I was passing through the Westfield Mall today to sneer at people who still had Christmas shopping to do when I overhead a youngish man saying, "With my sensibility, I would tend to get them joke gifts."
If phrases like "my sensibility" are part of your everyday vocabulary, you really aren't the sort of person who should be buying joke gifts.
If you're interested in medieval and/or baroque sculpture, the Legion of Honor has a couple of small temporary exhibits you shouldn't miss.
First are the Burgundian mourners in their alabaster hoodies. They've been on display for a few months but will be leaving with the year, so if you've been putting off the admittedly onerous trip up to the Legion you only have a couple more weeks if you want to see them.
You have a little longer (until 19 February 2012) to see the Medusa by the great baroque sculptor and architect Bernini, on loan from the Musei Capitolini in Rome, a city memorably shaped by the buildings, sculptures, and fountains he designed.
As with his famous Apollo and Daphne, Bernini depicts the moment of metamorphosis, thereby displaying at their height both the psychological drama of the sculpture and his ability to capture varying textures (hair, snakeskin, flesh, cloth, limbs and leaves) in a single block of marble.
The once beautiful and vain Medusa is suddenly aware that the vindictive (or just) gods are punishing her arrogance with a transformation that will literally petrify with horror those who look on her.
The Bernini is on display in the museum's baroque gallery (take time to admire their fine Guercino!), but classical fragments can also be found elsewhere.
Last month at San Francisco Opera I was at the second performance of Handel’s Xerxes, a company premiere presented in Nicholas Hytner’s long-lived production from the English National Opera. (Michael Walling was the revival director.) I was in London the year after its premiere and as a general sign of devotion to Handel I bought the poster in the ENO shop, though the opera itself wasn’t on the schedule during my time there. Decades of going to baroque operas, and before last month I had never seen a live performance of Xerxes! I did at one point see the DVD of the ENO production, which was sung in English translation, since that is (or was) ENO’s house policy, a policy which explains why they called Handel’s Serse Xerxes; SF Opera kept that version of the name, although the opera was sung here in Italian. Presumably the name was left as Xerxes to avoid confusing people.
Speaking of confusing people, companies really should omit plot summaries in the program books for most baroque operas. Several years ago one of SF Opera’s training programs presented Handel's Ezio, which I attended with V. She was looking at the program and I saw a look of baffled panic start to appear on her face. I said, “You’re reading the synopsis, aren’t you? Don’t. It will confuse you completely. It’s full of things like ‘A, disguised as the shepherd B, is pursued by the tyrant C, though she loves D, who is traveling under the name of E, and is seeking revenge on F. . . .’ I guarantee that if you just watch the action it will all make perfect sense. If you read the synopsis, you will be completely confused forever.” Never read the synopsis for baroque opera: this is infallible advice for understanding the stage action.
Anyway, as for Xerxes: on the whole, it was beautifully sung in a stylish production, though I had the sad feeling that under different circumstances I would have been enjoying it more than I can honestly say I did. For one thing, it was a Friday night, and even with a 7:30 start time it is a long evening (nearly four hours) at the end of a work week. My regular subscription, back when I had one, was on Friday nights, so I had to keep reminding myself that I was often tired on those nights too, as otherwise the evening was a depressing reminder of what aging does to our involvement even in things we love.
Also, the people around me, obviously immersed in the movement towards historically-informed performance practice, were behaving with authentic eighteenth-century rudeness: there was lots of chatting, coughing, smooching, and so forth during the performance, particularly from a group of egregious Germans right in front of me. One of them was a woman with an extremely large head, which was blocking quite a bit of the stage. Since I was in the second row and am over six feet tall, I just wasn’t expecting my view to be blocked (yes, I know that sometimes people behind me are not happy to be behind me). I wish audience behavior didn’t affect me so much, but it does. There may be a secret to the ability to concentrate completely on the multitudinous sights and actions and noises from the stage while simultaneously blocking out everything else, but I have sadly not been able to discover it.
At the end of the first act the bald German man announced that “this is different from Wagner” – in fact he said it twice – and then he and his gang disappeared during the second act, which as a result I enjoyed quite a bit more. Unfortunately they returned for Act 3. I don’t know where they were in the meantime, or how they managed to adjust themselves to the tremendous discovery that Handel is not like Wagner.
So all along I’m feeling that this will possibly be my only chance to see this opera live – certainly it’s my only chance to experience this particular performance, for which I paid quite a lot – and for reasons not having much to do with the work itself, I’m feeling fairly low and let-down. Very sad for me.
Well, I did have one major complaint about the performance: much of the acting was too cartoony for me. You don’t need me to tell you that Susan Graham was commanding and sang beautifully as Xerxes, but Xerxes’s arbitrary and peremptory love for Romilda (Lisette Oropesa), the beloved of his brother Arsamenes (David Daniels) . . . damn, I wanted to avoid the plot summaries! Anyway, the interlocking love affairs were too frequently played for goofiness. The comic situations are more comic if those involved are clearly very serious about what they’re doing. (This also is infallible advice.)
And the situations aren’t all comic: Xerxes is an absolute monarch, used to having his way, and there should be a sense of real danger when he threatens the lovers who oppose his will. Otherwise there just isn’t much at stake. The action of the opera begins with Xerxes's celebrated aria, Ombra mai fu, whose flowing and noble beauty might obscure the fact that this all-powerful king, who could kill thousands with a mere gesture, is singing a love song to a tree. Xerxes is beyond whimsical and into unbalanced, and that’s obviously a dangerous quality in a person of unchecked powers.
I certainly don’t mean to single out Graham’s performance for this criticism, since she was one example among many. Maybe that is why I was particularly impressed by the Atalanta of Heidi Stober (Atalanta, the sister of Romilda, is secretly in love with Arsamenes, and therefore claims falsely to Xerxes that – argh, I’ve fallen into another plot summary!). She managed to avoid caricature and make a basically appalling woman, manipulative, selfish, and dishonest, into someone sympathetic and understandable. Added to the favorable impression she made in the very different role of Sophie in Werther, I have to say, she’s a singer I’m looking forward to experiencing again. Yes, she also sang with striking beauty, but that alone wouldn’t have set her apart in a cast that included Graham and David Daniels. Lisette Oropesa also held her own in this company, and I have to mention Michael Sumuel, who was genuinely funny as Arsamenes’s servant Elviro (he’s a servant, so he’s meant to be comic).
The large upside-down A is the museum's eminently mockable new logo. It symbolizes plunging attendance or something.
