31 December 2012

Haiku 2012/366

laughing leaves tumble
briskly over just-swept ground. . .
I must laugh with them

30 December 2012

29 December 2012

Haiku 2012/364

summer's lightest loves
make fall's heaviest dramas
make winter's sad songs

28 December 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: January 2013

Fresh from their awesome performances of Strindberg's Chamber Plays, Cutting Ball's annual Risk Is This. . . reading series of new/experimental plays starts 11 January and runs through 9 February. There's a different play each week (two new translations and three completely new plays), and each is presented twice. Check here for the complete schedule; based on their reading last year I can definitely recommend The Insect Play. And the Hidden Classics Reading Series presents the Electra of Sophocles on Sunday, 27 January, at 1:00.

High points from the Cal Performances January schedule include the new-music Eco Ensemble on 26 January, playing Harrison Birtwistle's Secret Theatre and Ivan Fedele's La Chute de la Maison Usher (a soundtrack to the 1928 silent film, which will be screened); Nicolas Hodges in recital on 27 January, playing Debussy, Busoni, Stravinsky, and more Birtwistle - and not just any Birtwistle, but the premiere of Gigue Machine, a Cal Performances co-commission; and the Joffrey Ballet on 26-27 January, in recent works choreographed by Liang, Wheeldon, and Jooss.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Renee Fleming joins Michael Tilson Thomas to perform works by Debussy and Canteloube, 10-13 January; then she teams up with Susan Graham on 16 January for a French program. Charles Dutoit returns 30-31 January and 1 February in a program of two Spanish-themed works by Ravel and Lalo and Elgar's magnificent Enigma Variations (please note that the Thursday 31 January concert is taking place up in Sonoma, in Weill Hall, which means that, depending on your relative location to Davies Hall, it is either very convenient or completely out of the question). The Symphony program that looks most exciting to me is Tilson Thomas leading Grieg's music to Peer Gynt, with additional music by Schnittke and Holloway, and actors and video and all manner of appropriate spectacle; that's 17-19 January.

New Century Chamber Orchestra kicks off a national tour with two local concerts on 13 January (in San Francisco) and 15 January (in Menlo-Atherton), featuring some works that have been highlights of recent seasons: the Mendelssohn String Symphony No. 10, Bolcom's Romanza for Solo Violin and String Orchestra (which, if my memory is correct, was written for NCCO and premiered by them a few years ago), an aria from Bachianas Brazilieras No. 5 by Villa-Lobos, arranged by Clarice Assad, and Strauss's profoundly beautiful Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Strings.

American Bach Soloists presents Bach's St John Passion, 25-28 January, in a variety of locations (details here).

The Oakland/East Bay Symphony has a program on 25 January featuring Beethoven's Leonore No 3, Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, and a recent song cycle by Richard Danielpour called A Woman's Life, based on poetry by Maya Angelou and featuring Angela Brown as soloist.

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Marnie Breckenridge (with Kristin Pankonin on piano) performs in the Alumni Recital series; the program features Strauss, Barber, and a plethora of Bay Area composers; that's 19 January.

Haiku 2012/363

no stillness so still
as that of an empty house
when you've just entered

27 December 2012

Haiku 2012/362

something squirms inside,
some squishy, fleshy slug-thing:
shells are beautiful

26 December 2012

Haiku 2012/361

concrete saints standing
in gardens, hands raised to bless
tangled weeds and worms

25 December 2012

24 December 2012

23 December 2012

22 December 2012

21 December 2012

Haiku 2012/356

leave the door ajar:
why not let in the night wind,
and the night's dark song?

20 December 2012

Haiku 2012/355

spring flowers are brief
in beauty and in blooming:
the bare branch endures

19 December 2012

18 December 2012

17 December 2012

16 December 2012

15 December 2012

14 December 2012

13 December 2012

12 December 2012

11 December 2012

10 December 2012

09 December 2012

08 December 2012

Haiku 2012/343

my spade turns the earth
unaware earthworms exposed
pinkish writhing knots

07 December 2012

Haiku 2012/342

for DA and for Basho

"I don't like haiku" -
but you would stop and listen
if the frog went splash!

06 December 2012

05 December 2012

Haiku 2012/340

rain slants through streetlights
and falls puddling swampishly
on rain-heavy lawns

04 December 2012

Haiku 2012/339

winter abstraction

a slash of silver
a gray smear, sprinkled with lights
red leaves down dark streets

03 December 2012

02 December 2012

01 December 2012

Haiku 2012/336

some days the peacocks
must give way in your view to
other, browner birds

30 November 2012

Home and the World with Esa-Pekka Salonen

For the past three or so years - ever since Matias Tarnopolsky took over - Cal Performances has had an annual residency from a visiting orchestra. This year we had renowned composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen leading the Philharmonia Orchestra of London. I heard the last of their three concerts, the Mahler 9, but before that I heard the "composer portrait" concert dedicated to Salonen's music. He was of course there in person and Tarnopolsky interviewed him on stage during pauses in the intermissionless performance. The first part of their talk reflected some of the information also in the program book, but later on Salonen became more expansive and even offbeat.

There were four different pieces: knock, breathe, shine for solo cello (Kacy Clopton), Homunculus for string quartet (here the Calder Quartet), Dichotomie for solo piano (Gloria Cheng), and Mania for cello (Clopton again) and a small orchestra (here the University's Eco Ensemble). There was a nice variety of sound and style among the pieces, even when the underlying sensibility was clearly the same; there were several moments that sounded - I can only say "exotic," like moonlight on shifting desert sands. Salonen likes to play with the considerable virtuosity of his performers. In his remarks Salonen talked a bit about some of the initial conceptions or technical notions that expanded into the various pieces. Homunculus, for example, came from the early theory of human conception which held that each sperm contained a very miniature but fully formed man (with the implication that inside the tiny man's tiny sperm was an even tinier man with even tinier sperm containing an even tinier tinier man, and so on ad infinitum): so this quarter-hour for string quartet was meant to contain in compact form all the changes of sound and texture that you might find in a bigger piece. This was my favorite of the four pieces, though I enjoyed them all thoroughly. Also it was a pleasure to be in the midst of an attentive audience, after a series of recent evenings in which idiots kept pulling out their phones during the performance. You'd think that new music concerts would tend to draw only people who wanted to be there, but there was my first experience with the Eco Ensemble, that Boulez concert, where the audience was strangely awful.

During his remarks Salonen paid touching tribute to Elliott Carter, who had recently died just when we were all thinking he would outlive us all - Salonen mentioned giving an interview in which he talked about different schools and generations of composers, "and then there's always Elliott Carter" - just when there no longer was Elliott Carter. He also spoke of the need he had as a young composer to fight against the established models; in his case, he fought against Sibelius. Then one day in Milan after rehearsals he happened to come across a pocket score of one of the Sibelius symphonies, and he realized its greatness. He saw this as part of the normal process of maturation for a composer, in which you progress from rebel against the establishment to part of the establishment yourself; and that was part of his commitment to working with young composers and performers. He also mentioned his theory that (I think I have this right) originally language and music were the same thing, the basic and in-born means of communication (on the grounds that all human society creates music) and then gradually evolved in separate directions as language needed to create territorial and personal distinctions - so I guess the implication is that both are basic human urges; music is communal, language less so.

Sunday afternoon was the Mahler 9. Zellerbach is not the greatest concert hall for orchestras, but then neither is Davies and, at least on Sunday, the audience was amazingly quiet and attentive - there was some loud coughing towards the end, and as I heard someone in the audience say afterward, "They could at least try to stifle it a bit," and yes indeed, but a bit of coughing isn't too bad during ninety solid minutes of intense music. And when a woman in my row very briefly flipped through her program I realized that the program-flipping omnipresent at Davies was not taking place: people were actually sitting there listening to music. The magnificence of the performance deserved such attention. It seemed irrelevant to talk of the quality and skill of the orchestra, they moved so far beyond such virtues, bringing out the whole vast universal expanse of Mahler's final symphony. Worlds were created and passing away moment by moment, right in front of our ears.

At the end as he took his bows Salonen was visibly exhausted; nonetheless he came back after a short break and led the UC Berkeley student orchestra through a run-through of La Mer. (Such work with the students is an integral part of the orchestra residencies.) I thought about staying, but for various reasons decided against it. It might have been the perfect way to ease re-entry into our little world after the Mahler, but instead I plunged into the immediate shock of public transit.

Haiku 2012/335

unlettered lover
looking to the universe
waiting for the word

29 November 2012

28 November 2012

Haiku 2012/333

insistent winter
winds wind through chilly branches
over empty streets

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December 2012

As we finish up Thanksgiving leftovers (turkey soup time!) and before we slide into the tinselly end of the year let us pause to give thanks for the music of the late Elliott Carter, who died 5 November aged 103, composing his rich music right up to the end. He would have been 104 on 11 December, so on that day at least let's put aside Nutcrackers and Messiahs and carols old and new and pay him the only tribute suitable to a great composer: let's listen to his music.

