No offense to anything else I'm going to list here, but the biggest event this month, and possibly this year (with the possible exception of the upcoming Einstein on the Beach at Cal Performances), is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's special presentation of Abel Gance's stupendous epic Napoleon, in a more complete version than ever seen before (all hail Kevin Brownlow), with a new orchestral score, and the spectacular three-screen finale. At the Paramount Theater in Oakland 24, 25, 31 March and 1 April. It is the ultimate in romantic spectacle and silent-movie dazzlement, and full details are here.
There's a new music pile-up at the beginning of the month: the Other Minds Festival is 1-3 March at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco; BluePrint at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the premiere of Anosmia by Neil Rolnick, along with Stefan Cwik's Eight Miniatures for Chamber Ensemble and Philip Glass's Harpsichord Concerto (3 March); Volti presents new choral works by John Muehleisen (with texts by Gertrude Stein! *swoon*), Robin Estrada, Reena Esmail, David Conte, and Huang Ruo (2-4 March in varied locations; Carol Muske-Dukes, the current Poet Laureate of California, whose poem on the sudden death of her husband is used as the text for Esmail's piece, will attend the 2 March program in San Francisco); and 1-4 March mandolinist Mike Marshall joins the New Century Chamber Orchestra to perform his own Concerto for Mandolin and Strings while mandolinist Caterina Lichtenberg performs Vivaldi; the program also includes Shaker Loops by John Adams and several other pieces, in various locations as usual with NCCO.
Charles Dutoit leads the San Francisco Symphony in Stravinsky's Le Chant du Rossignol, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (which should make a great showcase for the band), and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concert with Arabella Steinbacher, 1-3 March. The big event at the Symphony this month is the American Mavericks Festival, which opens 8 March. I'm not going to write about in much detail here except to say that it all looks great but I'm most looking forward to hearing Meredith Monk.
Earplay continues its "focus on Feldman" with its next concert, featuring works by Morton Feldman, Ellen Harrison, Charles Ives, and Erik Ulman, is Monday, 19 March, 7:30 at Herbst Theater.
San Francisco Performances offers: the Ebene Quartet playing Mozart, Borodin, and Ravel, on 8 March; Lera Auerbach on piano with Alisa Weilerstein on cello and soprano Lina Tetriani, performing works by Auerbach, on 14 March; Pierre-Laurent Aimard, playing Kurtag, Schumann, Liszt, and Debussy, on 27 March; and Ute Lemper and the Vogler Quartet, performing Weimar-era cabaret songs, on 31 March.
San Francisco Ballet presents Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson to Prokofiev's score. They also have two mixed programs; Program 6, featuring Act 3 of Raymonda (Nureyev after Petipa), RAkU (Yuri Possokhov to a score by Shinji Eshima), and an Ashley Page world premiere (untitled both on the website and in the brochure; the brochure says the music is by John Adams, but the website says nothing about the music) looks particularly interesting, but this is an impossible month and who knows if I'm going to get to any of this.
West Edge Opera presents a manga re-visioning of The Magic Flute on 4, 9, and 11 March.
The Berkeley Playhouse presents what looks like a lively adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance at the Julia Morgan Playhouse, 25 February to 1 April.
Cal Performances has quite a full slate, including Wolfgang Holzmair singing Winterreise (4 March), Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, singing the Mass in B minor (10 March), pianists Murray Perahia (11 March) and Richard Goode (25 March), the Eco Ensemble playing Martin Matalon, Liza Lim, Aaron Einbond, and Nico Muhly (24 March); and Marin Alsop leading the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: on 30 March the program includes fanfares by Aaron Copland and Joan Tower, the Percussion Concerto by Jennifer Higdon, and Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony 5; on 31 March the program is Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light, accompanying Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, so you have two opportunities this month to see a great silent movie (this one as intimate as Gance's Napoleon is epic).
Shotgun Players presents The Coast of Utopia: Voyage, the first play in Tom Stoppard's celebrated trilogy about intellectual and emotional ferment in pre-revolutionary Russia, 14 March to 15 April.
The ACT Master of Fine Arts Program presents Will Eno's The Flu Season, 1-10 March, at the Hastings Studio Theater, 77 Geary Street, 6th floor. I haven't seen The Flu Season, but I've enjoyed the several Eno plays I've seen at Cutting Ball Theater, so this should be worth checking out. And speaking of the Cutting Ball, their current show, Tontawald, runs through 11 March. I hope to post a full entry about it soon, but right now I just have to say I really loved it.
The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players will be playing contemporary music in San Francisco on 26 March at Herbst, featuring works by Katharina Rosenberger, Brian Ferneyhough, Olly Wilson, Geoffrey Gordon, and Heinz Holliger.
The premiere screening of Lou Harrison: A World of Music, directed and produced by Eva Soltes, will take place on 6 March at the Castro Theater, with a special performance by Terry Riley before the film. The evening is a benefit for Harrison House Music & Arts. More information here.