A while ago I made an attempt to see the new exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, Maharajah: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts. It was a Thursday night, before a concert, and it was the last Thursday of the year with late hours at the Asian, so it should have been perfect, except it wasn't because it was one of the museum's occasional stupid party nights. Sometimes those are easily ignored, but their website description of this one prominently mentioned a DJ, which should have been warning enough, but denial is, as they say, not just a river in Egypt.
They do have a nice cafeteria and an elegant gift shop. And there I am in the lower right-hand corner.
It was the nightmare I could have predicted if I had been realistic. By the time I realized how bad it would be it was too late to do anything else, but too early to go sit in the lobby of Herbst Theater. Getting into the museum took even longer than usual. The lobby was packed with people standing in very long lines for something – food or alcohol, I think – and walking anywhere required maneuvering around the immobile masses. Art didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. I went into the cafeteria (no line) and I ate my Indian-themed dinner to the brain-dead thump-thump-thump the DJ was inflicting on us.
This delightful picture across a lobby wall is promoting another new exhibit I haven't seen yet, Deities, Demons, and Dudes with 'Staches, featuring the attractively stylized and colorful work of Sanjay Patel, an artist at the Royal Court of Pixar.
I tried to see the new exhibit. Those rooms weren't as jammed as the lobby, but each object had one to three people listening to the audio tour planted in front of it, and since many of the pieces seemed to be fairly small and elaborately detailed paintings, it was going to be impossible to see anything, and besides the brain-dead thump-thump-thump was loud and unending. So here is what I managed to gather in a quick look: lots of gold, lots of silver, several small jewel-like paintings.
This bas-relief is from the permanent collection: the great Monkey King is bringing his troops to someone's aid (not mine).
I went to the second floor to look at Japanese art, hoping to escape the noise. Here are cranes flying! thump-thump-thump Here are peonies blooming! Thump-thump-thump I went up to the top floor to look at the regular Indian art collection. Here is Shiva! thump-thump-thump Here is a tiger hunt! THUMP-THUMP-THUMP
I finally couldn’t take it any longer and fled into the night, wondering if I should bother to renew my membership in the Asian Art Museum. Since I work, the Thursday evening hours are the best time for me to visit. It's a great place to go before a Thursday night concert in Civic Center. But they don't have the late hours in November and December, which are prime concert months. And about once a month they take over Thursday evenings with one of these events. And here’s the thing: if I wanted to listen to shit music amplified to a deafening volume, with my path steadily blocked by oblivious assholes nursing their grossly overpriced trendoid drinks while ignoring me and trying to pick each other up, then I would just go to a bar. And there are dozens of such places. As far as I know, there is only one place in the vicinity where you can go to look at Asian art. Why would an organization ignore its unique advantage and try to become a more expensive and inconvenient version of what is easily available in a dozen other places?
Old First Concerts offers a reliably interesting and entertaining line-up, and their $17 ticket price is one of the best arts bargains around; unfortunately for me, their concerts are almost always at 8:00 on Friday nights, which I’ve decided is possibly the worst time for performances. After a draining and tedious work week, generally the last thing I want to do with my exhaustion is carry it around aimlessly, wasting three-plus hours before a show even starts. One side effect of the ongoing Internetification of the World is the disappearance of many of the book or record stores where I used to be able to while away the hours in a more or less pleasing way. At least on Thursday nights some of the museums are open. There are simply not many places for me to go and not much for me to do now that won’t leave me feeling bored, irritated, and conscious of wasting time I could have spent better, and that's no way to walk into a concert.
Anyway, I did go up to Old First Church a couple of Fridays ago for the return of Euouae. I hadn’t walked up Van Ness that far (up to Sacramento Street) in a while, I guess, because I was surprised at the number of boarded-up businesses and restaurants I saw, some of them places that had been there for years. I was kind of tired but a better kind of tired than usual, since I had taken time off work and was wearing myself out in more interesting places.
Euouae made its maiden voyage at an earlier concert at Old First, which I wrote about here. This time director Steven Sven Olbash presented Jacob Obrecht’s Missa Sub tuum praesidium, interspersed with pieces by Josquin Des Prez and Perotin, as well as St Gall and Messine chants, the whole creating a service in honor of the Virgin Mary. In practical, sitting-in-the-audience terms, what this combination does is vary the texture of the music enough so that you can sit there for the duration (about 70 minutes or so) and not feel hypnotized by the lack of variety.
Euouae’s founding belief is that “music, being made of sound, cannot be written down.” Olbash also says (this information is coming from the program book, though you can also check out Euouae’s official website for more information) that they use rehearsal techniques employed before the tenth century. I don’t know what those techniques are, but then I’m not a choral singer and don’t know what current rehearsal techniques are either. Obviously something not written down is simply going to be lost unless interpretive traditions and techniques are handed down with an unchanged understanding, which requires what we have never had, a stable and uniform culture in which singers and audience share common assumptions. So I think what Olbash is getting at here is that they are trying to create or re-create the music, or a music, anew – that whatever antiquarian research lies behind the performance, the most important authenticity is of style and spirit. In short, the letter kills but the spirit gives life.
I decided early on in the performance not to keep checking the order of pieces in the program or the translations (though of course it's easy enough to keep track of the parts belonging to the Mass) or to ponder koan-like theories, and just to abandon myself to the aural experience. Let me commend myself for my wisdom in doing so! Olbash started the performance with very brief remarks, saying that he had been criticized at their first concert for talking too much from the stage ( I think I was one of those who said that – it does sound like something I would say), and then he didn’t speak again until the end, so let me commend him for that. At the close of the concert he offered us an unplanned encore of the Agnus Dei, since with rather endearing goofiness he hadn’t noticed that one of the singers wasn’t on stage. So they did it again with the correct number of participants. It reminded me of counting players on the field in football.
Theories and rehearsal techniques may shape the final product but of course are of more importance to the performers than to the audience, which simply gets the results. I found the results as enjoyable as in the first concert; the singers* blend beautifully but with enough individual piquancy to keep the music from sounding too processed or homogenized. There was a strange bandoneon-type instrument (it had a keyboard, so perhaps it was some type of small portable organ) that provided an eerie meditative droning to accompany some of the pieces. There is just something about this sort of chant that brings you into a different world, which of course is what the ancient chanters had in mind all along. It’s penetratingly persuasive, no matter what your reason for sitting in the church and listening.
*Caitlin Austin, Alice Ko, and Rebekah Wu, sopranos; Mary Gerbi and Andrea Kline, mezzo-sopranos; Sara Couden and Emily Ryan, contraltos; Matthew Curtis, tenor; Jeff Phillips and Steven Sven Olbash, baritones.
