31 March 2010

Haiku 2010/90

(for MVD and the other CMs)

Alarm sounds jump up
wash eat go out get to work
lather, rinse, repeat

29 March 2010

. . . because this is the kind of thing that excites me

Oxford University Press has just released The Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson: Composition as Conversation, edited by Susan Holbrook and Thomas Dilworth. I must have this!

. . . so I can add it to the piles of other books I had to have immediately but haven't read yet. But I'm going to get it anyway.

Beethoven and blogging

I really love this short piece about Beethoven that Edwin Outwater posted a while back. It lays out so beautifully the intimate emotional relationship we can have with music (and with other arts as well, but it's so powerful with instrumental music because the meaning is expressed in a wordless and therefore enigmatic and subterranean way). Read the whole thing, but here's one part that jumped out at me: "Imagine all the conversations you’ve ever had in your life. How many of them were about something truly important, truly profound? How many times have you laid your soul bare to someone else? This is what Beethoven does in his music: often with power and violence, but just as often with mystery and tenderness." There's a conversation like that in Emma, too, and it is the part I think of first when someone mentions that book. How many of those conversations have I had, and how many have I been open to? How many have I avoided because emotion unmediated by art embarrasses me? But isn't art, the making of it and the offering of it, the essence of what is best and profoundest in us, even if the profundity takes the form of graceful amusement rather than grand tragedy? I know there's much talk about the Internet as a forum for anonymous trash-talking and obscenity, but isn't it also a place where we can reach out and discuss those dear things we hide in the working world?

Haiku 2010/88

Do the fish notice
when the sun hides and the rain
ripples the waters

28 March 2010

fun stuff I may or may not get to: April

April 8, 10, 11, and 13, Nicholas McGegan leads Philharmonia Baroque in Handel’s great opera, Orlando (one of the first operas I ever saw!).

Berkeley Opera offers Copland’s The Tender Land on April 10, 16, and 18.

As always San Francisco Performances has a lot of exciting stuff going on: On April 2, Alice Coote, recently announced as the replacement Charlotte in San Francisco Opera’s upcoming Werther, gives a recital. I was looking forward to hearing Garanca, whom I’ve never heard, but frankly I think Coote, whom I have heard, is going to give the audience a more interesting evening. On April 6, cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Lera Auerbach perform Shostokovich’s 24 Preludes for Piano (arranged for cello and piano by Auerbach) and Auerbach’s own 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano. The brilliant young pianist Yuja Wang gives a recital on April 22 featuring Schumann, Schubert, and Prokofiev. Alex Ross and Ethan Iverson read and perform from The Rest Is Noise on Saturday morning, April 24, and Yevgeny Sudbin performs Chopin, Stevenson, Liszt, and Ravel on April 25.

The Aurora Theater offers a rare chance to see Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. I’m already thrilled with this one – not only did my Tuesday night ticket cost me less than $40, but the play starts at the more rational weekday hour of 7:00, and not the standard 8:00. It can be a little tricky to call the box office, which has limited hours, but it’s worth it because the Aurora’s on-line system uses that horrible “best seat” system. I’ve decided I’ll only buy tickets on-line if the system shows me exactly which seats are available. I’ll decide which is the best seat available, thank you.

April 23-25 Magnificat performs Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (in a different location each day).

At the San Francisco Symphony, Edwin Outwater leads an interesting program April 7-11, featuring music from Whisper House, a new composition by Duncan Shiek (of Spring Awakening, which I haven’t seen or heard). Shiek’s piece replaces the previously announced Five Shakespeare Sonnets by Rufus Wainwright, which will allegedly happen next season. The program also offers Zipangu by Claude Vivier (I’ve heard a lot about the late composer and am very eager to hear this) as well as Gounod’s ballet music from Faust and Poulenc’s Suite from Les Biches. The wonderful Symphony Chorus gives its annual concert on Sunday April 11. On April 15-16 the symphony accompanies Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece The Gold Rush. Me, I’d happily stay at home and watch the DVD, but if you don’t have the DVD and a big screen TV and can stand to watch movies in a crowd, then go and have a wonderful time. This is probably my favorite Chaplin film, though my favorite Chaplin moment remains the last scene in City Lights, which I can’t even describe because I break down and sob helplessly. Since the symphony is accompanying the film, I assume this is the original 1925 silent version, and not the inferior version Chaplin released in 1942 with some cuts and his overly fey narration replacing the intertitles. April 29-May 1, Christoph Eschenbach conducts Schumann’s Fourth and Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, with wonderful soloists in Christine Schafer and Matthias Goerne, and that brings us into May.