Cal Performances presents Mark Morris's The Hard Nut, 14-23 December. If you've never seen this you need to go, and if you have seen it, you already know that you need to see it again.

New Century Chamber Orchestra has a program mixing the familiar with new ways of treating the old: Handel's Entrance of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon and Vivaldi's Four Seasons (those are the familiar, in case you couldn't guess), along with Clarice Assad's Suite for Strings, Based on Themes of Bach and featured composer Lera Auerbach's Sogno di Stabat Mater for Solo Violin, Viola, Vibraphone and String Orchestra, described as "a loving tribute" to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater; that's 12-13 and 15-16 December, in the usual various places; check here for more details.

Don't let overfamiliarity keep you from the pleasures of Messiah - for years I made a point of hearing at least one live performance every Christmastime, and it enriched my holiday soul. Cal Performances teams up with Philharmonia Baroque to present it 8 December in the First Congregational Church; the San Francisco Symphony performs it 13-15 December in Davies Hall; and American Bach Soloists perform it 20-22 December in Grace Cathedral.

If you want something Christmassy and baroque that isn't Handel, Philharmonia Baroque has Masaaki Suzuki leading an all-Bach program featuring the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, Cantata No. 63 Christen, atzet diesen Tag, and the Magnificat; that's 13-16 December in the usual various places; details here.

If you want something as new to your ears as Messiah would have been in 1742, check out Volti's Not-the-Messiah December Choral Concert, which presents "alternative ways of celebrating the love and spirituality of the season" through new and recent works by Armando Bayolo, Stacy Garrop, Shawn Crouch, David Shapiro, and Charles Halka; that's on 2, 7, and 8 December in the usual various locations; details here.

Magnificat presents its only concert of the season, Marc-Antoine Charpentier's Nativity Pastorale, 7-9 December, in the usual various locations; details here.

The Berkeley Symphony celebrates St Nicholas Day (6 December, but you knew that) in Zellerbach Hall with the Ligeti Piano Concerto, the Schumann 2, and the premiere of Dylan Mattingly's Invisible Skyline; on 9 December they move to the Crowden Music Center for the first concert in their new music series, Under Construction, featuring works by Andrew Ly, Michael Nicholas, and Davide Verotta in an open-rehearsal-style concert.

On 9 December the Hidden Classics reading series at Cutting Ball Theater presents Vaclav Havel's The Increased Difficulty of Concentration.

Theater of Yugen presents A Minor Cycle: Five Little Plays in One Starry Night by Greg Giovanni, based on childhood tales, refracted through the traditional theatrical styles of Japan (Kyogen, Bunraku, Noh, and Kabuki); 11-30 December.

The San Francisco Olympians theater festival runs 5-20 December at the Exit Theater; you can check here for details, but you need to scroll down an entry or two for details on this year's festival.

And to all a good night!

27 November 2012

26 November 2012

25 November 2012

Haiku 2012/330

just enough sunlight
so green leaves flash like jewels
sinking into gold

24 November 2012

23 November 2012

22 November 2012

Haiku 2012/327

Thanksgiving 2012

the wild birds don't know
that this is Thanksgiving Day
they just feed and sing

21 November 2012

Haiku 2012/326

rainstorms passing through
yellow leaves unstripped from trees
quiver on their stems

20 November 2012

19 November 2012

the writing on the wall

The Asian Art Museum currently has an exhibit of Chinese calligraphy I had been looking forward to. It's the sort of show that would repay close attention and frequent visits, which is exactly what it's not going to get from me, because the museum has once again curtailed its Thursday night late hours. Those are easily the best viewing hours for working people; without them I'd have to make a special trip in to San Francisco on a weekend, and my weekends are already packed, as is the museum on weekends.


It seems to me that in previous years it was only during November and December that the museum didn't have Thursday late hours. This year it's October as well. I had always figured Thursday concerts in Civic Center would work for me because I could go to the museum beforehand and not feel that the hours after work were being completely wasted by the local insistence on outmoded 8:00 start times during the work week. But now the museum has removed that justification by shutting down for all practical working-stiff purposes for three of the prime concert-going months. And during the rest of the year the museum frequently ruins the late-hours experience with stupid obnoxious parties (see here and here) or boots out members for the convenience of various corporations and their events.

I had planned to go to the museum before a Thursday night concert the first week of October. Something made me check the website that afternoon, but for reasons I don't remember (maybe contradictory information, or maybe just habitual caution and mistrust) I ended up phoning to check on the hours. I kept getting recordings that didn't tell me anything I needed to know, so I ended up calling the gift shop, the only number I could find likely to be answered by a human being. A very nice woman there told me that the museum was indeed now closed Thursday nights for three months starting in October but would be open late just that one day for a special event although members would be allowed in. I didn't think to ask if the Cafe would also be open. It wasn't, except for a few prepackaged and fairly sad-looking sandwiches and salads. Normally the Cafe is very appealing, so this was a disappointment. I was on my way to a concert at Herbst Theater, did some rapid logistical calculations, and realized I'd better go find a place to eat instead of contemplating calligraphy. So I had about a fifteen-minute walk-through of the exhibit, and instead of waxing rhapsodic about it here I will instead wonder why the Asian Art Museum is so bent on inconveniencing patrons, especially those who work. If the museum is that short of money, why not shut down another day during the week and keep the late hours to accommodate those who can most conveniently visit then?.Why not reach out to concert-goers at the Opera House, Symphony Hall, and Herbst, and sell themselves as a pre-concert destination? This seems like a case of facing difficulties by retreating into what is already not working that well. Times of crisis should be times of innovation, people!

I have to work to support myself, but I also have a foolish need to experience art. Adding to my irritation at the museum is my general dislike of being made to feel like Jude the Obscure.

At the concert I ran into a friend and I mentioned I was about ready to drop my membership in the Asian Art Museum, since their curtailed hours and stupid parties were making it increasingly useless to me. He told me if I did that I should at least donate money to support them. (My membership is pretty much turning into a straight donation anyway since I'm getting less and less use out of it.) I said I didn't really see the point of that. My limited funds can go elsewhere. Then I asked him if he had a membership or donated money to the museum himself. "Oh, no," he replied.


Haiku 2012/324

in a Victorian mood

cathedrals of cloud
enshrine within lofty mists
sinking golden light

18 November 2012

Haiku 2012/323

many days pile up
and you sit and sift through them
some days nothing comes

17 November 2012

Haiku 2012/322

arrested mid-fall
raindrops slide down the rooftop
and drip from the eaves

16 November 2012

Haiku 201/321

office abstraction

early morning calls
rows of empty cubicles
no one made coffee

15 November 2012

Haiku 2012/320

pale wash of winter
light against the gray facades
white clouds slowly pass

14 November 2012

Haiku 2012/319

a wide white wave-wash
curls behind a cheerful boat
chugging through the bay

13 November 2012

12 November 2012

Haiku 2012/317

bluebird divebombing
two silly chirping sparrows
that's life for the birds

11 November 2012

10 November 2012

09 November 2012

08 November 2012

07 November 2012

Haiku 2012/312

slipping through the dark
small, fleet-footed, not quite seen
I hope it's a cat

06 November 2012

Haiku 2012/311

rising and falling
waves slap against the shoreline
changing it each time

*******

repeating waves slap
against the shoreline changing
it a bit each time

variations on a theme - I wonder if anyone has a preference between the two, and if so why?

05 November 2012

04 November 2012

Haiku 2012/309

no one told the trees
this autumn was just too hot
for their falling leaves

03 November 2012

02 November 2012

01 November 2012

sounds and sweet airs

A couple of weeks ago, when I was starting to come down with the flu, I did manage to fool myself into thinking I was well enough to get out to Berkeley for the Cal Performances presentation of Delfeayo Marsalis Octet performing Sweet Thunder, which turned out to be a fortunate self-deception since I would have hated to miss this outstanding concert (though I could have done without the three rude stupid girls also in Row J who kept their cell phones on the entire performance; apparently they felt the pre-concert announcement that all electronic devices should be turned off did not apply to very special people like them; sadly I could not, for a number of reasons, either say anything to them or move; I could only contemplate the fathomless blithe stupidity of people).

Anyway. Sweet Thunder is an adaptation for octet of the orchestral suite Such Sweet Thunder, composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and inspired by Shakespeare. Given the artists involved it's not surprising that this is a wonderful, freewheeling, and inventive piece, moving selectively among the vast possibilities of Shakespeare, touching some unexpected points (I wouldn't have thought that Henry V was particularly inspirational to anyone, but there's a lively and somewhat obstreperous Sonnet to Hank Cinq (a name which is typical of Ellington's offhand wit and elegance)). Ellington and Strayhorn seemed particularly drawn to unhappy love (pieces  on Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra, and the confused quartet of Midsummer Night), madness (Hamlet and Ophelia, Lady Macbeth), or both (Othello).