The pile of brochures and print-outs I use to put these monthly lists together just seemed unending this month, like one of those fairy-tale porridge pots that keep giving and giving until everyone has more than enough porridge. So here is your jam-packed month: well, not jam-packed, but porridge-packed: pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old. . . . OK, I'm already getting loopy. Good luck to the rest of you with all this.
I’m now slightly embarrassed to admit that I barely knew who Regina Carter* was when I went to her SF Performances concert last Saturday, since she’s been here multiple times under their auspices and was their first jazz Artist-in-Residence; she also has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and was the first jazz artist, and the first African-American, to be allowed to play on Paganini’s own Stradivarius, now housed in Genoa – you'd think something of all that should have registered her name on my brain. I went because this was one of the concerts SF Performances offered to its subscribers in lieu of their usual free subscriber concert by the winner of the Naumberg Competition, and I don’t get to hear as much live jazz as I’d like and the timing worked out, so I figured why not, and I asked ABW (who also hadn’t heard of Carter) if she was free, and she was, so there we were at Herbst.
OK, we both now know who Regina Carter is, and will not be forgetting the name after that spectacularly enjoyable evening. Carter was joined by Will Holshouser on accordion, Chris Lightcap on bass, Alvester Garnett on percussion, and Yacouba Sissoko on kora, which is a twangly 21-string African harp-like instrument (Sissoko, who wore a long silky sky-blue African robe, was born in Mali and actually trained as a griot, but he also learned Western music, so he can play in more than one key; his instrument is a lovely thing made out of a very large gourd, with a special type of wood as the bridge, and fishing line as the wire – he gave us a brief and charming description of it, which is how I know these things).
The concert was based on Reverse Thread, Carter’s latest CD, which was on sale in the lobby for the bargain price of $10. I bought one even before hearing the concert (“He can’t not buy music,” said ABW, which is, sadly for my bank account, the truth; in fact I've already ordered her Paganini CD and have been eyeing a couple of others. . .) . This turned out to be a good decision because afterwards there was a crowd waiting to buy them, and the line to have Carter sign them was so long – snaking out of the theater lobby into the larger entrance lobby, the longest line I’ve ever seen at an SFP concert – that even I, who love signed things, decided not to wait.
The concert was about two hours long, with a brief intermission, so it couldn’t have been a simple recreation of the CD (which I haven’t listened to yet; I want the live sounds to linger a bit longer). The music is based on various influences on the Detroit-born Carter: not just the more obvious American or African ones, but also on music she heard in Detroit ethnic communities such as the Chaldeans, a group of Christian Arabs, and from those influences out to other groups, such as Ugandan Jews. We heard a couple of field recordings of some of the pieces, followed by the group’s arrangement of the material. There were extended improvisations and solos, as is the jazz way, and they all had their moment or moments to shine.
The world-music aspect may suggest something a bit trendy, or arbitrary, but the music itself feels lived in and loved. I never got that “Hey, listen to my cool new World Music CD that I got at Starbucks!” feeling that I sometimes get when Latin/African/Arabic rhythms are incorporated into predominantly Western styles. From moment to moment I was reminded of very different sounds – old French popular music (the accordion!), Celtic music, hymn tunes, African drumming, Django Rheinhardt’s jazz, brief snatches of My Country ‘Tis of Thee or When the Saints Come Marching In, Cuban bands – but it all feels as if all the layers belongs together; some of my favorite moments were when Carter played a stately hymn tune on the violin while a sophisticated African-style drumming pattern ran beneath her. ABW turned to me at the break and said, “It’s amazing how joyful this music makes me feel.” Yep, there it is.
Then on Sunday I traded in the kora for the theorbo and headed up to St Mark’s Lutheran for Magnificat’s all-Monteverdi concert. Based on his Eighth Book of Madrigals, the concert was called “Madrigals of War and Love,” meaning mostly Love as War. Artistic Director Warren Stewart was explaining all this as I walked in. His pre-concert talks are fairly interesting, from what I’ve heard of them, but their timing is a bit awkward, since I at least don’t like to clomp around looking for a seat while someone is talking and others are trying to listen (though, believe me, this doesn’t seem to bother some other people). I think I have yet to take advantage of the front rows reserved for subscribers, since I’m trying to be non-disruptive (and to find a seat by myself, I will confess). I am deeply grateful, though, that the talks are pre-concert, and not during the concert, when the music should speak for itself.
I’m counting the days until my insurance will cover an eye exam, since I discovered once again that I would not be able to read along in the text. So I have a vague but roughly accurate sense of what the singers were saying, even if I couldn’t map their expressiveness, as it were, from line to line (you read enough Renaissance poetry, you get the hang of it, and Love is a battlefield is not a sentiment unknown to our own troubadors). That’s fine too, I think; sometimes you need to let go of the annotations and let sound give you sense. I'm content to sit there and listen to ninety minutes of Monteverdi's variety.