Haiku 2010/87

bending in the breeze
a blossom bows and springs back
then is forgotten

medieval


torso of the crucified Jesus, from The Cloisters
click here for Lisa's photo of this sculpture

26 March 2010

25 March 2010

24 March 2010

23 March 2010

22 March 2010

21 March 2010

. . . and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi

One of the things I like about Cutting Ball Theater is that, without making a big deal about it, they have a history of including plays about the African-American experience. They’ve done several by the wonderful Suzan-Lori Parks, and now we have Marcus Gardley’s . . .and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi. The tiny stage of the Cutting Ball expands to epic size with this rich, rewarding tale of the final days of the Civil War. It opens and closes with gospel music and the great river (Miss Ssippi, played by Nicole C. Julien, and her chorus of attendants, Rebecca Frank, Halili Knox, and Erica Richardson) speaking to us just as a river should: flowing, poetic, sometimes clotted and muddy, sometimes clear and limpid, sometimes imperious and indifferent, sometimes sheltering and cleansing. Yes, Julien and Co. have figured out how to play a river. Nature takes an active part in the proceedings; there’s also a tree, played by David Westley Skillman, who later is the hilariously deadpan, benevolent Jesus (though he gives Him compelling depth when he needs to).

Nature and the human world (because even though the play is filled with the sort of compelling language and poetic vision that is basic to the Cutting Ball mission, in between the gospel choruses and the river’s monologue there is a plot driving the evening, a melodramatic Faulknerian engine of loves, jealousies, masters, and slaves) combine in the key figure of Damascus, a slave who takes advantage of the chaos of war to run away; he is caught, castrated, and lynched. The Great Tree allows him to return to earth for two days to search for his missing daughter, only he must return as a woman, Demeter. As the name tells you, the story of Demeter and Persephone is referenced (and as the name Damascus tells you, there are Biblical references too). Aldo Billingslea is outstanding in the double role. He manages to lighten his voice and gestures delicately enough to convince us he is the woman Demeter, without mincing or exaggerating her into a caricature. He keeps his power both as Damascus and as Demeter.

Adding to the mix of the play are references to African-American folklore and theater, often in the lanky, canny person of Brer Bit (Martin F. Grizzell, Jr). The whole cast is strong (here are those I haven’t mentioned so far: Erika A. McCrary in the key role of Free Girl, David Sinaiko as Jean Verse, Sarah Mitchell as his wife Blanche Verse, Jeanette Harrison as their daughter Cadence Marie Verse, and Zac Shuman as Yankee Pot Roast) and they all have their moments. This is a play that would hold up over repeated viewings.

I'm giving this an enthusiastic recommendation, but here are the things I didn’t like: the use of a quilt as a map/metaphor, the whole thing about Demeter needing to find his daughter so that he can pass on his song or release the song inside her or something, and naming the daughter Poem (not sure if I’m spelling that as it should be, since they pronounce it more like “Po’ Em,” as in Poor Emily, but I’m just guessing there). Plays can work with such clunkingly obvious names as Poem, Free, Verse, etc (I’m thinking of Streetcar Named Desire, with its Belle Reve, Elysian Fields, and indeed the streetcar Desire, not to mention Everyman and the works of Jonson and the Restoration dramatists, though they of course use such names for comic effect), but I just find them . . . clunkingly obvious. As for the quilt and passing on the song, I have no philosophical objections; I just find those things trite and “inspirational” in kind of a hacky way. (V, who taught me how to quilt, once said as we were looking through piles of quilting books, all heavy with metaphor, that she wanted to write a book about quilts called They’re Really Just Bedcovers.) These threadbare moments aren’t really necessary: Demeter’s search makes both emotional and metaphorical sense without framing it in such obvious terms.

The other minor thing I disliked: Jesus really does, at one point, moonwalk the Mississippi. There are many moments of comedy and music and strangeness in the play that arise naturally; this felt shoehorned in. Many of the themes in the play – about gender, race, pop music and entertainment, even searching for a lost child – appear in grotesque form in Michael Jackson’s career. But the music from Thriller doesn't hold up next to the gospel songs that are woven through the rest of the play, and Jackson is a figure of such weirdness that his appearance, even as a reference, is more of a distraction than an illumination. But then I’ve never found Jackson of any interest as an entertainer, except as a cultural phenomenon/cautionary tale. Exploring his life would make a fascinating play, but a different one. I had the feeling that “Jesus moonwalking the Mississippi” was one of those haunting images around which the play began to crystallize; even though the work outgrew the image, it remained, a vestige. The musician who really hovered over the work for me was Richard Wagner; this play ends, as does the Ring, with a fire, a flood, and the ambiguous redemption of a new beginning.