Marsalis gave brief, useful insights into each piece, with offhand charm; he sounded completely spontaneous, though he must have planned what to say. Before playing Lady Mac he mentioned that people could bring craziness and even madness on themselves; "That's true!" proclaimed the loud woman behind me. Marsalis gave some useful tips on the clever structure of the pieces, noting that the three "sonnets" (besides the Sonnet to Hank Cinq we heard the Sonnet in Search of a Moor and the Sonnet to Caesar) were constructed, in tribute to the traditions of the sonnet form, in fourteen ten-beat lines. He also noted the difference between Strayhorn and Ellington, with the former more structured and "written" and the latter more improvisational and eclectic.

Marsalis can make his trombone speak like a character, from wails and shrieks to low laments to martial swagger to a lover's bravado. Such speaking instruments can really do justice to the richness of Shakespeare's characters. The rest of the band was equally dazzling: Mark "Preacherman" Gross on tenor and soprano saxophone, Jeff Clayton on alto saxophone, Jamelle Williams on trumpet, Oliver Bonie on baritone saxophone, Glen Pearson on piano, David Pulphus on bass, and Winard Harper on drums. I went in expecting Shakespeare, Ellington, and Strayhorn to be great, but I left convinced that Delfeayo Marsalis had done them proud.

Haiku 2012/306

same route as always,
with shadows a bit longer,
air a bit cooler

31 October 2012

Haiku 2012/305

cloudy skies, no rain
crowded sidewalks, no relief
darkened rooms, no rest

30 October 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: November 2012

October was jam-packed, as you may remember. I got sick halfway through (physically, I mean, not just the usual ennui; I thought it was allergies, then a cold, then realized it was, however mildly, the flu) and had to cancel some things and needless to say fell ever and even further behind. Here's November, because listing things takes less energy than doing them, and I'm still feeling low-energy. Dive in before it all turns to tinsel and sugarplums next month.

The Aurora Theater presents Wilder Times, an evening of four short plays by Thornton Wilder, directed by Barbara Oliver. (The plays specifically are: The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden, The Long Christmas Dinner, and Infancy and Childhood from the Ages of Man series.) 2 November to 9 December.

Wild Rumpus New Music Collective performs fresh new works by D. Edward Davis, Charles Halka, Andrea La Rose, Elizabeth Lim, and Nicole Murphy on 10 November at the Community Music Cente, 544 Capp Street, San Francisco.

Euouae performs works by Ockeghem, Brumel, Du Caurroy, and Josquin on 2 and 4 November at the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in North Beach, San Francisco. It looks as if tickets are only available in advance. Check here for more details.

Emanuel Ax on the fortepiano joins Philharmonia Baroque for an all-Beethoven program featuring the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Twelve Contradanses for Orchestra, and the Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major. 8-11 November in the usual locations.

San Francisco Performances has the usual tasty line-up: Jean-Yves Thibaudet in an all-Debussy program, 4 November; Quatuor Ebene with Richard Hery on drums in a more jazz-inflected program than their concert last season (which was fantastic), 8 November*; Kate Royal and Malcolm Martineau giving us A Lesson in Love, 10 November; the awesome Pavel Haas Quartet returns with Brahms, Janacek, and Beethoven, 13 November; and Marc-Andre Hamelin joins the Takacs Quartet in Schubert, Britten, and Shostakovich, 18 November.

* If you buy a ticket to Quatuor Ebene on-line between now and 5:00 PM Pacific on Friday 2 November, you can get 50% off by using the promo code SFP5EB.

Here are some highlights from another busy Cal Performances month: author/provocateur Dan Savage is speaking on 3 November; Emanuel Ax performs Beethoven and Schubert on 13 November; and then there are two concert series of particular interest: a centennial celebration of Conlon Nancarrow in conjunction with Other Minds from 2-4 November (further information here); and Esa-Pekka Salonen in residency with the Philharmonia Orchestra from 9-11 November (check here for individual programs, each one of astounding awesomeness); there is also a "Composer Portrait" concert featuring Salonen on 8 November.

San Francisco Opera finishes up its run of Lohengrin and then presents dueling Toscas, Racette or Gheorghiu, take your pick here. Personally I would go for Racette, whom I've always found a deeply committed performer; Gheorghiu always strikes me as someone play-acting at being a diva, though I've heard from very reliable sources that she's excellent as Tosca, so as usual the proof will be in the pudding, though of course speculating about uneaten and possibly uneatable (though sometimes quite delicious) puddings is a major preoccupation of some opera fans.

In addition, the annual Adler Fellows concert is 30 November at 7:30 (in Herbst Theater, next door to the Opera House).

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's awesome new music ensemble, BluePrint, continues its Latin American season under conductor Nicole Paiement on 17 November with a program called Danzas Breves. Check out the line-up here. This program was originally called Saudades do Brasil; I wonder why they changed it. Maybe the word saudade was considered too obscure and foreign. It's a Portuguese word meaning a yearning so intense for the missing, the lost, the past, the possibly non-existent, that the absence becomes an emotional presence. That's one of the few Portuguese words I know. I can also say "I am offended" and "You are shameful" and believe me, you can have a full rich life among the Portuguese with just those terms.

The Berkeley Playhouse presents The Sound of Music, 27 October to 2 December, at the Julia Morgan Theater.

Berkeley Rep features Mary Zimmerman's White Snake from 9 November to 23 December.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a Jasper Johns retrospective from 3 November to 3 February 2013.

Shotgun Players closes out its year and brings us into the holiday season with Woyzeck, music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, directed by Mark Jackson after the concept by Robert Wilson, 29 November to 13 January 2013.

Old First Concerts always has an interesting line-up, but they tend to perform mostly on Fridays at 8:00, and I decided almost a year ago that my always tenuous sense of contentment would increase if I just didn't bother with anything on Friday that doesn't even start until 8:00 - at the depressed exhausting end of a work week, why waste all those precious hours between the end of work and the start of the concert? Obviously with a schedule like that the presenters don't much care whether an office drone like me attends or not. Nonetheless I am strongly tempted by Vladimir in Butterfly Country on 16 November.

Haiku 2012/304

lovely soft gray fog
softening the city's edge
softening my view

29 October 2012

Haiku 2012/303

how the light hits it:
white-gray memories of rain
streaking the windows

28 October 2012

Haiku 2012/302

glance at the glowing
mortal green of autumn lawns
as the clear sun sets

27 October 2012

26 October 2012

25 October 2012

24 October 2012

Haiku 2012/298

out in the darkness
the first needle-points of rain
splashing through the leaves

23 October 2012

Haiku 2012/297

go on and pretend
the veiled moon matters more than
glaring office lights

22 October 2012

21 October 2012

Haiku 2012/295

on a bright morning
my foot touches the bare floor
and feels a first chill

20 October 2012

Haiku 2012/294

long-vanished blossoms
haunt the garden's chilly air
like Halloween ghosts

19 October 2012

Haiku 2012/293

heat settles down low
orange sun through brown-gray air
my eyes are burning

18 October 2012

17 October 2012

16 October 2012

Haiku 2012/290

wind through tree branches:
over the flowing green lawns
pale shadows ripple

14 October 2012

13 October 2012

Haiku 2012/287

snows of yesteryear?
right here, shooting from the hose,
watering the plants

12 October 2012

11 October 2012

Haiku 2012/285

now the leaves have left
I think of wanting bareness
and now I want spring

10 October 2012

09 October 2012

She's back!

 
After a long time and lengthy travels, in which she visited her birthplace Paris, and New York, and was reunited with old companions as part of the moving and awe-inspiring Steins Collect show, SFMoMA's Mona Lisa is back.


That would be Matisse's Femme au Chapeau, a portrait of Mme Matisse whose wild and vivid colors, still striking 107 years after the painting first shocked the Parisian public, led a derisive critic to christen Matisse and his ilk wild beasts (fauves). Thus the Fauvist School was named. It's odd how many styles (like Gothic or Impressionist) were named by people who were attacking them. Matisse was once asked what color Mme Matisse was actually wearing when she sat for this portrait, and he said, "Black, of course."


This has always been my favorite painting at the museum. Comically, I could not take a picture of it when it was part of the Stein exhibit, but now that it's back in its regular place on the second floor, I can snap away (without flash, of course). Buying this painting, one of the centerpieces of their collection, is described in interesting and not entirely accurate detail by Gertrude Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas.


Sister-in-law Sarah Stein is back, too, from the same trip, and is on the wall opposite, where she silently asserts that it was she and her husband Michael who really understood Matisse. And that is true. Gertrude was more about Picasso.


Due to a planned renovation and expansion, the museum is scheduled to close next spring for about two years. I'm not sure where the collection is going during that time, but I suspect most of it won't be readily on view, so it won't hurt to pay a few more visits in the months that remain.