St Mark’s looked more crowded than it has for the other Magnificat concerts this season, possibly because it was the final concert of their twentieth season (though the program did note that they would revive their production of Orazio Vecchi’s madrigal comedy L’Amfiparnaso on 8 June, as part of the Berkeley early music festival; tickets on sale February 29 at http://www.bfx.berkeley.edu/.) The audience gave them an enthusiastic, prolonged, and affectionate ovation at the end. This was the first season I’ve subscribed; better late than never, I guess, as I’ve enjoyed all three concerts very much. So thanks and appreciation to Warren Stewart and crew: Catherine Webster (soprano), Jennifer Paulio (soprano), Andrew Rader (alto), Paul Elliott (tenor), Daniel Hutchings (tenor), Peter Becker (bass), Rob Diggins (violin), Julianne von Einem (violin), Julie Jeffrey (viol), Elisabeth Reed (viol), John Dornenburg (violone), Nigel North (theorbo and viol), and Jillon Stoppels Dupree (harpsichord), and see you all next year, I hope.
* The link is to Carter's website, but be forewarned that music will start playing whether you want it to or not.
Last night I was at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the second of Ensemble Parallele’s three performances of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, as reorchestrated (with the composer's approval) by Jacques Desjardin. Not surprisingly, given Ensemble Parallele’s track record, it was a success both musically and dramatically, much more so, in fact, than the Met production, which I saw in its final 2002 appearance. Harbison was there last night. I had brought a copy of the libretto (which he wrote) from the Met performances and asked him to sign it. “I haven’t seen one of these in years,” he said, looking at the bright red cover.
I did like the opera at the Met, but there were some problems, including badly miscast leads: Jerry Hadley was too emotionally open, not opaque enough, for Gatsby, the self-created American who tragically also tries to recreate his past love, Daisy, in his ideal image. And Dawn Upshaw is beloved for her down-to-earth qualities, her intelligence and adventurousness, which are not really qualities that suggest Daisy Buchanan, the golden child of privilege. And both of them were too old. Gatsby the novel is very much the story of people realizing their youth, their idealism and romanticism and hope, are all about to slip away from them. So it’s important for this particular story that the cast look, as last night’s cast did, like people entering their 30s.
Fidelity to the original source is always a tricky question in any adaptation. An adaptation needs to stand on its own, and fulfill the needs of its own form, but if it strays too far from the source, then why bother with an adaptation at all. In their program notes both Harbison and Brian Staufenbiel, the stage director and production designer, insist, perhaps a bit defensively, that the opera must be seen as separate from the novel. There are a few points in the Gatsby libretto that I think are perhaps a bit more compressed than they would ideally be, sometimes for practical reasons of staging (the scenes with Myrtle in particular), but on the whole I think Harbison’s Gatsby works very well on its own terms while also respecting the iconic novel, considering that seeing confrontations in the flesh is going to be inherently more melodramatic than hearing of them second-hand, framed by a particular point of view.
Tom Buchanan’s eugenics-style concern for the preservation of the white race is here made less specifically racial and more about general opposition to the socially innovative (such as the increasing social freedom of women, particularly his wife). The opera very effectively draws out the parallels between the marriages of Daisy and Tom’s mistress Myrtle Wilson, both of them in varying degrees disappointed in the man they’ve married. I think this adjustment of Tom’s views works very well. For a contemporary audience, the emphasis on eugenics/preservation-of-the-white-race’s-privileges tips the balance too much against Tom, changing him from a standard wealthy reactionary to someone actively evil. Making Tom’s outburst more about maintaining class barriers helps bring that major theme forward. (That leads me to a quibble: when Tom contemptuously allows Gatsby to drive Daisy back to East Egg, the libretto has him say, “He won’t annoy you. He knows his little flirtation is over.” I wish the libretto had retained the novel’s original version, which is “his presumptuous little flirtation” – “presumptuous” is just so perfect and so telling there.)
George Wilson is probably the character who differs the most from the novel, though some of that may be the casting of Bojan Knezevic, who is much more physically present than the original's wan dispirited spirit. He clearly feels anger and a need for revenge rather than an overwhelming and irrational grief. It's legitimate and effective. (And Knezevic’s very slight accent also works well, making him, who is the instrument of Tom’s revenge on Gatsby, seem like one of those immigrants Tom is so worried about. It adds another layer.)
