30 November 2011

29 November 2011

D'Oh!

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 devil's disciple

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).

baroque devotions

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.

Their next concert, presented with the San Francisco Early Music Society on December 16-18, is Schutz's Christmas Story, followed in February by Monteverdi madrigals.

the awful truth

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.

Haiku 2011/333

in an empty room
what do the walls remember
hear the floorboards creak!

28 November 2011

27 November 2011

26 November 2011

25 November 2011

24 November 2011

Haiku 2011/328

gazing at the sky
some clouds, some birds, some airplanes
let's head back indoors

23 November 2011

22 November 2011

21 November 2011

still music

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.

Haiku 2011/325

washed away by waves
whatever day left behind
lost or abandoned

20 November 2011

art & life at SFMoMA



Duchamp's Fountain from the permanent collection on the second floor and a urinal from the fifth floor men's room

Haiku 2011/324

gulls spring into flight
little fork-tracks on wet sand
washed away by waves

19 November 2011

18 November 2011

17 November 2011

16 November 2011

Haiku 2011/320

dissolving in night
blue skies turn pale pink and gold
then to blackest blue

15 November 2011

14 November 2011

piano piano piano

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.

Haiku 2011/318

we scurry indoors
icy streets and icy stares
hard world grown harder

13 November 2011

12 November 2011

11 November 2011

10 November 2011

09 November 2011

08 November 2011

fireworks & ashes

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.

Haiku 2011/312

"and neither am I!":
see how smoothly we agree
in disagreement

07 November 2011

another November addendum

In case all of this and this weren't enough for this busy month, here's another enticing concert (especially if you're a cello fan):

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.

Haiku 2011/311

sink full of dishes:
they're not going anywhere,
and neither am I

06 November 2011

05 November 2011

Haiku 2011/309

the night slips away
spring and summer slip away
the hours slip away

(turn your clocks back: daylight savings time ends tonight)

04 November 2011

Haiku 2011/308

flashing ghostly time
traffic lights dance on the wall
the night slips away

03 November 2011

02 November 2011

Haiku 2011/306

pale, glowing, empty
strange moon in unsettled skies
blank hours before dawn

01 November 2011

Haiku 2011/305

out into nothing
stretch shimmering horizons
pale, glowing, empty

the kind of information you might want to put on your website

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.

Simon Keenlyside in recital

Last Thursday I went to hear Simon Keenlyside and accompanist Malcolm Martineau in recital, presented by San Francisco Performances at Herbst Theater. This was the second concert in their vocal recital series, following a triumphant Stephanie Blythe, and it was just as good in very different ways.

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.