Haiku 2012/283

bright light on the bay
white boats swiftly sailing by
dreams made visible

08 October 2012

Restoration Romans

Last night I was back at First Congregational Church in Berkeley for Purcell's Dioclesian, the fourth and final performance of the first concert of the season for Philharmonia Baroque. Like King Arthur or The Fairy Queen, Dioclesian (just this once I will give the work its more formal title: The Prophetess; or, The History of Dioclesian) is one of those "semi-operas" in which a spoken-word play is interlarded with musical material of a striking and delightful and mostly tangentially relevant nature and then the whole thing is bound together with elaborate spectacle, using as much of the newest technology and as many of the oldest tricks as were available to theaters in the late seventeenth century (you know, the form works beautifully for Ariadne auf Naxos. . . ). Such works are by general consensus completely resistant to revival, and perhaps that's true based on time alone (last night's performance of the music was a bit over two hours, including intermission; I can only imagine the Einstein-on-the-Beach lengths it would reach if the evening also included actors playing out elaborate intrigues in the court of the later Roman emperors, let alone the time needed to switch sets and activate the stage machinery). But it wasn't so long ago that general consensus held that baroque opera, in its original form, was also resistant to revival, and now even the mighty Met has had to acknowledge the dramatic genius of Handel. So who knows? There was a revival of the complete Fairy Queen a few years back, which I understand was wonderful (there is a DVD, which I have not seen).


The Fairy Queen does have the advantage of playing off well-known material (A Midsummer Night's Dream) which is still a theatrical staple. Dioclesian, based on a play by Fletcher and Massinger that uses the classical past to comment on the political struggles of seventeenth-century England, is a harder sell to non-specialists. The music remains excellent, and easily survives the abandonment of its original container, and with all plot summaries and narrative threads and political allegories wisely left in the program book for those who cared to pursue them there, what PBO gave us last night was just the music, a grab-bag of baroque thrills and splendors: stately marches, lively dances, graceful solos, flirting shepherds and shepherdesses, drunken gods, and grand choruses, and songs of war and love. There were particularly striking contributions from Katherine Adduci on trumpet and Hanneke van Proosdij and Stephen Bard on recorder. The whole band, led by Music Director Nicholas McGegan, was in great form, but you know you tend to get noticed more with the martial trumpet or the amorous flute, while the flowing strings bravely play in workaday semi-anonymity. The soloists were fine (Helene Zindarsian, Jean-Paul Jones, Clifton Massey, Brian Thorsett, Jonathan Smucker, Jeff Fields, and John Bischoff) and helped swell the sound of the  chorus, which produced mighty effects greater than its relatively small size.


So the first half of the concert was pretty much sheer delight as far as I was concerned. The second half: maybe a bit less so, for a variety of reasons. The first hour had been the music from Acts 1 through 4. After a fairly lengthy intermission, we had the music from Act 5, which was an elaborate masque almost as long as the preceding four acts put together. The Act 5 masque was celebrated in its own time and often revived as a set-piece, but I suspect what really distinguished the masque for its contemporaries was the fanciful and intricate staging more than anything else. I did wonder if Purcell maybe realized that the scenery was going to be the memorable star of the masque no matter what the rest of them did. and though the music is consistently enjoyable it is pretty much enjoyable in the same manner as the rest of the work (though there's nothing in either half as striking as, say, the awakening of Winter in King Arthur), and towards the end I was experiencing the physical dip I usually experience at that time of evening, and was feeling I had had perhaps enough. And after the intermission the man to my left must have been sitting an inch closer to me, because he kept obliviously brushing against me with his sleeve - such are the hazards of concert-going and pew-seating, and the little things that add up to our experience.


And then, after behaving in the first half, the singers started joking it up, grimacing and striking absurd poses and glaring and flirting with each other in a campy way. I've seen enough PBO concerts at this point to realize this is sort of a house style, and is liable to erupt randomly in unsuitable places, but I wish they would stop it. The pastoral names (Corinna, Mirtillo) may seen bizarrely affected to us (well, to those of us who haven't read much seventeenth century verse), but their dramatic truths remain alive, though expressed in an idiom strange to us, and the ironies in the material would come across better if they were played straight. To me the effect is to trivialize and mock the piece, and if you feel that way, why are you performing it? (And I did notice more noise among the audience in the second half; during the first half they had been notably attentive.) Anyway in the larger scheme of things these were relatively minor irritants, and as I said, the first half was a total pleasure, and I was glad of the opportunity to hear this relative rarity live.

Haiku 2012/282

flat on the sidewalk:
pale five-pointed maple leaf
glistening starlike

07 October 2012

Haiku 2012/281

milky white sap flows
from the wounded just-plucked tip
of the purple fig

06 October 2012

05 October 2012

04 October 2012

Haiku 2012/278

waiting on the street
birds must be in the gray trees
suddenly they sing

03 October 2012

02 October 2012

01 October 2012

BluePrint

Some more from last season, with a look forward as well. . . .

A few years ago the San Francisco Conservatory of Music moved from wherever it was before to Civic Center, close to the Opera, the Symphony, Herbst Theater, and public transportation. One beneficial result is that it's become much more a part of the performance scene in San Francisco. (Another beneficial result is that it provides a beautiful and intimate new performance space, the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall.) One series I've grown particularly fond of is BluePrint, the new music ensemble, led by Nicole Paiement, who also leads Ensemble Parallele, whose aweseomeness I cannot extol enough. I went to three of their concerts last season; the first one I wrote about here, and the other two I am writing about right here.

The first of the two was "Musical Humors: Discover Philippe Hersant." The very French name (though in fact the composer was born in Rome) and the mention of musical humors led me to expect the sort of music we might typically think of as "French": clear, light, elegant, witty, with clarity of rhetoric taking precedence over sturm und drang. That would have been enjoyable, but his music turned out to be much richer, drawing on a wide variety of sources, musical and literary (his undergraduate degree was in literature). The pieces we heard drew on Basho, Bruce Chatwin, Goethe, and Kafka, and the musical influences he mentions include Heinrich Schutz, Bartok, and Tobias Hume, who published in 1605 a collection of viola da gamba pieces entitled Musical Humors (so what I had read as humor in the sense of comedy was really a reference to the four humors that were thought to control our moods and personalities). The first half of the program consisted of 11 Caprices (each with a title taken from Kafka), a powerful choral setting, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin, of Psaume 130 (Aus Tiefer Not), using Martin Luther's German text (as did Schutz, who inspired this piece), and an instrumental piece, Song Lines. The second half gave us Sonate pour violoncelle seul, Wanderung (using a Goethe poem also used by Schubert and Schumann), and Musical Humors. There are a lot of different influences mentioned here, but the music doesn't sound derivative at all. This was a really fun and effective composer portrait and the name Philippe Hersant is one I now look for.

The other BluePrint concert from last season featured Eight Miniatures for Chamber Ensemble (Hommage a Stravinsky) by Stefan Cwik, Anosmia by Neil Rolnick, and the Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra by Philip Glass. Cwik is a young composer (born 1987) and he spoke to the audience before his piece opened the concert, telling us that his piece was inspired by his formative love of Stravinsky's music. I thought he sold himself a little short in emphasizing his debt to Stravinsky; the piece, for an ensemble of flute, bassoon, violin, and piano, stood up beautifully on its own and certainly didn't come across as the work of a too-ardent disciple.

As for the next piece, Anosmia (the name means the loss of the sense of smell), here is where I am going to mention that Mike Strickland was at the same concert, and I will refer you to his write-up (with lovely photos) here, because he accurately summarizes both my feelings and his contrasting opinion. As he notes, I "thought the piece was too long and [I] wanted to know more about the affliction and less about domestic bliss, but that may say more about him than the work, which I thought was perfect." Yep, that's accurate, even no doubt the part about my reaction saying more about me than about the music, which was indeed fairly light and boppy and pleasant. But I felt it went on about twice as long as it needed to, and I thought Rolnick completely evaded the challenge of presenting loss of smell musically - hearing loss, sure, that you can do, but smell is possibly the most evanescent and subtle of  the senses, which may be one reason it's so linked to memory. So how do you portray its loss, outside of simply describing it? Here it's simply described, only the text didn't really even deal in any serious way with the issue. We have a man who loses his sense of smell, but he has a loving male partner who takes care of him. So lots of the piece is taken up with what seemed sort of smug self-congratulation on having this wonderful partner. I'm happy for him, but it's not much use to the rest of us. The singers were good though (baritone Daniel Cilli, along with soprano Maya Kherani and alto Carrie Zhang). I was much happier with the Glass Concerto for Harpsichord in the second half. The young soloist, Christopher D. Lewis, was just dazzling, and when he finished and jumped up to enthusiastic applause his more concentrated demeanor gave way to a huge relieved grin.

The theme for this year's BluePrint series is Latin America, and the first concert is this Saturday, 6 October. I'm already committed to the Schumann series that Jonathan Biss is running for SF Performances, so sadly I will miss this first concert, but that shouldn't stop you from going (more info here), and I've already marked my calendar for 17 November, 2 March 2013, and 13 April 2013.