Daniel Snyder as Tom has excellent physical presence; he looks like an athlete starting to go to seed, and carries himself with the assurance of the entitled. Marco Panuccio as Gatsby gives a subtle performance, calculatedly open at times, at others closed, glancing at Daisy with a mixture of nerves and blind romantic idealism. He is shorter than the other men, and carries himself slightly hunched over – this too works well. Susannah Biller is just wonderful as Daisy, with a voice as golden as her presence, almost making her the center of the show, from her conventional flirting to her anguish at being torn between Gatsby’s dreams and Tom’s assuring realities. The whole cast is excellent: Julienne Walker as a sporty Jordan Baker, Jason Detwiler as the reticent and observing Nick, and Erin Neff as Myrtle, who makes (as Myrtles must) a lively impression in a couple of brief scenes. With this cast I didn't feel the sense of vocal strain that occasionally showed up in the Met performance (what I mostly remember from that is Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's vital presence as Myrtle and how awkward Hadley sounded every time he said "old sport," though perhaps that was a deliberate choice).
The party scenes and the dancing are fun to watch, just as they were at the Met. Another interesting change from the novel: at Gatsby’s party, when he points out the famous movie star and her director, instead of the vision of romantic glamour we see in the novel, here we see a beautiful woman with a director who is a funny little Chaplin-like man – another indication of the manufactured, dreamed, or willed quality of romance, rather than a vision of the thing itself.
We inevitably lose almost all of Nick Carraway’s first-person narration, his poetic and sometimes perfumed and nostalgic recounting of that summer’s events. Instead we get a complex layering of times and places and musical styles; even with the reduction of the orchestra from 80 to 30, an on-stage band still appears at Gatsby’s parties, and we hear, at the parties or on the radio, pasticcio 1920’s-style songs that sound convincingly authentic (our own cultural expectations of Jazz Age New York are brought to bear on the story, and provide a different source of nostalgia, for a remembered past none of us actually experienced). The songs are fun to hear (and extremely catchy) and also comment, in the style of Pennies from Heaven or Cabaret, on the on-going action. Class and social divisions are so much a part of this story. I think it was brilliant to comment on those divisions by using such contrasting "high" and "low" musical styles. This is, I should say, a very rich and fascinating score, that I think will only deepen the more one hears it. The orchestra(s) under EP Artistic Director NicolePaiement made the music sound as powerful as my memory of the Met’s performance.
Staufenbiel provided a fast and fluid staging (about half an hour was cut from the opera, with Harbison’s consent), which reflects the layering in the music. Through the clever use of projections, scrims, and a few moveable elements (including Gatsby’s lovely shirts that make Daisy cry, which come down from above, laid out on a rack in rows in a rainbow splendor of pattern and soft color), all the fundamentals of the novel appear: Tom and Daisy’s place, Gatsby’s place, the water in between them, the distant green light at the end of the Buchanan dock, George Wilson’s garage in the Valley of Ashes, the dispassionate stare of the eyes of Dr Eckleburg.
I did find the staging surprisingly awkward in one key moment: after Gatsby is shot, a coffin is wheeled out and the dead Gatsby simply stands up and walks into it – not in a slow stylized way, but more in a “can't figure out what to do here to get the corpose off the stage so just do it quickly” kind of way. Not sure what was going on there.
When the performance at the Met ended, Harbison came out to take a bow and the woman sitting to my left said, in fairly indignant tones, “Who is that? Who is that?” I told her it was the composer, John Harbison. “Oh!” she said, sounding very impressed. It must have been the only time at the Met she had ever seen a living composer. Harbison took a bow last night, too, but everyone seemed to know who he was.
OK, at this point Ensemble Parallele’s annual production is a high point of the year for opera-lovers. So I was glad to hear that next February we are getting Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata, which I am eager to hear.
This is last night. I am once again sitting in a darkened room (this time it’s Herbst Theater) once again listening to someone play piano (this time it’s Leif Ove Andsnes, and he’s playing Haydn – the Piano Sonata in C minor, Hob.XVI:20, to be specific). No introductory talks this time, for which I am as always grateful, since I’ve already had to wait until 8:00 for the performance to start – thank God it’s Thursday, and I can wander through the Asian Art Museum beforehand. The lights dim as always and he comes out, looking youthful and self-possessed. He is fairly slight of build and I wonder how many times he’s been described as “boyishly handsome.” I wonder how old he is. I’m enjoying the Haydn, of course. The program said he had just become a father, but who knows what age that is. I wonder if I’ve heard him before – wait, I am pretty sure I heard him with I think Christian Tetzlaff, also in Herbst, but a few years ago, and I was up in the balcony because G/S gave me his ticket and I mostly remember the seat being so narrow I was very conscious of not moving so I didn’t disturb those around me. Disturbing – there is an awful lot of coughing going on, much more than usual. SF Performances audiences are usually fairly well behaved, though there was that guy who moved behind me for the second half of Maltman who cleared his throat constantly, while his friend kept kneeing the back of my chair. What is wrong with people. I wonder how many times a day I think that, or have it thought about me. What is going on in the back of the theater – it sounds as if some woman has dumped the entire contents of her purse, not once but twice. Andsnes barely reacts but I see that look flit across his face. Yo-Yo Ma, back in Boston, in Jordan