It’s a terrific evening: go see it if you can. And for the first time in my last several visits to Cutting Ball Theater, I was not poked, prodded, kicked, or rudely discussed by either the women beside me or the guys behind me. It adds to the pleasures of the evening, not being abused like that.

Haiku 2010/80

the side of a house,
paint peeling in the bright sun:
such human beauty. . .

20 March 2010

Mothers of the Year, Classic-Style

For several years Cutting Ball Theater has had an enticing and free series of play readings, usually focusing on the obscure and rare, called The Hidden Classics. I finally managed to get to one of these, the Medea double-bill (Euripides followed by Seneca). I love these compare-and-contrast things. The cast was the same for both plays: Medea was Paige Rogers, Jason was Garth Petal, the Nurse was Lynne Soffer, Creon was Bennett Fisher, James Kierstead was the Tutor and the Messenger, Patrick Kelley and George Matan-Hester played the non-speaking sons, Mary Anne Cook, Mayra Gaeta, and Lindsay Cookson were the Chorus, and Paul Gerrior was Aegeus, who only appears in the Greek version. Amy Clare Tasker directed the Euripides and Rob Melrose directed the Seneca (Rob and Paige are the artistic directors of Cutting Ball).

It was a fascinating, absorbing, and frankly exhausting afternoon, even with a half-hour intermission with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres between the plays. (Those seats are kind of difficult to sit in for so long. Also: the woman behind me literally kicked me in the ass several times. Again I ask, what is wrong with you people? If your foot poked the person in front of you, wouldn’t you be extra careful next time you needed for some inexplicable reason to cross your legs, especially since he was so nice about it the first time? And that little pat on the shoulder doesn’t count. In fact it adds to the irritation. Sheesh.)

The reading was to be followed by a discussion of the two versions and a vote on which we preferred. I skipped the discussion and hence the vote; something about the woman in the back row going “woooo!” every time Medea scored a point persuaded me that I’d be better off heading into the sunset. I understand from Marissabidilla’s discussion of this afternoon that Euripides won. (Click here for her discussion of the Medeas, as well as of Phedre at ACT, which I’m going to get to further on in this entry, and here for her discussion of Seneca as the Roman Tarantino.) Though I agree with her comparison of the two, which can be summarized as Euripides is a playwright and Seneca a poet, I would have voted for Seneca mostly because of the novelty of obscurity, though I suspect if I’d sat through the discussion perversity would also have led me to favor the savage Roman. I was feeling pretty bloodthirsty myself. What with the ass-kicking, and the "Woooo!"ing.

My other reason for favoring Seneca was that the Latin Medea had more of the requisite ferocity. I loved Paige as Lady Macbeth so I know she can handle Medea, but the performance of the Euripides version was too anguished, too sympathetic, too much the way a normal woman would be. But Medea is not a normal woman, something quite a few audience members didn’t seem to grasp. We need to fear her, and to recognize that her actions, however solidly motivated, are fearful. Other characters refer to her ferocity and cunning, and even in her mock meekness you have to sense that glint in the eye and steel in the voice that tells you that she is terrible, implacable, furious. Otherwise why would everyone who knows her be so wary of a powerless woman? Her rejection doesn’t leave her heart-broken, it leaves her enraged to the point of murdering her own children.

Medea hesitates to kill them, because she is not an inhuman monster, but killing her children is her plan all along, she never seriously falters in her plan, and she does it out of hatred. She’s not like Norma, whose more generous and natural impulses cause her to change her mind about killing her children and eventually lead her to accept love (and death) rather than revenge. And she’s not like Margaret Garner, the so-called American Medea, because Garner acted out of love, to protect her children from a life of slavery. Medea acts out of cruelty and hatred. Yet the feeling seemed to be that she was perfectly justified, and if anyone was to blame, it was Jason.