Haiku 2012/275

sultry sweaty day
koi surface in their warm pond
gaping mouths upward

30 September 2012

killing me softly with his song

Last night I was back in Berkeley to see the Shotgun Players production of Sondheim's Assassins, a musical revue featuring presidential assassins and would-be assassins, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley. Given the subject matter as well as America's tortured love affair with both guns and presidential power, the show became instantly (and I assume intentionally) controversial, though this seems to have helped as much as hurt its continuing stage life (it's already been revived on Broadway, after its 1990 premiere, and at least one of last night's actors has appeared in two other local productions, each time as a different assassin).

The stage is set up like a carnival tent, run by the Proprietor, a carnival barker selling chances at the shooting gallery, and our merry band take turns telling their tales. We start with Booth and Lincoln but after that the stories are woven together in an historical fantasia that follows a theatrical rather than a factual path. Each assassin plays supporting roles in the other's stories. The dead speak to the living, and the living speak to each other unconstrained by geography or mere fact. That is not meant as a criticism; though the show is in a sense a history lesson, it's a history of dreams and disappointments and possibilities and impossibilities, rather than of who did what when and where to whom according to reliable records. ("Why" is always up for debate, no matter what type of history it is).

The basic idea of the show is to take one of the primary delusions of American individualism - that anyone, just by hard work (apparently any sort of work, as long as it's "hard"), can become successful - can even become President! - and invert it to draw attention to the dispossessed, disappointed, and disgruntled: if you can't become President, maybe you can become a presidential assassin, and change history that way - the view being examined here is very much of individuals shaping history, their own or the country's, as if there are no larger historical or economic forces at work.


The ethos of Individualism as a significant and powerful force also emerges in the American love-hate relationship with celebrity, which is another major theme of the show: assassination (as Booth points out, "murder" is for lowlifes; when you kill a president, it's - he gives the word such an alluring hiss - assassination) is a way to become famous and even immortal (like Brutus, assassin of Caesar), or just to attract the notice of the celebrity you're fixated on (notoriously there's Hinckley with Jodie Foster, but also Squeaky Fromme with Charles Manson and Sam Byck* with Leonard Bernstein, among others). Booth of course was an actual actor and he shot Lincoln in a theater, but many of his fellow killers, in less formal and professional ways, are also acting various parts. Booth gives an extended talk on Death of a Salesman, in case we are missing the point that though the unsuccessful drop out of sight in most American media (which is after all driven by advertising dollars), they do have their significance in our theater.

The basic idea of the show is interesting and provocative, but it seems like one of those things that will always be more interesting and provocative as an idea, and maybe less so in its results. The problem for me is that though there seems to be a lot of potential in the general idea of using assassins rather than Presidents to take an inside-out and upside-down look at America, once you start looking at their stories in detail the general idea falls apart, because the actual motivations and circumstances of the assassins are all over the map. Some of them (like Charles Guiteau, assassin of James Garfield, and Hinckley) were mostly crazy; some (like Leon Czolgosz, anarchist assassin of William McKinley, and Booth) had definite political motivations; many (Sam Byck, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore, Giuseppe Zangara) fall somewhere on the spectrum between insanity and political conviction. And at least one remains somewhat mysterious (Lee Harvey Oswald).

Forcing all these disparate types into one thesis can't help but feel a little superficial, even though the work tries perhaps a bit too cleverly to use the superficiality and the carnival razzle-dazzle as a way of examining the superficial (such as the simplistic, naive thinking of the assassins - if I work hard, I will be successful! if I shoot the President, I will change the world!). The music and lyrics have that distinct Sondheim tang, but are verbally and emotionally less complex than in many of his other works. Some of the more extended sequences of John Weidman's book drag a bit despite the skill of the actors because they are so obvious: yes, we (that is, "we") see Presidents as fathers, and we want Father to take care of us, and we're angry when he doesn't; yes, we (again, "we") think we know celebrities, and are angry when our insignificance is magnified by the knowledge that they don't know us.

I thought some of the more entertaining and interesting moments were provided by the lighter interactions, such as those between the bumbling Sara Jane Moore and the delusional Squeaky Fromme. ("Oh, look!" said the woman behind me, examining the cast list before the show started, "there are women!" She was certainly old enough to remember those two, though maybe she can be excused given her British accent - who knows where she was living then?). Moore and Fromme are mostly played for laughs, as is Gerald Ford in his very brief appearance, though my memory of both those assassination attempts is that at the time no one was particularly amused.

But that's fine: as I said, there's a certain amount of superficiality built into the over-broad thesis of the show, so you might as well go for the frisson of shock, and the theatrical relief of comedy, when you can. Before the performance I heard a man sitting in front of me say, "I wonder if they'll do Lincoln?" I don't see how you can take up this subject and not "do" Lincoln. Though  his assassination can provide material for sharp, keen-witted comedy (see Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog) here the treatment is mostly serious, and any satire is directed at Booth: the Balladeer strums his banjo, asking Why did you do it, Johnny?, calling Booth a madman, mentioning bad reviews and too much liquor, while Booth protests that his aims were lofty and noble. The assassination of Lincoln is one of the great primal tragedies of American history, its effects rippling down the many decades since then, but the thing is, it was many decades ago, and we're distant enough for at least some irony.


Distance, or more specifically the lack of same, may explain the treatment of Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. I have no memory of it, but I've noticed that many people just a year older than I am do. It must be one of their very first vivid memories. Though it's debatable (at best) whether the Kennedy assassination had a political and historical effect anywhere near that of the Lincoln assassination, it was undeniably an emotionally traumatic event for the country. Unlike the other assassins, Oswald does not appear in the opening number and takes no part in the stories of the others. It was nearing the end of the show (100 minutes, no intermission) and I was starting to think that Sondheim and Weidman had oddly omitted Lee Harvey Owald. But as with Lincoln, I don't see how you can take up this subject without "doing" Kennedy. Then the other assassins ganged up on the Balladeer, stripped him down, and turned him into Lee Harvey Oswald. Booth appears to him and they have a long, earnest conversation in which Booth tries to persuade the suicidal Oswald to shoot the President instead, arguing that by doing so Oswald will somehow validate all the rest of them. (It seems doubtful that an egomaniac like Booth would offer that role to anyone but himself, but then he's had some time on the other side to put at least certain things into perspective.) Theatrically the scene is an attempt to change and deepen the tone a bit, to move beyond shock into a larger historical and psychological view, but it's also a way to contain and pay tribute to the emotions the Kennedy assassination still evokes among many. But, you know, time shouldn't reduce our empathy; those emotions surround anyone being shot, and anyone desperate, crazy, or convinced enough to shoot. I think Assassins will always be a show whose shock pulls us in while its emotional and political limitations can't help but put us out a bit.

As for this specific production, it's very good. (This is the first time I've seen it on stage, though I have both Broadway cast albums.) The cast is strong and the staging is sharp. However, and this is going to make the show a nonstarter for some, it is (unnecessarily and inexplicably) amplified. The Ashby Stage is a small house and if your voice can't fill that space, you shouldn't be a performer. I wonder why they decided to mike everybody? I wonder if it was even up for discussion, or if the automatic assumption now is that any singing should be amplified. It's possible that only the singing was amplified, since most of the dialogue sounded more or less natural (though they may also have adjusted the sound during the performance; there seemed to be fewer problems towards the end of the show). But even though as I noted above the lyrics aren't as sophisticated and twisty as they can be in much of Sondheim's work, the result of the amplification is that above a certain volume the words were almost impossible to make out (this is a particular problem with Giuseppe Zangara, would-be assassin of FDR). People tend to listen more carefully when the sound isn't artificially pumped up (this is why opera divas come out on stage for their recital encores and murmur their thanks to the adoring crowds, who fall silent and strain to catch every word). Maybe one odd result of our world of relentless loud noise is that many people train themselves to half-listen above a certain volume. It disengages you from the actors. I wish they had taken advantage of the intimacy of the space; the actors are right there in front of us, but we're not allowed to hear their natural voices. It's like sitting next to someone who insists on shouting in your ear. Weird.

The show was directed by Susannah Martin, with musical direction by David Moschler. The Blue Ridge Boys play the music; they are Derek Brooker, Jeremy Carrillo, Amar Khalsa, Andrew Maguire, Ben Malkevitch, Jeff Patterson, Rafa Postel, and Carolyn Walter. The talented performers are Aleph Ayin (Giuseppe Zangara), Rebecca Castelli (Sara Jane Moore), Danny Cozart (John Hinckley), Ryan Drummond (Sam Byck), Jeff Garrett (Proprietor), Steven Hess (Charles Guiteau), Cody Metzger (Squeaky Fromme), Galen Murphy-Hoffman (John Wilkes Booth), Dan Saski (Leon Czolgosz), and Kevin Singer (Balladeer). They all play other parts as well, but they're listed with their primary character.

The show runs through 28 October and schedule and ticket information is here.

* Sam Byck planned to assassinate Nixon by flying a plane into the White House, which I had completely forgotten about.