Hall, playing the Bach solo cello suites, when what sounded like a handful of coins fell out of somebody’s something and rolled down the floor – that look of frustration repressed on his face. I wish I always remembered the music sounds as vividly as I remember the interrupting sounds. Like that horrible woman a few years ago here at Herbst who brought her nasty little dog (what was the performance? I wish I could remember that and not the dog) and claimed it was a helper dog so no one could stop her. So rude. Since that little rodent fit in her purse I wonder what vile thing it “helped” her with. Sick. What is wrong with people? There is an epic amount of coughing tonight. I wonder why the concert season is in the winter, when people are sick – remnant of a past way of life, perhaps, like the idea of not starting until 8:00 in the evening, as if none of us have to work, though that’s probably why most of these people look retired. Pretty full house tonight though. The coughing is not letting up! Now Andsnes is back with the Bartok. My program is put away but I glance at my neighbor’s. It’s the Suite for Piano, Opus 14. At least his program is far enough away for me to read. I need new glasses. It’s always so dim in theaters now even before the concert starts – maybe a cost-saving measure? Zellerbach in particular. It is always great to hear Bartok. A man of integrity as well as a great artist – an argument against the whole trite notion that great artists are always “bad” people. Like Verdi that way. Though I only know anecdotes about Bartok, all admirable though. I did read that massive Verdi bio, which I foolishly carried on a plane. I don’t remember where I was going. The occasional lull in coughing. Concentrate! Andsnes plays so beautifully. I probably won’t post anything, though. I don’t really have much to say. Some of these people should have grabbed some of those lozenges from the bowl at the table in the lobby. It’s like a concerto for piano and bronchial tubes. Debussy now, Book One of Images. I think this is one of the reasons I got the Piano Series. Also someone is doing Kurtag, I think. Later. Epic coughing! It seems to be one woman in particular, sitting in the back. I’m trying to ignore it. Are her neighbors glaring? Why isn’t she leaving? I’ve heard several others leave with their coughing fits. They could at least have tried to leave quietly. Can she possibly think her hacking cough is not disrupting the entire auditorium? It sounds like a woman coughing – maybe it’s a countertenor, haha. Debussy – hard not to think of clouds and water, clouds passing reflected in water – sounds trite but he asks for it. Nothing wrong with clouds and water – why should I think they’re trite? They’re elemental and arresting. Wouldn’t have many haiku without them. Oh, intermission. As usual, the coughing stops as soon as the music does. John Marcher comes over – I didn’t know he was here. He goes back to his seat when the bell rings. I wonder if I was coherent. I often wonder that after I have conversations – I mean, not the ones in my head. I’m pretty witty there. L’esprit d’escalier. No coughing during the intermission, of course. Maybe she left? Andsnes comes out. He is imperturbable! I wonder what he thinks of the audience. Are we worse than usual? Better? God forbid. Does he pay attention to what’s going on out here in the dark? Are we encumbrance or inspiration? I find us an encumbrance – Hell is other people. There’s a reason that’s a commonplace. I do pay too much for concerts, considering how chancy they can be – we all have our ways of gambling, I guess. This part is all Chopin. I recognize the pieces but wouldn’t be able to name them – composers should always give names like Moonlight or Appassionata or something, not Waltz in F minor, Opus 70, no 2 – really, who remembers that? Outside of professional pianists. And show-offs. Hum the tune and I'll know it, I guess. . . .OK, now he’s standing up. Less coughing this time. I’m just listening. I just listen. I don’t know how many waltzes into the program we are. He stands and bows and we applaud. Also Named Patrick next to me says to me, bewildered, “Where are we?” Oh, good, I’m not the only one who doesn’t know! I don’t know; no breaks are indicated in the program for this half. Maybe this is now a Ballade? Very nice. Less coughing now. Also very nice. Just that one loud one at the start of the second half, like a warning shot letting us know – you’re not at peace yet! Like so many of those horrible neighbors I had in apartments. Hell is. . . . I’m very sleepy. I zone in and out. Goddam, who thinks 8:00 on a work night is a good time for a concert? So ridiculous. Well, let my body fold into the music. Maybe it sinks in – and gets lost in thee, like that line in Tennyson. Sinking in thee? I should memorize more poems. Something constructive to do with my brain, instead of obsessive circling. Beautiful encore. He perseveres. I wonder how I would feel about an audience like this, if I were up there playing. How much can they hear or see? The lights must be shining in their eyes. But he couldn’t miss that coughing woman. Beautiful encore again. Sure, I’m happy to stand. Now I sit, now I stand. It’s like a mass! The church of Art. Lights are up. Oh my God, this crowd is even slower than usual: move, move, move! The side aisle is less crowded – oh, I should stand aside, here's an old woman. I don’t think I stood aside quickly enough. She’s nice. She smiles. I smile. I say, “Excuse me.” Thank God I was raised right! And am so repressed! Otherwise I’d probably be in jail by now. Free room and board, along with the occasional rape, I guess. I wouldn’t like it, probably. OK, I’ve never seen the bathroom so crowded. Everyone is so so so slow tonight. Only two stalls – ridiculous. Another line to wash our hands. I hope I don't miss a train. I love walking through the streets on a cool uncrowded night – wish I could stroll, but the trains. . . . twenty minute wait if I miss it. I’m so tired. 8:00 is an idiotic start time. Maybe I should tell them again? They always send those “please give us feedback!” e-mails. OK, kill that coughing moron – a coffin for the cougher. Coffers. Do I alliterate too much? Quite the trap. Start at 7:30. My God, isn’t that obvious? 