I went out to Davies Hall a week or two ago to hear Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the German Requiem. As I entered the lobby I noticed a number of strikingly beautiful young women in semi-exotic Arabian/stewardess garb (and yes, I mean Arabian as in the Nights, and I mean stewardess and not flight attendant). I cast my eyes downward with appropriate and becoming modesty and made it through unscathed in my self-created burka-aura, though the ladies didn’t seem particularly interested in offering me what they were offering everyone else who passed, which was a chance to win two round-trip Emirates Business Class tickets from San Francisco to Dubai. I know this because the programs contained annoying little red drop-in cards with an entry blank and the news that this was how the Symphony was welcoming Emirates as their official airline. I have no idea what the duties of an official airline are, or how they concern the audience. I was bemused at the thought that a group of people excited about hearing the Brahms Requiem would also be excited about the prospect of a trip to Dubai, which sounds as if it's just a tacky giant mall in the middle of nothingness. “For here we have no continuing city” indeed. For that I can stay in America.
The original plan was for the concert to open with a new piece by Sofia Gubaidulina; sadly she was not able to oblige, but the excellent substitutes were a short choral piece (Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock/I am the true vine) by Heinrich Schutz and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. Since Schutz was on Brahms’s mind in the Requiem, and since Schoenberg admired Brahms, it all tied together nicely, and I am always happy to hear either Schutz or Schoenberg, let alone both, though it was a little difficult to hear the Schoenberg since the dowager behind me crinkled a plastic bag on her lap for the entire duration of the piece. I had mixed feelings about having an intermission after two short pieces – it would have been interesting to plunge right into the Brahms, I thought, and cumulatively not much longer than some of Mahler’s symphonies – but at least the break gave her a chance to put the bag under her chair, where it should have been all along. There was a young woman behind me with Chica Loca tattooed in sweetly flowing script across the tops of her sweetly flowing breasts. She behaved impeccably, which did not surprise me, since anyone with a Chica Loca tattoo who shows up for Brahms is unquestionably really into him.
I thought the Brahms was magnificent. This piece can seem so familiar, but the performance managed to make it sound new and even strange without taffy-pulling it into pointless eccentricity. I particularly liked the faster tempo for the second movement (Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras/For all flesh is as grass, which might be my favorite movement anyway), which gave it a glowing, lilting, dance-like quality, like some mystical moonlit processional swaying past in the night, mourning with a mysterious joy. The handsome bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was the male soloist, and there was an extra dimension of poignancy in hearing his supple virile young voice singing of the brevity of life. Jane Archibald was gleaming and evanescent in her movement, as if she were singing to us from a dream. And the chorus was stupendous, as they so regularly are.
Death seems to bring out the best in the Symphony these days: there was their mighty Verdi Requiem, the revelatory Shostakovich 14, and, because he’s always death-haunted, the epic Mahler 3, and this German Requiem joins that company in my mind.
I wanted to go back for another helping of Brahms (Gil Shaham playing the Violin Concerto) with a side of Schoenberg (his orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet) the week after, since it was the Friday after Thanksgiving and I had to work anyway and the concert was at 6:30 so I wouldn’t have to wait around too long, but there were no rush tickets available, which might have been just as well since I was so tired that day I didn’t even re-heat turkey when I got home, I just ate pie all evening, and so another day passed.
O December: are you proud of yourself? You've already made Lisa cry. And I'm still trying to get out from under November. And yet you're already here, so here is this year's final round-up of arbitrary and personal cultural possibilities as 2011 winds down:
Volti performs new choral music that explores "the aspects of the divine and the timeless in even the most mundane moments of our lives"; tonight in San Francisco and tomorrow in Berkeley. Further info here.
Shotgun Players present God's Plot, written and directed by Mark Jackson, whose work is always interesting.
The San Francisco Symphony has an outstanding program on 8-10 December: Leila Josefowicz and Christine Brewer join Esa-Pekka Salonen to perform Sibelius's Pohjola's Daughter, excerpts from Wagner's Ring, and Salonen's Violin Concerto, the recent winner of the Grawemeyer Award.
And the great Boston Symphony Orchestra is appearing at Davies Hall (a sad falling off from Boston's Symphony Hall, where I first started attending symphony concerts, but there it is) 6-7 December, with two separate programs, both enticing. Tuesday's concert includes the BSO-commissioned Flute Concerto by Elliott Carter, which is a rare opportunity to hear music by this great American master performed at Davies. (Carter turns 103 on 11 December and is still composing.)
On 8 December the guest conductor Jayce Ogren leads the Berkeley Symphony in the Sibelius 5, Verge by Lei Liang, and Lou Harrison's wonderful Piano Concerto, with Sarah Cahill as the soloist. The Piano Concerto was my introduction to Lou Harrison's music, when I heard it years ago with Ursula Oppens at the Boston Symphony, and it just bowled me over.
Berkeley Rep presents Kneehigh Theater's The Wild Bride, 2 December to 1 January. I missed Kneehigh's Brief Encounter at ACT a couple of years ago, but I heard good things about it. Berkeley Rep sadly for me has a fairly inconvenient performance schedule, and doesn't seem to do rush tickets. And may I just say that I wish performing groups would give you clear information up front about their prices? I don't care that tickets start as low as $3.50 or whatever, since the small print is always that for that price you have to sit in an adjoining building behind a column and watch the show through an open window. I want to know how much a ticket costs in each section without having to click through six screens, and I want to see all seats available. Could we get on that please? Thanks!
Philharmonia Baroque presents the Mass in B Minor 2, 3, 4, and 6 December, in various locations; and Messiah at Zellerbach in Berkeley (in conjunction with Cal Performances) on 10 December.
Cal Performances presents the Takacs Quartet in works by Janacek, Britten, and Ravel on 4 December.
San Francisco Performances presents the Brentano String Quartet in a program called Fragments, in which living composers complete unfinished works by past composers (4 December); the great Karita Mattila in a song recital with Martin Katz (6 December); and pianist Christian Zacharias playing CPE Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert (9 December).
And of course there are plenty of Nutcrackers, Christmas Carols, and Messiahs out there. Enjoy the season!
Would someone please tell me when and why seemingly everyone suddenly started pronouncing the final "t" in Turandot?
According to every source I've seen (you can easily google this stuff, but here's the Wikipedia entry), Puccini himself did not pronounce the final "t," and neither did Rosa Raisa, who created the role, and neither did Toscanini, who conducted the premiere, and neither did Eva Turner, another famous early exponent of the title role. And isn't it obviously more awkward to sing the name with the final "t" pronounced? So why do so many people now think they know better than Eva Turner, Rosa Raisa, Arturo Toscanini, and Puccini himself?