Can we all maybe agree that murdering your own two children is perhaps a bit of an over-reaction to getting dumped? Yes, it was not a nice thing for Jason to do. Medea is justly angry and hurt. But isn’t it enough she kills his new bride, and her father, and burns their house to the ground? Euripides highlights everything that might make you take, if not a sympathetic view of Medea, at least an understanding one; but he was doing that in the face of a society that considered her simply evil and inhuman. We seem to have a society that considers her actions perfectly justified and even praise-worthy, at least judging from the “You Go, Girl!” vibe in the audience. (As noted by The Onion, women are now empowered by everything women do.) It is this same bizarre refusal to consider women morally responsible for their actions – which is a refusal to take women seriously as members of society – that undercut Bone to Pick, the Eugenie Chan monodrama Cutting Ball presented last year. It is ironic that everything Euripides designed to make his audience question itself led a contemporary audience not to question itself.

I was reminded of an interview with Fay Weldon that I read years ago, about her brilliant novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil: she said how odd she found it that people just accepted everything the protagonist did (as she destroys the husband who did her wrong, his mistress, and herself) instead of debating, as she thought they would, the point at which she went too far. (If this doesn’t make sense, it will if you read the novel, as you should, but at all costs avoid the crappy movie version with Meryl Streep and Roseanne, which omits about half of the book, the more interesting half.)

Perhaps this overly sympathetic portrayal was part of an attempt to differentiate the two Medeas, since their stories are essentially the same, though Seneca has many more long and elaborate speeches. The portrayal there, though still sympathetic to a degree, was of a more implacable woman. I found the Euripides performance fundamentally misconceived, but as noted quite a lot of the audience seemed to think murdering the children was just a particularly sassy comeback. (I did wonder if those audience members would have felt quite so comfortable about it if Medea had murdered two daughters instead of sons.)

Given this attitude, Jason, already a flawed and unheroic hero, had a losing battle for the audience’s favor, though Garth gave it his considerable best try. But when Jason points out to Medea that he’s given their children the great advantage of living in Greece, there was a lot of laughter, as if this were evidence of Jason’s smugness. But though there is some smugness there, it’s a valid point, as if an American were to make the same remark: yes, the country may be a mess, and tending downwards (do we finally have national health care yet?), but it’s a wealthier and more secure place to live than quite a few other places, and what’s silly and smug is pretending that doesn’t matter. When Medea justifies her earlier murders (of her younger brother, among others) by saying she did it out of love for Jason, I don't think we're supposed to accept that as an excuse. I think we're meant to take that as evidence that her emotions are selfish and uncontrolled. In other words, that the blame is hers for taking such actions, not primarily his for benefiting from them. If the audience is only taking one character's arguments seriously, it's missing the debate among irreconcilable and clashing points of view that is the essence of Greek tragedy.

I’d say the audience had a very naïve view of Medea, but the naivete may well be mine in taking the drama and the characters seriously. (But then, I’ve always felt that sophistication is really just another barrier between you and a genuine experience of theater; when you’re too busy sorting out which reaction will signify you as sophisticated, you can’t really have an honest reaction. Sophistication only exists in relation to other people.) It's not that these people weren't totally into Medea: one man told me he was pretty much a Medeahead, and was planning to watch the Lars von Trier version as sort of an after-party. Perhaps by now these stories have been so Freuded, Frazered, Junged, and Campbelled, so painted, performed, filmed, and sung, that we have reached a stage of Alexandrian decadence with them, where they have lost their primal strength and become exercises in style. What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?

Several days after the Medeas I went to the Geary Theater to see Phedre, “translated and adapted” from Racine’s play by Timberlake Wertenbaker. The single set featured metal columns whose hollow interiors were filled with writhing pipes, nicely suggestive of the twisted emotions right below the surface of the characters. The costumes were eighteenth-century in style, though the men’s sturdy brown garb was far too drab, especially for Hippolytus: he’s repeatedly described as proud, haughty, arrogant; to me, Jonathan Goad was more of a nice guy, suggestive of a semi-hunky suburban dad starting to go to seed, and far too contemporary. I had a similar problem with several of the actors, who were OK and appealing enough but just completely out of sync with Racine's style and story. One major exception was the Theseus of Tom McCamus, who commanded the stage appropriately; the show picked up when he showed up.