8:00? Bad on both ends. Hours before with nothing to do, and then a late night – I’ll feel this tomorrow. That last piece – what was it? It keeps going through my head in snatches. But it’s starting to bleed into recordings of it I’ve heard, whatever it was. Over and over. Whatever it is. Pink lights along the side of the Asian Art Museum. Yellowish lights on UN Plaza. Greenish lights going down to BART. At least the woman blocking the escalator was nice about moving aside. Sometimes they aren’t – why not? What is wrong with people? A rush of wind from below – a train coming? Like after that play at the Aurora (what play was it?) when I felt the wind from the tunnel below and rushed down just in time – twenty minute wait otherwise. That’s a long time late at night when you’re tired. I’m very tired. Lawyers bill clients in increments of fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes is longer. By a third. There’s a train, it’s not my train, I’m very tired. Seven minutes until the Dublin train, not too bad a wait. It’s a four-car train. Motherfucker! I hate BART and that is the worst thing about BART – short trains. Of course it’s packed even before Civic Center. Loud bad music, chasing out what's left in my head from tonight. Like coming back from vacation – airports undo any good the vacation has done. Oh, here’s a seat. I should have gone into the first car – no bicycles. Three of them are crowded in here. People are standing. No one I need to give a seat to, I guess. I hope I don’t fall asleep. Maybe I should stand so I don't. No room to stand. Goddam short trains. They still charge full price, though. What was that last piece? It all evaporates so quickly. I try to read Barnaby Rudge. I’m too tired. My noise-reduction headphones are not reducing the noise. Whose device is that – three suspects, each likely to be listening to that shit music. A phone? an iPod? I don't even know what people use anymore. bonk bonk bonk bonk – so irritating. Can’t block it out; it's too regular. My other headphones were better. They broke. Cheap plastic. Maybe I need to change the batteries in these? I give up on Barnaby Rudge. New York Review: an article about Shia and Sunni Muslims. Sectarian violence. I’m so tired. I can’t keep them straight. I can't read this either. More time lost, and the words pile up to be read. I’ll stare at random sentences. Idiotic start times. Why do I keep doing this? That last piece – what was it? I know it. I’m getting worse with names anyway. What lasts? What’s lost? Lost, lost, lost . . . .Banal, but true. The music is already bleeding away, fleeting. What do other people hear? How do they hear? Why do they hear? I don’t think I’ll post about this, I love it but don’t really have anything to say. Beautiful, though, that’s worth something (I spend too much on music). But I’m starting to write in my head and it goes around and around and around. Write it to get rid of it. Should do that more often. That Hampson concert – two years ago? Three? Still stuck in my head. Still, good to have memories of what I spend so much time and money on. . . . Always a relief to get out of BART. Talk about spending time and money on. . . .The streets can be empty but a car will always show up exactly when I need to cross. What’s that white thing in front of that bush? A huge cup from one of our fine fast-food emporia. The nastier the food, the more likely people are to litter. Right in front of my house. WTF. What is wrong with people. How odd to place it carefully down, out of the way, instead of just tossing it – so I guess that’s good. I’m so tired. 8:00 – idiotic. I won’t be able to sleep if I know it’s out here, though. Leaves are OK, but I hate trash. That old man next door who got so angry about the leaves – attacking me on Christmas Eve, had to knock him down. Twice. Over leaves. He had a car rusting in his driveway, but was obsessed with the leaves. Little golden leaves. They are a bitch to sweep up though. God, I hope I'm not getting like him. He’s probably dead now. Kind of young to have Alzheimer’s, but it happens. I’m getting worse with names. The cup: it’s only half full. I don’t know what bin to put it in. I’ll put it on top of this one and hope no stray cats knock it down. That last piece – now it’s a recording I’m hearing. It’ll say tomorrow what it was, on the site. What did we do before the Internet? Is this cup Styrofoam? Plastic? Either way, it’ll last longer than I will. Or memory, or live music. Hey, a package! Must be my new camera. I can’t look at any of this stuff now. I’m so tired. I’ll feel this tomorrow, especially in the afternoon. Afternoons are a drag anyway. Siesta time! Live music – like a drug. For a clean-living guy: it’s gambling and drugs! Flip off the switch – it’s so dark. Oh, I didn’t go upstairs to turn a light on before I turned off the downstairs lights, that's why it's so dark. Empty pockets – lozenge wrappers, random receipts. Admission ticket to the Asian. OK, at least on Thursday I can go to the Asian. Goddam 8:00 start times. V always says she’s most tired on Thursdays. Is that happening to me now? I was tired all day though. Maybe because of winter? Should I turn the heat on? It's not that cold. PG&E bills too high. They'll go down in a month or so, but still, I do turn the heat on more than I used to. I don’t remember names as well as I used to. I’m tired, it’s dark. Lights now on upstairs, turned off downstairs, keys go here, wallet goes here, handkerchiefs here, undress, put on boxers, put on T-shirt, brush, floss – should I skip flossing? No, floss, piss (where was the moon tonight? it was so bright the other morning – that Larkin poem, groping my way back to bed and so forth, I should memorize more poems), wash hands, wash face, turn off the bathroom light, set the alarm, don’t turn on TV you’re already so tired, I should cancel cable, I spend too much, I’m so tired, I’ll feel this tomorrow, pillows just so, I'm in my room (those people who see the house and say, "Is this your room?" and I say: "All the rooms are mine. It's my house" – another funny expression, "your room" for bedroom like "language" when people mean swear words: "there is language in it") and now off go the lights, at last. And now I can’t sleep.