Apparently Puccini's grand-daughter, Simonetta Puccini, favors pronouncing the final "t," with no reason given (and no citation given in Wikipedia, either); though I'm sure she's a lovely woman, there's no genetic authority here; if Puccini's contemporaries, who knew him and worked with him, say that he didn't pronounce the "t," then it shouldn't be pronounced.
As you can see from Wikipedia or other sources, the name derives from a Persian name in which the final "t" is pronounced, which is interesting but irrelevant if the creator of the opera didn't pronounce the name that way. You can also see claims that Carlo Gozzi's play Turandot should have the final "t" pronounced due to the Venetian dialect he spoke, which again is interesting but irrelevant to the opera. No one claims that Verdi's penultimate opera should be pronounced Othello rather than Otello because his source is Shakespeare and Shakespeare has the "th," or that Byron was "wrong" to anglicize the pronunciation of Don Juan into Don Jew-un.
So, seriously, what gives?
(No doubt one reason I feel strongly about this is that the pronunciation of my last name was anglicized by my grandparents (so that it rhymes with "jazz") and I constantly have to correct people who think they are being "authentic," whatever that means.)
The Aurora Theater is currently presenting The Soldier’s Tale by Stravinsky, a dark little fable brightly told about a soldier who foolishly gives the Devil his violin in exchange for riches (well, there's more, but it's better not to know it in advance). Donald Pippin of Pocket Opera did the clever rhymed translation of CF Ramuz’s book, and Jonathan Khuner did the musical arrangement of Stravinsky’s 1918 work, with “musical collaboration” (which I think means “performance,” though maybe they also worked on the arrangements) by Earplay. The music is very attractively jazzy; if I were listening to it cold I would have guessed that at least parts of it were by Kurt Weill in his Berlin days.
I went to a preview performance on a Tuesday, since Aurora’s Tuesday shows start at 7:00. The work is slightly over an hour, so it occurred to me that if they’d started on time (instead of about ten minutes after the hour) we would have been getting out around the time most theaters were just starting their performances. I’d rather have the time after the performance than have to waste it beforehand, so I love the Aurora's Tuesdays.
The show was conceived by former SF Ballet dancer Muriel Maffre, who also played the Daughter of the King, operated the soldier puppet, choreographed the work, and co-directed it with Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross. Not surprisingly she dances exquisitely and memorably in her bit at the end, though equally memorable in a different way is the Devil’s flailing contorted dance which follows; the Devil, billed as The Devil in Various Disguises, is Joan Mankin, with a wild mop of reddish hair and a progressively greener face. Mankin has a weirdly sexy Lotte Lenya-type vibe going on, and it says a lot for the power of Maffre’s quieter performance, and for L. Peter Callender as the elegant narrator, that they can hold their own against her manic energy.
I do wish they would rethink the design of the marionette soldier, which has a large moon-white cranium tapering down into a narrow pointed chin and dark almond-shaped eyes – the total effect is just too Roswell/Area 51 and I initially found it kind of off-putting. After a while, as with most puppets (except the human kind) I got used to the looks and stopped seeing him as a puppet, but I kept getting occasional space-alien flashes from him.
Other than that, I found the whole thing generally delightful, with enough twists and enough ambiguity to hold the interest. I was amused to see that this work, like Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, also has a key scene involving a card game with the devil featuring the Queen of Hearts; I have no idea what to make of this, but it might make a stumper of a trivia question for those so minded.
This show would make a wonderful holiday treat for sophisticated children. But don't let the lack of children, sophisticated or otherwise, stop you from going, since it's also a wonderful holiday treat for adults (I thought about going to the Nutcracker this year, since I haven’t seen it in many years, but then I realized that I felt kind of pervy going solo to the Nutcracker, which I realize is a weird reaction, but there it is. Anyway, no worries about going solo to this enjoyable show).
It runs through Dec 18; call the box office at 510-843-4822 or go on-line here if you don't mind that they assign you a random seat rather than let you see everything available (I do mind so I always call the box office, and they are always very helpful).
A couple of Sundays ago I went back to St Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco for Magnificat’s second concert of the season, devoted mostly to vocal works by Carissimi, with instrumental works between each piece by some of his seventeenth-century Roman compatriots (Michelangelo Rossi, Johann Hieronymus Kapsburger, and Girolamo Frescobaldi).
Magnificat’s first concert this season was just a few weeks earlier, but now the lovely little church was cool instead of sweltering and the glaring sun sank below the windows before the concert started.
The instrumental interludes were nicely played by John Lenti on theorbo and Katherine Heater on organ and harpsichord. (They also accompanied the singers for the four Carissimi numbers.) Since these pieces were meant as devotional aids they are brief and concentrated, and sometimes surprisingly dramatic for Counter Reformation devotions with well-known outcomes. (The sweet delights of music and drama were meant as the hook with which to catch the attention of frivolous sinners.)
First we had the story of Job, which in this version eliminated most of the poetic speculation from the biblical story in favor of swift and unambiguous action: the Devil destroys Job’s family and property, a heavenly Angel gives him spiritual strength, and so he refuses to curse God. There’s a compelling trio at the end, with the same general participants and outcome as the trio at the end of Gounod’s Faust.
The next piece was a vivid warning about what will happen at the Last Judgment, sung so sweetly that being reduced to dust and ashes seemed rather appealing. The third piece was a straightforward setting of Luke’s story about the disciples traveling unawares with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Emmaus.
The final piece was the story of Jephte (Jeptha) and his daughter, a magnificent setting that is shorter and grimmer than Handel’s great oratorio on the subject. There is no eighteenth-century happy ending imposed here, but lamentations for the death of Jeptha’s virgin daughter, the victim of his rash oath. Carissimi’s setting may lack the subtle and extended drama of Handel’s, but then he’s trying for something very different, something swift and clear that lingers in the mind afterwards.
The excellent singers were Catherine Webster, Jennifer Ellis Kampani, and Jennifer Paulino, sopranos; Andrew Rader, alto; and Paul Elliott, tenor. Warren Stewart led the ensemble. As I left the church I was very happy to have subscribed to Magnificat, since if I hadn’t already bought a ticket I probably wouldn’t have trekked out there in the middle of a very busy month.
The Kardashians are one of those pop-culture things I know about mostly through parodies, though I do also get updates from the hilariously named "Scoop!" section of the SF Examiner (a right-wing rag which I see because it is literally handed to the commuter crowds as they exit the BART stations, and which I take because it is printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks, making it an excellent addition to the home compost pile). Anyway, yesterday's "Scoop!" quoted one of those inevitable "insiders" on the bitter fall-out from Kim Kardashian's brief marriage to someone named Kris Humphries:
"He tried to control Kim by bringing her down," said the source. "He would say truly terrible things. One time, he said she had no talent and her fame wouldn't last."