Seana McKenna as Phedre was fine, but after a while – the show was about two hours, with no intermission – I felt she needed a few more variations on the theme of how miserable her forbidden love for her stepson Hippolytus made her feel. This isn’t really McKenna’s fault, I think. The play has several strikes against it with a contemporary American audience: the subject matter, to start with. Far from shivering with the horrifying thrill of incest, we’re likely to think, meh . . . he’s not blood. It’s just a stepson, for Heaven’s sake! Haven’t we seen this dozens of times on Springer or even Oprah? What does forbidden love mean in our society, or more specifically, in our representations of society? We have a theater in which Albee can write a play about a man in love with a goat, and, though I found that play a huge disappointment, it is a serious play, and far from being shut down by the Vice Squad, it had a comfortable run entertaining the tourists on Broadway before heading out to a life of regional revivals. So I at least felt a little impatient with this woman mooning over her shocking love, and Racine didn’t do her (or us) any favors by moving any less-than-noble emotions to the wily servant Oenone (Roberta Maxwell), who in this version is the one who comes up with the scheme to slander Hippolytus, Potiphar’s-Wife-style.

The translation uses unrhymed lines shorter than Racine’s alexandrines, but the basic problem is that for all English-speaking audiences the paradigm for poetic theater, consciously or not, is of course Shakespeare, with his richness, his extravagance, his range, his sublimity and his vulgarity. Racine is just going to seem flatter and tinier to us, because his power comes from the untranslatable contrast between the precision and control of language and form and the wild emotions expressed therein. An English-language equivalent might be something like the poetry of Housman, whose power comes from the sense that only his very tight, regular, and formal structures can keep his deep emotions from slopping out into incoherent throbbing. (That, incidentally, is why I almost always dislike musical settings of Housman; the music for me adds a disruptive and unnecessary third element that upsets the balance.)

You can hear at least one surviving recording, just a couple of minutes long, of Bernhardt as Phedre, which of course was one of her great triumphs. Even through the surface noise you can hear a combination of fever and formality. But she was coming from a theater that valued grand gestures and symphonic vocalism and that was still stylized in some of the ways in which Racine’s theater was stylized. We are very far from that.

I don’t regret seeing the play, because how many chances am I going to get? (Though I do have some regrets about the cost.) But I also can’t say I was thrilled by it, or discovered something I hadn’t already known or felt. The whole thing was disappointingly middle-of-the-road. The story, so basic yet so remote from anything we find tragic or shocking, and the formal, elevated style the play requires, called out for something extreme to wake us to whatever power they might still have over us: darken the stage, light the actors with spotlights or flashlights, strip the actors down and make their language standard contemporary prose. Or have the actors use highly stylized gestures, speak in rhyme and formal cadence, make the stage an explosion of expressive color. Put Hippolytus in a golden loincloth and Phedre in buskins and a towering crown. Go ahead and have a man play Phedre, in homage to the Greek tragic theater and to the camp attitude that many take to these works. Sure, there will be some inappropriate laughter, but there is now anyway (and camp versions of Greek tragedy can be both very funny and strangely powerful). To put it another way: go Noh, go Kabuki, or go home.
(The photographs are all from the Graeco-Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My other picture of the Maenad at top is here, and you can click through at that entry to see Lisa's photo of the entire statue. The second and third pictures are different shots of the same statue, which is of Artemis if I'm remembering correctly. The fourth picture is a fragment of Hera, again if I'm remembering correctly.)

Haiku 2010/79

Sweeping leaves gives way
to mowing grass and pulling
weeds; nature rolls on

for the first day of spring

From AE Housman, one of the perfect lyrics in English, in just three quatrains (much like another perfect lyric, Larkin's This Be the Verse):


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.


Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.



And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.



One of the many things I like about that poem is the way the middle stanza is taken up with convoluted self-referential calculations, much like the middle part of life.

Accuracy compels me to point out that the trees pictured here are actually apricot trees and therefore of lesser loveliness, and the blossoms disappeared a couple of weeks before spring officially arrived.

19 March 2010

Haiku 2010/78

Early warmth of spring
Sailboats bob in the harbor
Legs get stretched on shore

18 March 2010

17 March 2010

15 March 2010

14 March 2010

Volti

Volti’s concerts are always fun and interesting. What was most interesting to me about the one I went to a couple of weeks ago is that I’ve now heard them often enough so that I am past the “hey, that was nice!” stage. It takes practice to listen to new music as well as familiar. This concert was billed as “Asian and Latin Influences” which I guess was fairly accurate, but a joint concert with the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir is what it really was (Robert Geary directs both choirs). There were lots of beaming parents and grandparents crowding the pews of St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley.