Haiku 2012/274

looking to night skies
but all I see are streetlights
blotting out the stars

29 September 2012

28 September 2012

the elephant in the room

Last night I was in Berkeley for the first night of the three-night run, hosted by Cal Performances, of the Theatre de la Ville-Paris's production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros, directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Cal Performances Director Matias Tarnopolsky started the evening with a short talk from the stage in which he pointed out that this was the second time the Theatre de la Ville has appeared in Berkeley; the first time was in 1906, when the group in an earlier incarnation presented Sarah Bernhardt in her legendary performance of Phedre, an event from which Cal Performances dates its existence, as well it might.

Rhinoceros, Ionesco's landmark 1959 work of the Theater of the Absurd, is another legendary moment in twentieth-century theater, one of those post-war works whose combination of menace and philosophizing absurdity got to the heart of the mid-century political situation more piercingly than any earnest "realistic" drama ever could. It is well-known that Ionesco wrote the work in response to the rise of fascism in his native Romania, and the play is often seen as an allegory of resistance to conformist totalitarian systems, which makes it sound high-minded and uplifting. It may be the historical moment to drop that particular framing (that is, limiting) of the play; the thought-provoking and lively production I saw last night made me realize that the play is stranger and richer than its reputation.

There's no need to see the play in political terms at all; as a study of individualism and conformity, it resonates in many ways not tied to specific political systems or philosophies. Anyone who's ever worked in a corporation has witnessed many rhino-metamorphoses, and indeed anyone puzzled by the strange cult fervor motivating the crowds who waited patiently for days and nights to update their iPhones to the latest release has observed the urge to be part of the pack ("it's the wave of the future!" announce the people turning into rhinos). But there's more to the play than feeling superior to the herd, and more to it even than noting the many ways people convince themselves that the herd is the only place to be. (If it were really that simple and straightforward, the play probably wouldn't be worth reviving.) The really subtle, brilliant, challenging thing that Ionesco did is that he doesn't tip the scales: once you set aside what you've been told about what the play is supposed to mean politically, you have to notice that the humans come across as a fairly shabby lot, and the rhinos don't look all that bad.

Demarcy-Mota has the play open with a passage from Ionesco's novel The Solitary. An average-looking, undistinguished middle-aged man comes out alone and talks about walking as a child through crowded streets and seeing the people as phantoms; he finds it comforting, yet he is not quite one of them - it's the classic note of urban alienation. The stage is mostly very dark (as it will be throughout), with piercing, focused white side lights on the speaker. Our average-looking undistinguished middle-aged man turns out to be Berenger (Serge Maggiani), who is indeed undistinguished, but not quite average - in fact, he's pretty much a loser. He has a drinking problem and squanders money on booze; he is unkempt and unpunctual; he longs for his coworker Daisy (Celine Carrere) but assumes he doesn't have a chance against another, more accomplished, coworker, Dudard (Philippe Demarle); he puts up little resistance to the hectoring constant lectures of his boisterous friend Jean (Hugues Quester). He can't bring himself to defend himself, but he will quarrel with Jean over whether the first rhino that charged down the street had one horn or two.

He's not a very inspiring representative of the human spirit. He's pretty much a marginal man, but it's his very inadequacies (he can't even make it to work on time) that allow him to remain human; to be blunt, he doesn't have it in him to turn into a rhinoceros. In the three acts of the play we see him first in a social setting (at a crowded cafe, where he meets the bullying Jean for a drink), then a work setting (at the publishing house that employs him, where his coworkers flirt, fight, and laugh at each other, debating the very existence of the rhino, before one appears and smashes the stairs of the office building), and finally in a romantic setting, as he and Daisy join together as apparently the last remaining humans, before she too defects. Berenger grows to hate his pale weak body, so insignificant next to the strength and purpose and joyful unity of the rhino herd, but he persists - partly out of self-loathing - in being human. At the very end, indecisive and confused, he is isolated on a height, and the stairs down have just given way with a bang, and he pauses, one foot raised out over the abyss that has just opened in front of him, feeling that he will remain human, out of perversity if nothing else.

From the beginning the humans have been close to animals (some even have animal names: Papillon, Boeuf). They bicker and talk at cross-purposes and prove by logical means the most illogical propositions; they can't even agree on what they've just seen when the first rhino runs down the street, and are quick to use the disruption of the African or possibly Asian rhino to criticize foreigners. They are spiteful to friends as well as strangers. The death by trampling of a woman's cat brings some of them together in a moment of sympathy, but I have the feeling they'd be less sympathetic if it had been the woman who had been trampled. They're all indeed individuals, but it's not really working for them; they're mostly destructive, self-serving, and short-sighted. It's a bleak world. The stage is mostly black, and the sets are strange, dark, heavy, and mechanical-looking, with boxy rooms and large walls and pillars that come crashing down. The clothes are mostly black and white. There's the occasional splash of a bright red tie or an orange phone. The eerie offstage music sounds like a distant memory, even when you first hear it. This is a very physical production, with bicycling in circles and running and shouting and the office workers slipping downward as the floors beneath them buckle under the blows of the unseen rhino in the lobby below.

The rhinos, by contrast, appear relatively stable and unified, and were looking better and better as the evening went on. At the end we see rows of their ghostly gray-green heads in the darkness, bobbing up and down. They are called destructive, but once you observe the behavior of the humans in the office you can hardly blame their former co-worker turned rhinoceros for trying to smash the place. If you unlink the rhinos from associations with specific political systems, it opens up interesting interpretive ambiguities in the play: you could even see them as a sublime force of nature. I was definitely feeling the appeal of turning into a rhino. That may not be what anyone intended, but unintended and unforeseen readings are one of the things that make a play endure.

The play is almost two hours and given without an intermission; many people blench when they hear that, but I think that's purely a psychological reaction, since many movies are longer and also don't have intermissions. But people feel freer to get up during movies (several did last night, as well, and one idiot a few rows in front of me even pulled out his iPhone at the end to record the appearance of the rhino heads - like calling to like, perhaps - though on the whole the audience, quite large for a week night production that didn't start until 8:00, was enthusiastic and attentive). An intermission would have really cut the mood and tension of the performance. It's presented in French with English surtitles; the dialogue is sometimes so quick that you miss a few things as your eyes dart up and down, but the language is simple enough so that if you have some even rudimentary French you can make out at least part of what the actors are saying.

There is one more performance, tomorrow (Saturday 29 September) at 2:00. More information is here.

Haiku 2012/272

if I had not glanced
then I would have missed the wind
bending the tall grass

27 September 2012

Haiku 2012/271

waking when one wakes
doing what one needs or wants
sweetest of all days

26 September 2012

fun stuff I may or may not get to: October 2012

OK, yes: Einstein on the Beach. But wait, there's more! In fact that's not even all that Cal Performances is presenting this month, though it does seem as if it might be enough: but there's also the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra in Swan Lake, 10 - 14 October; Sweet Thunder, a re-orchestration by Delfeayo Marsalis of the Ellington/Strayhorn Shakespeare tribute Such Sweet Thunder, 16 October; and Ensemble Basiani, a men's chorus from Georgia (not the state in the American south, the other one), 20 October.

There's quite a pile-up on Thursday 4 October:

The Berkeley Symphony opens its season in Zellerbach Hall with Joana Carneiro conducting Charles Ives's The Unanswered Question and the Beethoven 7, along with the world premiere of Paul Dresher's Concerto for Quadrachord and Orchestra. (The Quadrachord is an instrument invented by Dresher.) The concert starts at 7:00, but unfortunately this appears to be a one-off for the season opener, as the rest of the season, which looks quite enticing, reverts to the standard-issue worker-unfriendly 8:00 start time. We office drones like to go to concerts too. . . .

The next 4 October event is Nonsemble 6 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music celebrating the centennial of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in a performance staged by Brian Staufenbiel, resident director of the awesome and endlessly inventive Ensemble Parallele. The program also includes Dan Becker's S.T.I.C. ("Sensitivity to Initial Conditions") and Hanns Eisler's 14 Ways of Describing Rain, shown with Joris Iven's silent film Regen (Rain), which depicts 1920s Amsterdam before, during, and after a rainstorm (the score was dedicated by Eisler to his teacher Schoenberg on his 70th birthday); and honestly, you guys, you really need to check with me before scheduling something like this, because it's killing me that I have a conflict. That reminds me of attending an excellent Purcell-based performance by a group whose maiden voyage was also an inventive Purcell staging, and during the reception afterwards I remarked to some woman that I was surprised I hadn't been notified of the group earlier since the audience for artsy daring stagings of Purcell is basically me, and she looked at me with indignation and said, "Well, there are all of these people," gesturing towards the gathered dozens, and I thought, um, wow, OK . . . actually, I thought a few other things (the word "clueless" prominently and effortlessly floating along in that particular stream of consciousness). . . . It was far from the first time that I realized my brand of humor is perhaps more specialized than I like to think, the jocular equivalent of grass-fed free-range artisanal bread, but I also think that this woman had something to do with the (obviously ineffective) publicity, so she might have felt rebuked, which was completely unintentional on my part; I honestly don't remember who she was, and I have no idea if she's still in the field at all, so . . . please I'm already sunk in too far to back out - no offense (no further offense) is intended to any person, place, or thing. . . .