The brute! I'm sure she's extremely talented at . . . whatever it is she does. Apparently the "insider" repeated this "truly terrible" remark without laughing.
The moral, which like most morals depends on where you're standing, is either that you should avoid your own blabbing "insiders" or that reality stars can't take too much reality.
Maurice Maeterlinck was one of those huge figures who went from omnipresence to obscurity in what seems like the blink of an eye. He’s best remembered for writing the play that ended up as the libretto of Debussy’s great opera, Pelleas et Melisande (though silent movie fans may also know Maurice Tourneur’s lovely 1918 film based on another play, The Blue Bird). Cutting Ball Theater has been presenting a rare opportunity to see Maeterlinck’s original play of Pelleas and Melisande. I went to one of the previews, several Sunday afternoons ago, during a suffocating hot spell, which is strange to remember now that it's so cold.
The story is pretty much as in the opera, though of course it’s not shaped by Debussy’s music. There is ambient music in this production, provided by Cliff Caruthers, which works very well towards helping to create the play’s dislocated atmosphere. Things are not quite what they seem, but not always in the way we think, and if that sounds a bit puzzling and obscurely meaningful, then you’re getting the picture. Rob Melrose, who also did the new translation of the play, sets the work on a long, stripped-down platform that runs down the middle of the theater, with seats banked on either side (not the usual configuration at this theater).
There are dark metal sheets hanging down splashed with pale green paint that conjures up leaves, or maybe moss in a cave, or streaked castle walls, though the medievalism is kept to a minimum, as are the props generally – the actors mime holding objects, and Melisande’s famously long hair is evoked and imagined rather than displayed; for the scene in which Pelleas hangs on to Melisande’s suddenly unloosened hair, the actors lie on the platform, which we now visualize as a vertical wall rather than a horizontal floor, and he reaches up towards where the hair would be, hanging on to what we imagine is there.
The costumes are mostly contemporary, but evocative of other times and places. Melisande’s costumes usually bare her arms, so she looks different from and fragile next to the other characters. Pelleas wears a dark ski vest with a row of trees subtly silhouetted across the bottom, over a dark green T-shirt (I actually sat there wondering where they’d gotten that shirt, which I really liked; it looked like something you could get from Eddie Bauer, but it also worked as a costume evoking the outdoors where he and Melisande meet).
There are lots of elements that seem obviously “symbolic” – the sun, the night, the sea, the caves, journeying, her hair, the ring she loses – but much is left suggestively unexplained, and the play’s power comes from the shifting meanings and general instability of the symbols, which always seem about to collapse into dream-land or other subconscious realms.
Obviously there’s a danger here of being overly precious and vague, which Melrose and the actors successfully avoid. As I’ve indicated, the more obviously fairy-tale or antique elements, though not eliminated, are handled so that the story doesn’t become merely picturesque or old-time storybookish. Caitlyn Louchard does an outstanding job suggesting the indrawn, haunted Melisande, without lapsing into annoying feyness; you feel Melisande is being as direct as she can be, or can allow herself to be.
But it was the performances of the brothers Golaud (Derek Fischer) and Pelleas (Jonathan Schell) that gave me a pleasant surprise because – I can’t think of any other way to put this – given the temptations of the material, they were surprisingly masculine. They could easily have been vaguely gauzy fairy-tale princes; these seemed like actual guys you might actually meet, struggling with love and jealousy and loss. Yet there was enough strangeness in them – a suggestion of willful blindness or hurtful sensitivity – to provide the instability as well as the strength the script calls for. (Among the rest of the cast I also particularly liked Paul Gerrior as Arkel, the ruler of exhausted wisdom.)
Maeterlinck supposedly lost favor when the theater turned towards “realism,” but this production made me ponder the slippery nature not just of "realism" but of reality. The performance is about an hour and forty minutes, with no intermission to break the mood, and the somber heat, heavy and suffocating and unusual for the time of year, began to seem like one of the play’s elements of definite but not quite definable significance. Heading home on the train afterwards, I was trapped in front of a man practically shouting into his cell phone, telling his friend over and over that Tricia had discovered photos that Tasha had taken of herself wearing one of Tricia’s nightgowns, posed on Tricia’s bed – which I assumed she shared with this man, but maybe not; it really wasn’t clear how the three were related – was Tasha an ex-lover? a daughter? a sister? Whatever was going on there, it was clear this man felt that what might in other circumstances be a minor incident (borrowing another woman's outfit, sitting on her bed) was in this case freighted with deep emotion and constituted a shocking betrayal. I was still under the spell of the performance, and this incident, right down to the strange similarity in the names of the two women, seemed like a forgotten episode from what I had just seen, and like a validation of Maeterlinck’s method.
The show runs through November 27, so you have a few more chances to catch it. Get tickets here.
I went to hear Marc-Andre Hamelin at his recent recital in Herbst Theater, which featured works by Berg, Liszt, and Hamelin himself.
The Berg Piano Sonata, Opus 1, and the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor fit well together; the Berg is quite romantic in sound, with intimations that something more jagged is coming, and the Liszt also takes familiar forms and pushes them to emotional extremes. Hamelin of course is a famous virtuoso and his playing is immaculate, clear and powerful and bracing like a high mountain stream. His playing is not demonstrative or showy. I think he is one of those artists for whom intense emotion comes through the expression of form.
There was an odd and disturbing incident at the close of the first half. Hamelin had just barely finished the Liszt sonata, his hands still suspended in air, when some oaf smashed the mood with loud, insistent applause that chased the final sounds of the sonata out of the hall. This idiot continued applauding even though no one else joined in for another minute or two. It was actually physically jarring. I realized both how deeply I had been drawn into the music and how fragile the whole concert-going experience is. What struck me as really weird was that this person was obviously very familiar with the piece, since the applause started the millisecond it ended, when there were no physical signals (lowered hands, slumped shoulders, a turn towards the audience) that it had ended, yet he or she was completely immune to the mood set by the music. And during the intermission of course much talk was about the applause-clod rather than the performance, which was a sad but inevitable reaction, since reactions to the Sonata were mostly interior, varied, and personal, while the applause was a communal violation.
I was so shaken by the weird rudeness that I was kind of surprised when Hamelin stuck to his program and played his own works for us – I thought he might decide we weren’t worthy, especially since the first piece was the world premiere of Theme and Variations (Cathy’s Variations), which Hamelin described in the program as “purely the work of a man in love . . . inspired by my fiancée Cathy Fuller, my true soulmate, who fascinates me more with each passing day.” These words seemed almost shockingly naked to me when I read them in the program before the concert, and made me realize what an interesting virtuoso Hamelin is, because as a performer he seems quite low-key and contained and his extremely deep emotions are enacted purely through sound.