I really enjoyed the first half of the concert. One highlight was Ligeti’s characteristically witty and whimsical Ket kanon (Two Canons), sung by the children in their pure high voices. The program opened with Pronto Desapareceremos (Soon we will disappear), a setting in Nahuatl of some ancient philosophical lines on the transitoriness of existence. It began with a soloist (if the program gave her name, I couldn’t find it, but she was very good) standing in front of the church and the rest of the chorus answering her solo from the back. A number of pieces that evening used such spatial sound effects.

The transitoriness of life was a theme picked up in Being: Two Collins Song, a Volti commission and premiere from Yu-Hui Chang. She was one of the composers there that evening, along with Jean Ahn and Mark Winges. Right before the concert they had a panel discussion moderated by Geary. This was a mixed bag, as such things usually are. The composers made some interesting points about the importance they place on communication and having the texts performed clearly (something at which Volti excels, in my experience), but ironically the discussion was a little hard to hear; the audience was getting settled and moving and whispering and church acoustics are designed for singing and preaching and not really for conversation, even one aided by a microphone. The two Billy Collins poems are The Night House and Shoveling Snow with Buddha, and despite Collins’ reputation for accessibility these are fairly dense and subtle texts, which Chang and the chorus handled beautifully.

I really liked Jean Ahn’s Zeteo, the final piece of the first half, which was also a premiere and a Volti commission. To paraphrase the program, the text is based on three major Greek words from Deuteronomy 4:29: zeteo (to seek), kardia (heart), and psyche (soul). The final phrase, “And you will find him,” is in English. I liked the buzzing waspy sound of the consonantal flurries, followed by the elongated, elegant vowels.

As you may have gathered I did not enjoy the second half of the concert as much. It opened with the west coast premiere of el sonido dulce de tu voz by Orlando Jacinto Garcia. This piece also spreads out the chorus to add a spatial dimension to the sound. A glockenspiel plinks while the singers intone various words from the phrase “regresare en la noche al oir el sonido dulce de tu voz suave” (I will return in the night upon hearing the sweet sound of your soft voice). The composer dedicated the piece to his wife, which is lovely and makes me feel like a bit of a heel for finding something too stereotypically “Latin” about hearing words like noche and dulce whispered in urgent murmurs. Just a personal reaction to that burden of “the passionate” that half my ancestry carries.

The next piece was Ikikaiku (Eternal Echo) by the Finnish composer Olli Kortekangas. It’s based on a section from the Kalevala, and that sounded great to me until Geary informed us that we were supposed to join in and sing back to the chorus at the end. Not to get too Louis Quatorze here, but: No. If I am paying to hear you sing, then I do not expect you to demand that I sing to you. Sing for me, my minions! Dance and play your twangling instruments! Make me smile, and I will pay you and applaud you!

That’s the natural order of things. Besides, there’s something about sitting on a hard pew waiting for the main event to start while the choir director fixes us with that look both demanding and pleading as he insists on rehearsing us in something we don’t want to sing – well, it just brings it all back. I half expected Mother Manuela to come hissing down the aisle threatening a demerit in religion for anyone caught not singing, not that she, a tiny old-school Spanish nun, would have set foot in an Episcopal church anyway without a papal dispensation.

The final piece of the evening was Luna, Nova Luna, a brand new piece by Mark Winges for both choirs. It’s a collage of texts on the moon, some by the composer, who apparently has the same thing for the moon that I have. Yes, the moon is indeed lovely and poetically useful. There were for my taste too many passages designed for the children to act cute or make funny sounds. The piece was fine but just did not really grab me. Volti always has a reception after their concerts, which is quite nice of them. They really do great work, and if the occasional piece doesn’t appeal to me much, I just figure that helps me appreciate the other pieces even more.

Haiku 2010/73

fragrance of pulled weeds
lingers on my fingers long
after I'm indoors

13 March 2010

New Century Chamber Orchestra

I discovered the New Century Chamber Orchestra this season (well, only in the sense that Columbus “discovered” America – they’ve been there for quite a while, but now I know about them, with surely happier results than the Italian’s discovery). I went to last November’s concert, which featured Strauss’s Metamorphosen. The complex, sombre mood of this piece comes through even if you don’t know about the bombing of the Munich opera house towards the end of Strauss’s life or about his complicated relationship with the Nazi regime. I heard a performance at the Boston Symphony back when I lived there and it’s one of those performances that has haunted me since. And I still remember one fatuous concertgoer cheerily announcing afterwards, “That was not written by a happy man!” which he seemed to find alien in some way.

