mid-fifteenth century workshop of Rogier van der Weyden and now in the Cloisters in Manhattan. I had never heard any story about the Magi bathing at Mount Victorial, let alone seen it pictured. When I googled the phrase, it brought me to this same picture (you can see the whole thing here). Perhaps I shall have to pick up that copy of The Golden Legend that has been waiting patiently on the shelf for me all these years.
This is one of those paintings in which the same people are doing different things at the same time; although this shot does look like an all-Elder version of Susannah and the Elders, the surprised man at the right is just the oldest of the Magi, looking at an apparition of the newly born Christ Child floating above his head, in a scene temporally and physically removed from the bathing.
According to the label, this altarpiece is "said to have come from a nunnery [nunnery? what a strange Elizabethan word to use instead of convent] in Segovia, Spain." Perhaps the nuns merely liked cleanliness. I await further interpretations.
Violist David Aaron Carpenter plays music by York Bowen, Rebecca Clarke, Penderecki, Prokofiev, and Piazzola and January 24.
And on Sunday, January 31, there is a "Day of Exploration" of new music with Midori (schedule here).
Cutting Ball Theater has extended The Bald Soprano once again, until January 24. And their Hidden Classics Reading Series has a really interesting-looking program on Sunday, January 31: a Medea double-bill, featuring versions by Euripides and Seneca.
And speaking of the classics, ACT presents Timberlake Wertenbaker’s adaptation of Racine’s Phedre.
Ensemble Parallele presents a chamber-opera version of Berg’s Wozzeck on January 30 and 31.
George Benjamin is this year’s Phyllis C. Wattis Composer in Residence at the San Francisco Symphony, and is here for a couple of weeks of concerts.
And San Francisco Ballet opens with a revival of its new production of Swan Lake.