It was a lovely piece and I decided I should get a copy of his recording of his own works. We also had the Variations on a theme of Paganini, and three etudes, Nos. 8, 11, and 12. No. 8 is based on Goethe’s Erlkonig, and though musically distinct from Schubert’s lied that famous setting kind of shadows the piece because that’s how most of us know the poem, so when listening to Hamelin’s version and sorting out the characters our roadmap is not so much Goethe’s words but Goethe’s words as we remember them to Schubert’s music.
For this concert I was in the front row center on the left aisle, so I had a clear view of the pianist’s hands. I know this view is prized, but I’m sometimes a bit indifferent to it: I’m not sure what looking at the hands is really going to tell me. It sometimes seems a bit fetishistic. There’s a documentary (whose name I’ve forgotten) which I saw years ago which shows Picasso creating a painting before our eyes (until he ends up cheerfully saying, “Now I’ve ruined it and it’s no good”), and sure I can watch his hands move the brush but that doesn’t tell me much about why or how he’s deciding to do things a certain way. But I was glad for the view of Hamelin’s hands, because they actually were revealing. Quite a few times I looked at them and they were literally blurs, they were moving so fast. But if I’d shut my eyes I would have heard crystalline sound and control.
That was the first concert in San Francisco Performance’s piano series. Then last Saturday I was at the SF Conservatory of Music for the second in the series, the Bay Area debut of Alexander Melnikov, who played the complete set of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87, in one three hour concert, with two brief intermissions.
Melnikov is another restrained virtuoso; with his quiet, almost scholarly and slightly amused demeanor, and his all-black suit and shirt (no tie, but what looked slightly like a Roman collar) – even the handkerchief he used occasionally to dab away the sweat was black – he looked quite sacerdotal. Even the little bald spot on his crown looked like a tonsure.
Three hours sounds like a long time to listen to music by one composer for one instrument, but it flew by. This time the audience was in harmony, with very few disruptions except for the occasional turn of a page in the program or the score (several people were following along with scores). Melnikov is a mostly undemonstrative player to the eye though not the ear. Occasionally he would nod when he wanted the page-turner to turn the page. Towards the end he paused briefly between pieces to shake out his shoulders a bit. Shostakovich’s music is mostly inward (and therefore a more decisive rejection of totalitarianism than many ambiguously sarcastic and bombastic marches), and it is constantly varied and fascinating, an Aladdin’s cave gleaming in the gloom of a November afternoon. Really a magnificent and rare occasion.
Going to concerts doesn’t leave much time for writing about them. It's been a busy time and I have quite a little backlog built up.
About a week ago I heard Philippe Jaroussky with the Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire Baroque Orchestra, headed by Jeannette Sorrell, in a program of arias and instrumental works by Handel and Vivaldi. Each program held a little card advertising a free Jaroussky download; these little cards are aptly named dropcards because drop is what they did, littering the floors and corridors in Hertz Hall after the concert like the autumn leaves that had not started to fall even though it was late October because the summer heat had not gone away, and it was downright too hot that Sunday afternoon. It would have been a nice day to lie in the shade or maybe work in a garden, but not so much to be in a packed overheated concert hall, no matter how attractive the program. Also, my allergies were really bad, I guess because of the heat and subsequent confusion among the plants as to when they should release their pollens, and I had taken some meds, so there was that.
Sorrell, who conducted from the harpsichord, is petite and lively with an explosive mass of curly red hair. She addressed the audience frequently; a little too frequently for my taste, even if I hadn’t been leaning towards the slightly drugged and churlish, since most of what she said was I would think pretty much stuff most of us already knew, since many in the full house were clearly baroque aficionados (and were heading over to hear Viveca Genaux with Philharmonia Baroque at First Congregational right after this concert; in fact a friend generously offered me his ticket since after a week of constant concerts he was concerted out – and if a retired man feels that way, what hope does a working stiff like me have, so I declined with thanks). Sorrell noted that this concert was the group’s “San Francisco debut,” even though we weren’t in San Francisco, and her tone kind of indicated that she knew that but she said it anyway, which I thought was a little odd. So, for the record, it was their Bay Area debut. I’m not a big fan of little talks from the stage, though I do make occasional exceptions, no doubt to the delight of all, and since I was way off to the left side of the hall the spoken remarks sounded a bit muffled (though the music came through fine), which made them a little tiresome to me.
The group had the occasional tuning problem, which is an occupational hazard of playing early-music-style instruments, but on the whole they were fleet and glittering and did Apollo proud, and they clearly enjoyed playing for us as much as we enjoyed listening to them. There were a number of instrumental pieces interspersed with the arias, including several portrayals of tempests at sea or in the soul. Olivier Brault was the violin soloist for a Vivaldi violin concerto (in E-flat, Op. 8, No. 5, "Tempesta di Mare"), and he bobbed up and down with concentrated delight as he played, his long hair tied back in a very eighteenth-century style with a wide yellow ribbon. The concert was officially billed as “Handel and Vivaldi Fireworks,” and though there was plenty of sparkling furor, I thought that Jaroussky’s pure clear countertenor was best suited to the arias of plaintive regret. He is fairly tall and thin and has a Caravaggian face, and his body shakes slightly to his roulades in an oddly birdlike way.
The audience was quite enthusiastic and frankly started getting on my nerves more and more, since their enthusiasm led to more and more exclaiming over the music during the music. I’m thrilled that Jaroussky was singing some random woman’s favorite aria, but maybe she could hold that joy secretly in her heart instead of talking over the music? Same thing for the other random woman when he then sang her favorite aria. And I could have done without the watch-alarm obbligato in the second half.
And I was still under the influence of Simon Keenlyside’s recital a few days earlier, the magnetic fascination of which I completely failed to convey here. At least one friend who was also at both concerts was in the same mood as I was, but then he is a baritone himself and was put off by the cult of the countertenors. So, sorry, but you see how sadly it was with me, and unfortunately I felt a bit disconnected from what was really a quite enjoyable concert.
This was my first time hearing Jaroussky live. I became a big fan of his a few years back after watching the DVD of Stefano Landi’s Il Sant’Alessio, in which Jaroussky gives a memorable performance as the titular saint (also known as Saint Alexis), a fifth-century Roman patrician who announced to his wife-to-be on the day of their arranged marriage that he was putting himself in God’s hands and leaving. His family did not see him or hear of him for seventeen years, during which time he wandered as a holy beggar. The abandoned young wife of the unconsummated marriage continued to live with his parents as a daughter, and all mourned his mysterious absence from their lives. After the seventeen years he returned incognito to his father’s house, where no one recognized him, and he lived in a crawlspace under the stairs for another seventeen years as a lowly servant/dependent of the house. His identity was discovered on his deathbed, and a mysterious voice from Heaven proclaimed him a man of God.