I was fascinated by NCCO’s performance, which despite the richness of its sound brought out something lighter in the piece than the BSO did – something that made me realize why it was called a metamorphosis rather than an elegy, something that brought out the possibilities of change as well as the sadness of loss. I understand from Joshua Kosman’s article on NCCO in the latest Gramophone (the one with so many pages dedicated to Mahler that it looks like the San Francisco Symphony’s season schedule) that their next recording will feature Metamorphosen, so that’s certainly one to look forward to.

William Bolcom was the other composer featured last November (he is this year’s Featured Composer, a program that is one of the innovations of newish music director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, and their early May concerts will include the world premiere of his Romanza, a violin concerto they commissioned). I’m a long-time Bolcom fan, from back in the days when I knew him only as an impresario of American song, and not a composer. It says a lot for Bolcom’s strength that his music stood up to the Strauss, since both his pieces were lighter in conception and tone. First came Serenata Notturna, featuring Laura Griffiths on oboe, which as the name implies is a bit along the lines of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. That was followed by Three Rags for strings, including Graceful Ghost, which I had only heard before in its piano version. It’s a gently insinuating piece, and I sometimes see it described as Bolcom’s best known, which I believe; I swear I heard it the other day through the overhead speakers as I was walking through a shopping mall on my way to work.

About a week or so ago I went to their third concert of the season, Serenades and Dances (NCCO gave me a ticket to this one). The first piece was Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade, which was an interesting view into a composer mostly famed for lieder, kind of like hearing Chopin’s songs and realizing that he did more than one thing, even if the one thing is what he’s justifiably best known for. That was followed by Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings, which is one of those pieces I realize I know when I hear them – one of those “oh yeah, I recognize that!” pieces. Both were beautifully played but there was something odd about the acoustic that night. Perhaps it was just that I was farther back than I usually sit (I heard both concerts at First Congregational in Berkeley, and I’ve had odd experiences with the acoustics there during some Philharmonia Baroque concerts too). It may just have been a more distant sound that I’m used to, but I really wasn’t that far back. I didn’t feel that great that night, so that may have entered into it.

It takes audiences as well as performers some time to get used to a building’s acoustic, so maybe that was why it took me a song or two to start enjoying the first piece in the second half, Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, Strings and Pages Constantly Rustled by Three Ladies Too Damn Stupid to Find the Texts in the Program And Who Are Of Course Sitting Right Next to Me. Um, yeah, there may also have been some irritation with the audience going on there. Kevin Rivard provided the horn playing, superlative throughout. Brian Thorsett was the tenor. I found his first song too slow – it just fell apart for me and sounded choppy. But either he adjusted or I did and by the time we got to the Elegy and Dirge of the fourth and fifth movements (the settings of Blake’s O Rose and of an anonymous fifteenth century dirge) I was finding the power in his performance. His commitment to the performance was never in doubt. He has a bit of an English tenor sound, which of course is the voice Britten wrote this piece for, but for some reason I wasn’t expecting it, I guess. I honestly don’t quite know what to make of my initial reaction, and I should point out that people I trust were much more enthusiastic about the entire Britten performance than I managed to be (check here for Lisa’s view and here for SFMike’s, though he did hear a different performance in a different venue). Maybe I just wanted too much from it – the Britten was the big draw for me on this program. I went into my CD piles afterwards and dug up three other versions (Britten/Pears/Brain, Britten/Pears/Tuckwell, and Bedford/Mackie/Tuckwell) to listen to for comparison. I mostly came to the conclusion that it’s a great piece, and I wish there were more opportunities to hear it live.

The concert ended with Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, which were just wonderful: rich and vivid and piquant, each ending abruptly after giving us a glimpse of a whole world. When I got home, as usual after a concert it took me a while to fall asleep so I was channel-surfing and came across something called Celtic Thunder, which seemed to be the butch version of the equally horrifying Celtic Woman. It was all so bad – the clunky dancing, the ugly sets, the generic lyrics and overdone pop songs, the omnipresent facial microphones for the singers, making them look as if they had foul tumors near their mouths – that I found it perversely riveting. My usual view is that I don’t care what people listen to as long as they don’t make me listen to it and that life is not so full of pleasures that I will sneer at something that gives other people happiness, but sometimes I get sick of trying to be wise and generous and my inner daemon has to burst forth sneering. Maybe because this tripe was on a public television station, and I’m old enough to remember when they regularly featured operas and symphonies and jazz and filmed plays – you know, things you really actually couldn’t get on other stations. And now they not only feature this trash, they insist it’s why we should support them. What a contrast to the concert I’d just heard in Berkeley. It made me very grateful for the dedicated musicians I heard earlier in the evening, who don't get nearly the fame and financing of something like Celtic Thunder but whose work is so immeasurably superior.