Let's go back to 4 October, since no doubt you're wondering what (and even at this stage I'm still weighing the pros and cons) could keep me from Pierrot Lunaire: it's the start of "Schumann: Under the Influence," a four-concert exploration of Schumann's music and influence organized by pianist Jonathan Biss, presented by San Francisco Performances. The first concert features Carey Bell on clarinet, Scott St. John on viola, and tenor Mark Padmore as well as Biss, in a program featuring Marchnerzahlungen and Fantasy by Schumann, Homage a Schumann by Kurtag, and An die ferne Geliebte by Beethoven. The second concert in the series is Saturday, 6 October; Padmore and Biss perform Schumann's Gesange der Fruhe and Dichterliebe, Berg's Sieben Fruhe Lieder, and Schubert's Heine Songs. The other two concerts are next March; you can get more information about the series here. SFP has other offerings this month as well, including the first two concerts (7 and 21 October) in another four-part series, this one featuring Andras Schiff playing Bach (co-presented with the SF Symphony and held at Davies); The Bad Plus (12 October) playing their arrangement of and tribute to The Rite of Spring, the centennial of whose celebrated Paris premiere is coming up next May; the Bay Area premiere (13 - 14 October) of the Russell Maliphant Company, presenting After Light, an exploration of the style and influence of Nijinsky and the Ballet Russes; and the Takacs Quartet playing Haydn, Britten, and Dvorak (14 October).

The other thing I'm missing because the Schumann series is the 6 October BluePrint concert at the Conservatory of Music; BluePrint, led by the awesome Nicole Paiement of Ensemble Parallele,  is the new music ensemble at the Conservatory. This year's focus is Latin America and this concert features music by Carlos Sanchez Gutierrez, Osvaldo Golijov, Clarice Assad, and Roberto Sierra.

Philharmonia Baroque presents Purcell's Dioclesian, 3, 5 - 7 October, in their usual locations, which you can remind yourself of here.

Speaking of the baroque, the California Bach Society performs the Mass in B Minor, 12 - 14 October, in a different location each day. As always, click the link for details!

Terry Riley performs with Tracy Silverman at BAM/PFA in the L@TE series, organized by Sarah Cahill; 12 October.

San Francisco Opera has a busy and promising month, with three operas in rotation: Moby Dick, I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and Lohengrin. More info here.

The San Francisco Symphony also has, you know, bunches of stuff, but nothing really jumps out at me except Yuja Wang at the end of the month, and given the lengthy list of other stuff happening this month . . . well, check it out for yourself here and make up your own mind.

The SF Playhouse presents Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson in their new venue at 450 Post Street, 9 October - 24 November. Their flyer claims that Jackson's presidency "doubled the size" of the USA - uh, I'm sure Jackson was devoted to Manifest Destiny, but I think they're thinking of Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase, which really did double (at least) the size of this country. But there is more than enough that actually happened in Jackson's term in office to fill out a musical.

Speaking of musicals, and American Presidents, I think I mentioned this last month, but Shotgun Players has Sondheim's Assassins, 26 September - 28 October.

ACT presents Sophocles' Elektra, translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker, with original music by David Lang, featuring Rene Augensen in the title role and Olympia Dukakis as the Chorus Leader, directed by Carey Perloff; 25 October - 18 November, and I really want to see this despite ACT's worker-unfriendly start times (I think they're the only major local theater that doesn't have at least one 7:00 start time during the work week) and user-unfriendly on-line ticketing ("best seat" available? sorry, I will only use systems that show me all available seats). Oh, they're also expensive. But I still really want to see this.

Berkeley Rep also goes Greek with An Iliad, adapted by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from the Robert Fagles translation. I have the impression this is a one-man show, in the style of Benjamin Bagby doing Beowulf, but I might be wrong about that. 12 October - 18 November.

Cutting Ball Theater marks the centennial of Strindberg's death (lots of stuff happened a hundred years ago. . . ) with a presentation (drumroll, please!) for the first time in any language or locale (crescendo and cymbal crash!) of all five of his Chamber Plays presented in repertory (with a few marathon, all-in-one-day sessions thrown in there). 12 October to 18 November, and check out the schedule and other details here.

And if the world (or even just the contemplation of this list) is too much with you, head over to the Asian Art Museum starting 5 October for Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, which runs until 13 January 2013, which is sooner than you think.

Haiku 2012/270

before I knew it
clever birds had discovered
the sweet purple figs

25 September 2012

Haiku 2012/269

unless there are trees
indifferently shading
paths you travel down. . . .

24 September 2012

Haiku 2012/268

cats climb on couches
pigeons perching on a pole
stars slip through sly skies

23 September 2012

The Three Bs (Bartok, Britten, birthday)

Last night I was at the San Francisco performance of New Century Chamber Orchestra's first concerts of the season. They got a jump on the 2013 Britten centenary by scheduling the Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations, but Bartok's Divertimento, sandwiched between the two, more than held its own.

The band filed into their seats on the Herbst Theater stage, all in black with the occasional splash of peacock blue. Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg gave a brief and not really necessary preview of the season, which will include a world premiere next May by Lera Auerbach, this season's featured composer, though the featured composer for these first concerts is Britten the birthday boy. Salerno-Sonnenberg said the Simple Symphony was youthful and high-spirited and Les Illuminations was . . . not, which was amusing. This was all fine but I could have done without her assurance that the performance we were about to hear with Melody Moore was going to be the best ever. I mean, I did enjoy it very much, but I prefer not to be given instructions beforehand, as if I have no other choice.

The Simple Symphony is very enjoyable, though its antic alliterative section titles (Boisterous Bouree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Saraband, and Frolicsome Finale) make the piece sound simpler than it is and don't really do justice to the stylish naivete of the actual music, though the energetic performance did. The Saraband in particular reaches depths of emotional dignity its title wouldn't lead you to expect. I also really enjoyed the delicate skittering sound of the Playful Pizzicato. The Bartok too had a bit of a misleading title, being meatier music than Divertimento might lead you to expect. When it started I was kind of surprised to discover that I knew the piece already; I would have said beforehand that I did not, but it's always gratifying to discover that one is even more knowledgeable than one thinks one is. It starts with sort of a country-jaunt sound, and at one point it seemed like very angsty salon music, and then it takes a few more turns, including a loopy pizzicato passage near the end. More pizzicato! It was an excellent selection to go with the Britten, being along the same lines but down a different track, but I thought it had more substantial qualities that almost showed up the birthday honoree, though he did reclaim the spotlight after the intermission with Les Illuminations.

I had realized I knew the Bartok but then I realized I had the wrong piece in mind for Les Illuminations, so I guess balance was restored in my little universe. For some reason I had it confused with the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. You'd think I'd have been tipped off by the French title and by a soprano rather than a tenor as the soloist. (Also the lack of a horn soloist, but let's not pile it on. . . .) Anyway this piece is actually the setting of some late (as in, written when he was around twenty) prose poems by Rimbaud, and it shows a more sophisticated and various side of Britten, as he responded to the French poet's surreal, beautiful disturbances. Moore was a vivid and strong soloist, gesturing and acting out. I wish they had had surtitles; there was a distressing amount of program rustling going on, as well as a lot more whispering throughout the whole concert than there should have been, especially since, judging from some of the overhead conversations, many of the audience members were musicians themselves. Also, three incredibly rude people came in later after the second half had started, wandered down to the front, and stepped over others to get to their seats.

There was an encore, for Moore and Salerno-Sonnenberg's solo violin: an arrangement by Clarice Assad of the famous hymn Amazing Grace and the less famous spiritual David Play Your Harp (its formal title might be a bit different). I have to say I wasn't crazy about the results. Perhaps it would have sounded better after the first half, since those pieces hearkened back to hymns, dances, and folk tunes, but the effect was a bit jarring coming after the bizarre comedy and artistic alienation of Rimbaud and the music he evoked. But more than that, I didn't like the arrangements very much: the vocal line was very traditional, and Moore sang with a lot of heart and joy (though she did tend to swallow the word "harp" each time she sang "David play your harp," which might have been her or the arrangement), but the violin part was I thought too filigreed and artsy and recessive for the style of these sacred songs.

Haiku 2012/267

bright half-moon tipping
toward the restless blue city
alone I gaze up

22 September 2012

Haiku 2012/266

summer's strapping leaves
tremble in the autumn wind
curling at their edge

21 September 2012

20 September 2012

A to Z

glances backwards and forwards. . . .