This strange, Hawthorne-like fable (in fact Hawthorne wrote a very similar story, about a man who leaves his wife and children and lives secretly for decades apart from them) is brought to mesmerizing life by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, with strong assistance from director Benjamin Lazar. It’s a really stunningly beautiful production; each shot looks like a baroque painting, which is probably why Jaroussky’s face always reminds me of a Caravaggio.
Ligeti: Solo Cello Sonata – Brady Anderson, cello Popper: Requiem for Three Cellos and Piano – Rio Vander Stahl, Mosa Tsay, Rachel Keynton, cellos, Karen Rosenak, piano Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 for orchestra of violoncello – Brady Anderson, Rio Vander Stahl, Mosa Tsay, Lukas Whaley-Mayda, Rachel Keynton, Cindy Hickox, Katie Concepcion, Felicia Tang, Katherine Soo-He Cho, Sam Leachman and Michael Tan, cellos
That's this Wednesday, November 9, 12:15-1:00 PM, at Hertz Hall on the Berkeley campus, and it's one of the free noontime concerts at Hertz Hall sponsored by the UC-Berkeley Music Department (check out their calendar of events here).
Often I don't even read the Music Department announcements not because they're not interesting but because they are, and I have to work and can't go, so why torment myself; but if I'd spotted this one sooner I might have given up a PTO day to hear the Ligeti solo cello sonata live. By the way, for those who followed the Ripken-era Baltimore Orioles, this Brady Anderson is not the now-retired outfielder.
At lunch today I tried to go to the Noontime Concert at Old St Mary's, which is reasonably close to where I work. These concerts normally start at 12:30 and are designed for people on lunch break. This one featured soprano Shauna Falihee and Miles Graber on piano performing Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs, John Harbison's Mirabai Songs, and, according to the website, More! I'm afraid I can't tell you what constituted "More!" since I found out when I got to St Mary's that the concert wasn't starting until 12:45. Fifteen minutes is actually a pretty big chunk of time for someone on an hour-long lunch break. I pondered staying anyway, then realized the timing just wouldn't work out and I had better skip the concert, which is too bad since I had had my eyes on this one for several weeks now. I even double-checked the website this morning, and there was nothing about a special start time. I'm guessing the noon mass at St Mary's was especially long since this is All Saint's Day, but it would have been nice to have the information before I got there. On the "making lemonade out of lemons" front (I am a notorious optimist!), at least I varied my lunchtime routine a bit, though not in the way I had hoped.
Keenlyside and Martineau strode out onto the darkened stage almost abruptly and plunged right into the Mahler songs in the first set. Keenlyside’s tone is burnished and bronze, and he characterizes the songs deeply but unostentatiously. He seems somewhat self-effacing on stage, yet establishes a direct emotional communication with the audience – I think this isn’t something he does, it’s more something he is. He appears to have a lot of nervous energy and is in almost constant though subtle motion – leaning forward, clenching his hands, wiping his brow. After the Mahler set came six songs from A Shropshire Lad, set by George Butterworth.
Keenlyside suggested that we not regard these as English pastoral piffle by remembering they were written during wartime – I think he was referring to the poems rather than the settings, but I wasn’t sure. Wartime would give added resonance to Housman’s obsessive theme, the death of young men, but I think these are resonant poems no matter what their context. I disliked Butterworth’s setting of the first song, Loveliest of trees, because that lyric is pretty much perfection on its own and I think the music doesn’t add much.
In fact for me the music in this case distorts the rhythm and flow of the poem. And that’s a problem I have with most musical settings of Housman; his poems gain such energy from the tension between their very deep emotions and their very strict forms that adding a third element seems pointless. Nonetheless Keenlyside made a very convincing case for the rest of them; the final number, Is my team ploughing?, with its powerful contrast between the unearthly hollow high voice of the dead man and the answering strength of his still-living friend, was particularly powerful.
The second half, featuring songs by Richard Strauss, Duparc, and Debussy, was at the same high level. It’s strange that such an intensely dramatic, vividly communicative singer can seem at the same time subdued and inward. He sang a generous four encores, two by Schubert (first and last of the four) and one each by John Ireland and Percy Grainger. He introduced the first by saying that it seemed as if he were always singing Schubert, which was a good thing for him. He introduced Ireland’s Sea Fever by mentioning how much he loved the whales and other marine life of the Pacific coast, and Grainger’s Once I Had a Sprig of Thyme by saying it made him think of his little son.
On Friday, November 11, Sarah Cahill performs "recent works by Ingram Marshall, Meredith Monk, Evan Ziporyn, and Paul Dresher (a San Francisco premiere), and will be joined by pianist Regina Schaffer for several recent four-hand pieces by Terry Riley commissioned by Cahill. Also on the program are selections from Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants."
It's (almost) November: insert jokes here about Thanksgiving and turkeys. . . .
The Aurora Theater has a fun-looking new adaptation of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, starting 11 November through 18 December.
The Cutting Ball's Hidden Classics series kicks off its Strindberg-centered year with Play Strindberg, Durrenmatt's adaptation of The Dance of Death. Pelleas and Melisande (Maeterlinck's original play) also continues through 27 November, and you should go see it.
The San Francisco Symphony presents Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Brahms's German Requiem with soloists Kyle Ketelsen and Jane Archibald on 17-20 November, along with Schütz's "Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock" from Geistliche Chormusik and Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909 Version); the Schütz and Schoenberg replace the previously announced world premiere from Sofia Gubaidulina.
The San Francisco Opera presents Handel's Xerxes with Susan Graham and David Daniels and Bizet's Carmen with Thiago Arancam and Paulo Szot (check the schedule for your Carmen, since Kate Aldrich is no longer singing all performances).
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and Menotti's The Telephone on 12-13 November (free but reservations required; call the Box Office at 415/503-6275). The next BluePrint new-music concert is on 19 November and features works by Philippe Hersant. And on 30 October (yes, wrong month, but I found out about this too late for last month's list) there is an evening concert of music by Nicholas Pavkovic, including his chamber opera Sredni Vashtar, based on the short story by Saki.
Last Saturday I was at the first concert of BluePrint’s season. BluePrint, the new music ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is headed up by ever-chic and adventurous Nicole Paiement, who also directs Ensemble Parallele; this very enjoyable concert offered (among other things) a preview of their February 2012 chamber-opera version of Harbison’s Great Gatsby. I was given a ticket to this concert, so thanks to whoever thought to include me. The box office was very nice about letting me switch the seat to one I preferred.