Haiku 2010/72

Reading Sophocles
during crowded commutes: yes,
count no man happy. . . .

12 March 2010

Haiku 2010/71

Raindrops drumbeating
on the afternoon's taut skin;
tightly stretch the hours

10 March 2010

09 March 2010

07 March 2010

a new Lieberson/Lorraine Hunt Lieberson disc

The information below is excerpted from an e-mail sent today by Bridge Records:

On May 1, Bridge Records will release a CD of music by Peter Lieberson with featured performances by pianist Peter Serkin, the New York Philharmonic, conductor James Conlon, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and the Orion String Quartet. The works included are: "Red Garuda" (Piano Concerto No. 2); "Rilke Songs" for mezzo and piano;"Bagatelles" for piano; and "Piano Quintet". A live performance of Lieberson's "Rilke Songs", performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Peter Serkin (BRIDGE 9178), was the winner of a 2008 Grammy for "Best Vocal Recording". The present never-before issued studio version of the songs was recorded in 2005 by Lieberson and Serkin. Also on this disc is the premiere recording of Lieberson's "Piano Quintet", played by Serkin and the Orion String Quartet, the dedicatees of this work.

Obviously this is self-recommending, given the artists involved.

The reason Bridge Records is sending me e-mail is because I bought their recent Elliott Carter double-disc set, Volume 8 of their outstanding series of his music. I highly recommend the new disc, and the whole series.

Haiku 2010/66

Closing the curtain
blocks both burning fading light
and dancing shadows

feet of a dancing maenad

feet of a dancing maenad from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Update: and check here for Lisa's photo of the whole statue

05 March 2010

03 March 2010

Haiku 2010/62

Yes, we learned to speak
But we still struggle for what
We should be saying

01 March 2010

No Nono

I thought I would be spending tonight hearing the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in Nono's La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, but as usual when I try to be spontaneous and last-minute the fates conspired against me, meaning . . . well, I had put off buying a ticket until today, in an unusually carefree but not totally unprecedented way. So this afternoon I went to the SFCMP website, and the link to their ticket page didn't work at all. So I tried the alternative link to the Yerba Buena Center's website.

There I was advised that they do not offer on-line sales 24 hours before a performance. (I'm sure there's a good reason for this -- right? To take a semi-random example, Cal Performances, which I have not found to be notably efficient or subscriber-friendly, offers on-line ticket sales up to four hours before a performance.) Unable to buy on-line, I called the box office number they gave, and got a recording telling me to call back during regular business hours, which do not include Mondays at all.

Further poking around on YBCA's website uncovered that the box office opens 90 minutes before an event. This meant that I would have to hang around until 6:30 to see if the box office really was open and if they had tickets left. 6:30 is both annoyingly late and awkwardly early for the standard 8:00 start time. And at that point, thinking it should not be that difficult to buy a ticket, I decided I should just go home.

As an aside: I went to the SFCMP concert in October, and also bought my ticket the afternoon of the performance, but I guess it worked because it was at Herbst Theater rather than Yerba Buena. As a further aside: I enjoyed the concert tremendously, but there was about an hour of actual music (I know this because they printed all the times in the program) yet the concert took two hours. That's a whole lot of set-up, and talking to the audience, and general time-passing, and with travel time results in a fairly late night for anyone with a regular office job. I skipped the reception afterwards, since I had to work the next day and it was already getting late, and I pondered the irony of having to listen to much talk about encouraging a broad range of the community to come to their concerts when they were run in a way that pretty much excluded anyone outside of the Academy, which rarely starts business promptly at 8:00 a.m. (just about everyone there besides me had the look of a professor, retired professor, or student).

Anyway, too bad for me. I was looking forward to the Nono. The moral of the story is that even arts groups can benefit from efficiency.

more lemon tree

Haiku 2010/60

stepping off the curb
suddenly rage immersed me
a relentless wave