Some of my favorite concerts feature artists performing their own music. San Francisco Performances had a wonderful one last year: an evening of music by poet and composer Lera Auerbach, with Auerbach herself on piano, joined in the first half by Alisa Weilerstein on cello and soprano Lina Tetriani. I was particularly interested in this concert since I had been bowled over by The Little Mermaid at San Francisco Ballet (Auerbach composed the score). Her music is lyrical and direct and strong. She also has the gift of being able to talk to audiences about her work in a way worth hearing. The first piece, Last Letter, joined all three performers. The text is from Marina Tsvetaeva's poem Novogodneye (New Year's Greeting). Poetry is notoriously what gets lost in translation and I think I hear this said more about Russian poetry than any other and about Tsvetaeva's poems in particular perhaps most of all. Music is another, and possibly more successful, way of translating poetry.

Auerbach started by telling us a bit about the poem and then reciting it in English (I would have liked to have heard it in Russian as well, but you can't have everything). Tsvetaeva wrote it shortly after the death of Rainer Maria Rilke, which was around the 1927 new year. The two poets (as well as Pasternak) had been engaged in an intense correspondence in the year or so before Rilke's death. Auerbach mentioned the suffering of the Russian poets, and because Russian and poetic suffering is such a monumental "thing" with us, a cultural trope, a number of us laughed knowingly, which didn't seem to faze Auerbach, but I was immediately ashamed of myself; who am I to chuckle at the tremendous historical sufferings I have been spared? Auerbach recommended the collected correspondence to us, and I procured a copy as pleasant penance for my smug Americanness. Anyway that piece was followed by the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Opus 69, the second movement of which, the composer informed us, uses a theme associated with the Little Mermaid in the ballet. The second half of the concert was Auerbach solo, playing her Twenty-four Preludes for Piano, Opus 41. She has composed three sets of such preludes for different instruments (I think the others are for viola and cello, but I might be mistaken) and told us that San Francisco Performances was the only place in the world that had presented all three sets (I know I heard one other at a different concert, but I somehow missed a set). Altogether a wonderful concert.

Then last May I heard the season closer of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, which seems to be having a golden period right now, under music director Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg. Though they are a chamber orchestra they have such a full, rich, and even lush sound - lush yet precise. The concert opened with Grieg's delightful Holberg Suite, whose backward-looking elegance led nicely to the second piece on the program, Commedia dell'Arte, a world premiere by that season's featured composer, Ellen Taafe Zwilich. The first three of the four brief movements are named after famous commedia characters - the trickster clown Arlechinno, his beloved the lovely Columbina, and the boastful Capitano; the fourth movement, Cadenza and Finale, brings them all together. I thought it was a delightful piece, much fresher than actual commedia performances, with amusingly different instrumentation for each movement - for example, a toy drum for the Capitano, which captures his spirit perfectly.

After the intermission came a gorgeous performance of Schoenberg's gorgeous, emotionally rich Verklarte Nacht, and, to close out the ensemble's twentieth anniversary season, the Happy Birthday Variations by Peter Heidrich, in which the eponymous tune is played in the style of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, and Dvorak, and then as a Polka/Waltz, as film music (of the Waxman-Korngold era), as ragtime, as a tango, and then a czardas. The composers and styled are listed in the program but it's actually fun to guess what you're hearing, and though I usually loathe any variation on a guessing game I didn't cheat by looking at my program. That was fun, and the concert was near my companion's birthday, so she had a little serenade. As an encore they played a chamber-orchestra version of "Nimrod," from Elgar's Enigma Variations, which Salerno-Sonnenberg referred to as the most beautiful music in the world.

The connection between these two concerts is that, just as Zwilich was last year's featured composer for NCCO, Auerbach is this year's, with a world premiere coming next May. (More information on that here)

Haiku 2012/264

wandering in woods
burnt out down to raw bare roots
alike repining

19 September 2012

18 September 2012

17 September 2012

16 September 2012

15 September 2012

14 September 2012

13 September 2012

Haiku 2012/257

clouds chase each other
I watch the passing shadows
what else have I done

12 September 2012

11 September 2012

Haiku 2012/255

all his worldly goods
everything he still clings to
piled up on the street

10 September 2012

09 September 2012

we have always lived in the castle

Continuing my trip backwards through the San Francisco Symphony centennial season. . . .

My second-to-the-last Symphony concert of the centennial season (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 and Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle) was just a week before the finale. I did not realize it at the time but - music aside, since in that regard both evenings were wonderful - it was going to be a complete contrast as an experience to the final concert, which was a nightmare: I write about that concert, quite entertainingly I must say - that's me, spinning my straw into gold! - here.

Back to my penultimate week. It was Thursday night so the Asian Art Museum was open late and fortunately hadn't scheduled anything that would sabotage the experience for people who were actually interested in Asian art, so I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa there for dinner and a look around the galleries. The Phantoms of Asia exhibit was spread over the whole building, though we ended up spending most of our time on the top floor, in the Indian galleries. I thought there was an intriguing idea behind Phantoms of Asia - asking contemporary artists to react to the various Asian traditions and beliefs around spirituality, the afterlife, and cosmic order - but despite a few striking pieces I found the older works on display much more interesting. Perhaps if I had been able to pay more than two fairly brief visits to the show I would have felt differently.

Anyway, on to Symphony Hall. The program opened with Jeremy Denk playing the Liszt, which seemed like luxury casting. Liszt often gets paired with Bartok, I guess because they're both Hungarian, though there is also the entertaining contrast between the former's heavenly rhapsodies (edging into that sort of ethereal spirituality which always seems really sexual) and the latter's more astringent and earthy sound. The Piano Concerto No. 1 is fairly short (about twenty minutes) with a cascading dazzle of sound that for me evoked heavy rain falling through leaves onto a window pane - and then persistently BEEP BEEP BEEP and what the hell is that? I half expected Tilson Thomas to stop the performance and wheel around like a hawk, only it didn't seem to be a device in the hall (and apparently people further back couldn't hear it at all). I think it was something - an exit or a smoke detector or wahtever- in the hall outside the auditorium. Too bad. This was one of the better audiences I've experienced in Davies (no one around me was talking, texting, unwrapping cellophane, flipping noisily through the program, kicking the back of my seat, or squeezing me in so I couldn't breathe) - how perverse of the cosmos to insist that something had to be disruptive.

They must have fixed the BEEP BEEP BEEP right before the intermission because there was no sign of it during or after the break. Denk was pretty wonderful, as was the orchestra, and I feel I should say something more perceptive, or at least appreciative, since obviously a lot of work and sweat and thought goes into tossing off Liszt with easy virtuosity, but honestly serving as the opening amuse-bouche for Duke Bluebeard's Castle is a thankless task.

Into the Castle. This performance included the usually omitted opening narration, spoken by Ken Ruta. The music begins before the narration ends, which means you mostly want the speaker to shut up so you can listen to the music - you know, the usual. I can see why this bit is usually omitted. I hardly remember what the speaker says, and that's not because I'm writing this a few months later; I had forgotten it by the time the concert ended. I just remember it had sort of an ooga-booga Grand Guignol tone that to me signaled "campy horror film" rather than "richly textured, thought-provoking music drama."

Alan Held and Michelle DeYoung were both in strong, striking voice, and the orchestra was both lush and crystalline. The production was semi-staged, but I have no comment on the staging since I couldn't see it. I was in the second row, and the singers were placed behind the orchestra, so given the height of the Davies stage compared to the front orchestra seats the singers were blocked from view except for a few occasions when I'd spot them through a thicket of violas like jungle cats through a tangled underbrush, but those sightings were only sporadic. There were some large vaguely triangular white shapes moving around occasionally above the stage and there were projections, generally of a pretty basic descriptive sort: fields of flowers, close-ups of water dripping down walls, blood, stuff like that. It didn't add a whole lot but it also didn't detract. The projections were kind of a stripped-down version of the visually richer ones that Berkeley Opera (now West Edge Opera) used in its production a few years ago.

This is a really wonderful short opera and should be done more often. For one thing, I take away different impressions every time I see it, which is a sign of a work worth revisiting. Usually I think of the Bluebeard story as very much the wife's story: her love for him, her fear and confusion over the castle's (and his) mysteries, her intellectual curiosity, her bravery in entering and confronting his world. This time it struck me as very much about him, very much the story of a man trapped inside his own mind (this should not be read as Held overpowering DeYoung dramatically, since both were perfectly matched; it's just a matter of noticing something different in a work). As with the protagonist of Die Tote Stadt, even Bluebeard's efforts to reach out only amount to drawing someone else into his painful psychic labyrinth, and there Judith remains with his other wives. Has he literally killed her? Has he psychically killed her? Does she sacrifice herself? Or is it merely an image of her, a memory of what she was to him, that remains? Over in the Indian art galleries before the concert we saw a manuscript painting showing Krishna as a cowherd. For reasons that currently escape me he has to prove to someone who he is. He opens his mouth and the person who demanded his identity staggers back, because inside Krishna's mouth, briefly, one sees the entire universe. And that was how Bluebeard struck me: as a man with the entire universe expanding inside him. What does that leave for those on the outside?