Last Saturday night I went to Herbst Theater for the Alexander String Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary concert, presented by San Francisco Performances. Joyce DiDonato and Jake Heggie were the special guests.
The concert opened with Hahn’s Venezia, sung by DiDonato to Heggie’s piano accompaniment. At this point it’s probably superfluous for me to mention how marvelous this mezzo is, but it’s sort of unavoidable. Since Horne and Von Stade have retired she seems to have taken their place (well, maybe along with Stephanie Blythe) as the fun-loving, down-to-earth diva you think is your friend (it’s a mezzo thing), which is why I’m always slightly surprised and impressed that she can turn on a dime and radiate tragic grandeur (or any number of other emotions). After her last recital here (also presented by SF Performances) I kept visualizing the evening as if I had been caught in a downpour of molten gold. The Venezia set made me think of a silver moonlight sound, falling on the purple waves. Heggie was a generous and attentive accompanist. It was interesting to hear her perform this set so soon after Christopher Maltman did (in a concert I haven't posted about yet). For Che peca! (What a shame!), the fifth of the six songs, a very middle-aged love song in which the singer reminisces about the youthful agony his wife caused him, she took an interestingly angry approach, as if the singer were almost berating his still-loved Nina for the loss of their youthful passion. I thought it was an intriguing interpretation, though I was a bit more convinced by Maltman’s tone of wistful affectionate regret.
The first half of the concert ended with the Alexander String Quartet giving a splendid rendition of the Debussy String Quartet in G minor. These stylish and evocative turn-of-century French pieces harmonized nicely with the second half of the concert, which was Camille Claudel: Into the Fire, a world premiere piece by Heggie for string quartet and mezzo, which of course was the concert’s big event.
Herbst Theater was packed, with a larger than usual number of the sort of people who just stand planted in the middle of the narrow aisles when people are trying to pass them. It was that kind of crowd. But on the whole the audience was quite well-behaved, despite the occasional hacking cough, and the really epic amount of page-rustling during both the Hahn and the Heggie. Since Gene Scheer’s lyrics for Into the Fire are in English and an American was singing them to an English-speaking audience, I put my program away, though I can’t pretend this was purely out of aesthetic virtue, since I badly need new glasses and simply couldn’t read the texts anyway. But there were only a few brief moments when I couldn’t quite make out the words and had to check them later.
The piece is in seven parts: there are five songs for Claudel inspired by her sculptures (according to Heggie’s program note, these songs take place the day she is to be taken to the asylum in 1913), then there is an instrumental movement, also based on one of Claudel’s sculptures, and then an epilogue set in the asylum in 1929, when some old friends, a married couple, visit her on their way to Italy. Claudel remained in the asylum until she died in 1943.
The music is involved, moving, and beautiful, with many effective touches and agitated undercurrents dramatizing Claudel's mental state. The first song, Rodin, begins “Last night, I went to sleep completely naked. I pretended you were holding me” – a song of striking sensuality and loneliness, both qualities expertly projected by DiDonato. The second song, La Valse (a copy of which sculpture Debussy owned), speaks of the regrets of love, with a frenzied undertone to the waltz rhythm, one of several parts where you felt the woman coming apart. The third song, Shakuntala, based on the Indian legend, led to some not unexpected and not unpleasant Orientalism in the music, which provided a nice jolt of exotica to the sound (perhaps a little nod to the music of the time and its taste for the "exotic"). DiDonato ululated splendidly. The fourth song, La Petite Chatelaine, is a sadly lullaby-like farewell to the child she aborted. Song five, The Gossips, illustrates Claudel’s growing paranoia. Then comes the instrumental, L’Age Mur (Destiny), followed by the final number, in which Claudel reminisces about the past, with the occasional hint (“here they are trying to poison me”) that she remains mentally disturbed.