First up was another Harbison piece, North and South, a setting of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop (some of the poems were ones Bishop did not publish in her lifetime). On Saturday it seemed to me that I had lost whatever vague count of the songs I was keeping, but I see in the program that indeed the last song is not listed and was apparently dropped. I had heard the piece a few times in the recording by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (to whom the first three songs are dedicated; the second three are dedicated to Janice Felty). This was my first time hearing the piece live.
Julienne Walker, a tall, striking mezzo with short dark hair wearing a black ‘20’s style dress, was our soloist. She started off by dedicating her performance to her mother, who was in the audience, which was pretty disarming, not that her very fine performance needed the audience to disarm. Her diction was perfectly clear; I could make out every word of the poems without reference to the program. The first song in each half of the piece is from Bishop’s “Songs for a Colored Singer,” which she wrote thinking of Billie Holiday. These are by no means minstrel pieces, but when they’re sung as opposed to read on the page they do bring up the dicey question of how far a singer should go in imitating a “black” sound. Harbison’s music for those pieces doesn’t sound like a blues song, but the blues are clearly in evidence. On the recording Hunt Lieberson goes farther than Walker did in performance; each choice is defensible. Hunt Lieberson was, to say the least, a naturally soulful singer, and that keeps her performance from caricature; Walker sang them in a way more in line with how she sang the rest of the set, and I thought it worked very well. Her mother must have been proud.
That was followed by Kurt Rohde’s Concertino for Solo Violin and Small Ensemble, which is from last year, about twenty minutes long, and in three movements; Axel Strauss was the violin soloist. The words that occurred to me were charmingly mysterioso – charming not just in the sense of delightful but in the sense of putting us under a spell; in his program note Rohde describes it as “intricate,” which is an apt word, as if it were a very elaborately patterned knot garden, which means it wouldn’t wear out after a few listens but keep growing.
After the intermission we had Erwin Schulhoff’s Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra, Op. 43, which seemed quite glittery and abrupt but honestly though I enjoyed the piece I’m not sure I have anything to say about it since my mind was kind of zapping around as is its occasionally overstimulated sometime wont and I found myself going in and out of the moment – no reflection on the performance by the ensemble or soloist Keisuke Nakagoshi. These things happen, especially right after intermissions. Ah, poor Schulhoff! It was your moment, but I failed to pull myself into the moment.
The final piece was an excerpt from The Great Gatsby, in the new chamber orchestration by Jacques Desjardins: the quarrel between Myrtle (Erin Neff) and Wilson (Bojan Knezevic) that leads up to her death. (Interestingly, Myrtle was the role sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the original production, so both vocal pieces on the program were ones written for the late mezzo.) It was very dramatic and exciting (and well sung), and the orchestration sounded rich and vivid and you don’t really need me to tell you to buy a ticket to this, do you?
The next BluePrint concert is November 19 and features the work of Parisian composer Philippe Hersant, who will be there in person. I am planning on being there in person as well.
I was at last night's magnificent and thrilling San Francisco Symphony performance of the Verdi Requiem, the mightiest of all requiem masses. Sure, I could quibble about a thing or two, but don't want to; this was as good as it gets. Thanks to conductor James Conlon, soloists Sondra Radvanovksy, Dolora Zajick, Frank Lopardo, and Ain Anger, and most definitely to the SF Symphony Chorus and the Symphony itself, for a rendition that was awesome in both the slang and the strict senses of the word.
(The jaunty joints of this tall fellow were suspended above the staircase last night, but I suspect the Requiem was a coincidence and he is actually waiting for Halloween/the Day of the Dead.)
The fourth floor of SFMoMA, which was my happy summertime haunt while it housed the reunited Stein collection, now holds a new special exhibit, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective. It was a good idea to put in such a different show. I’ve wandered through the new exhibit twice so far, and I can't help remembering when that wall held Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein or Matisse’s Forest of Fontainebleau was around that corner. Those pictures are now gone, and soon their ghosts will be gone as well. The Serra drawings create their own mood and space. I tend to be indifferent to Serra's sculpture, those giant steel slabs that dominate and defy their environments; the environments I pass through are already so full of massive obnoxious forms and sounds and smells that I can't get too excited or outraged about one more. I think they might be good sculptures to live with on a daily basis, say in your backyard, if you have one, where you can note the slowly changing color of the oxidizing metal, the rain and the rust, the morning and afternoon light glowing and shining on it in their turn, the birds alighting or shitting on it, the squirrels running over the top. Seen in a museum, they’re more like: hey, look, a big slab of metal! What’s in the next gallery?
The first time I went through the exhibit I was accompanied by SFMike. We had gone into the museum during my lunch hour and stumbled onto a member preview, which I could bring him into, since I am a member. I felt like Virgil guiding Dante, except the galleries were very much less crowded than hell. They were also much less crowded than the member preview for the Steins, so that was actually pretty nice, since space is very important to the effect of these drawings, many of which are large enough to cover almost an entire gallery wall. They are black with sometimes some gray (as in a wash or a roller running out of black ink). Mike wanted to know why they are called drawings instead of paintings, since most of them are done with paint stick and what looks like black paint put on thickly enough to create subtle textures. I couldn’t answer him then, and still can’t now even though I’ve since read the Exhibition Guide available in the galleries (a pamphlet which is printed in tiny gray type on white, with Serra’s direct quotations in black – I know I need new glasses, but the guide really does seem designed more for appearance than legibility).
So you can walk into a room and see a wall-sized sheet of hand-made paper, covered with black paint, stapled (with black staples, so they’re barely visible) to the wall. Otherwise the gallery holds nothing but the blonde wood floors, the white walls, and the natural light filtering through the louvers in the ceiling. As you walk through several rooms each containing a similar large black drawing (I will use their nomenclature, but feel free to call them paintings), perhaps differing from the last one in being rectangular rather than square, or on a back rather than a side wall, you can see how the differences change how the space comes through to you. The spareness, the ambiguous black shapes (both graceful and massive), the sense of space, and of space being emptied out and carefully but subtly arranged, and of high-minded if obscure philosophical purposes, all reminded me of the ink drawings of Zen monks. Given the reputation for brutality and sheer mass that Serra’s sculptures have, it’s sort of surprising to find in the drawing exhibit the peace-inducing atmosphere of a Japanese garden. And if, as you and your mind wander through the rooms, your thoughts stray occasionally towards the unseen owners of these works, people who can afford to spend probably the equivalent of my annual salary on a large sheet of hand-made paper entirely covered with black paint, and the murmur of mental streams gives way temporarily to the gentle lapping sound of the Art World sucking up to the Very Rich, well, that too has its purpose, and it's easy enough to move on until the light falls differently.