This is moving stuff, and it was movingly handled. I haven’t read any reactions yet, but Saturday night's audience gave it an enthusiastic ovation. DiDonato was crying by the end and turned aside to wipe away her tears. Heggie and Scheer joined DiDonato and the Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz on violin, Paul Yarbrough on viola, and Sandy Wilson on cello) on stage. Heggie and DiDonato vied with each other to see who could defer to the other one the most. She finally succeeded in pushing him forward for the applause, but he is a generous colleague and immediately turned around and performed the “I am not worthy” bow to her.
Heggie mentioned in his program note that ever since 1989, when he saw the film biography of Camille Claudel starring Isabelle Adjani, he has considering an opera based on the sculptor’s life, and he dropped several hints in his program note that he’s still considering it. It’s a striking new song cycle, and there’s much to absorb in the music, and I thought it succeeded beautifully. But would I want to see this material turned into an opera? Not really. I mean, I’d go, since I’m drawn to new operas like a moth to the burning flame, but I’d be skeptical walking in, especially if they follow the movie’s approach to Claudel’s life.
I also have seen that Adjani film, and though I liked it quite a lot, it struck me as a cruder, simpler version of Adjani’s first great triumph, Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H., (which I should probably mention is one of my all-time favorite movies). Both movies are based on the true life story of a woman with a complex, destructive relationship with a major French nineteenth-century artist (for one, her lover Auguste Rodin; for the other, her father, Victor Hugo), a relationship that ends with her in an insane asylum. But I felt the Truffaut film took a more complex and nuanced view: like Northanger Abbey, it is both an example of delirious delusional romanticism and an ironic view of delirious delusional romanticism.
The film bio of Camille Claudel, on the other hand, is one of those by now (and, actually, even then – the movie is almost 25 years old) semi-ritualistic tales of an alleged genius woman misused and destroyed by all those awful men, and I just don’t buy it. For one thing, I am deeply suspicious of the cult of Woman as Eternal Victim – look, it’s a short slip down the slope from “I am always a victim” to “You are indeed a helpless victim so let me put you safely away and I’ll tell you what to do for your own good.” Has everyone forgotten that major nineteenth-century French woman and artist (and major non-victim), George Sand? There were women artists even then who weren’t too fragile for their world.
The program features a photograph of the appropriate sculpture next to its song, and based on those it’s clear that Claudel was a sculptor of talent, but it’s also just as clear that she is “school of Rodin,” which makes it a bit ironic that in her growing paranoia she feared he was stealing her ideas, since that would pretty much just be taking back his own. (In a further irony, the difference between their works is that hers are more stereotypically “feminine” – smaller, more intimate, more domestic, perhaps a bit more fluid.)
There’s no real reason to think a diagnosis of mental illness was imposed on her to get her out of the way. And if we’re going to applaud her for striking out boldly into an unconventional path, how can we then condemn Rodin for not turning into a dutiful and conventional husband? He also had his own path to follow, and I imagine she wasn’t exactly a Sunday picnic to live with. Yes, women in nineteenth-century France who wanted to be artists had a lot to struggle against, but then nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie weren’t exactly thrilled when their sons became artists either (Claudel appears to have had a much easier time becoming a sculptor than Berlioz did becoming a musician).
I think what we really have in Claudel’s story is that figure who haunts the fearful corners of all artists’ imaginations: the talented artist who can’t quite carry it off. An artist’s life is incredibly difficult, and actual achievement should be appreciated, which is why I get irritated when we’re expected to cluck disapprovingly over a major artist like Rodin on the sentimental behalf of someone who is mostly remembered for her connection to him. (She may have had a tougher time because she was a woman, but she's also remembered because she was a woman: no one is making glam films pretending that Branwell Bronte was the real genius of that clan.)
Interestingly, for all the emphasis in Heggie’s program note about Claudel’s genius, there is almost nothing in the cycle about her life as an artist, except for a few lines in the first song (Rodin): “In the clay / I search with my fingers / to uncover something true” – not Scheer’s finest moment, in my opinion. The story told here is that of a troubled woman who longs for a man’s love and who longs for a child and who finally finds some sort of regretful peace in isolation from the world, and that's certainly a story worth telling, but it would have the same moving emotional effect if she had never gone near an artist's atelier.
It's a tribute to what Heggie, Scheer, DiDonato, and the quartet accomplished that I was so impressed despite my reservations about the subject matter. But I’m still skeptical of the direction a future expansion would take.
The exquisite encore was the glowing silvery dawn of Richard Strauss’s Morgen, sung by DiDonato and accompanied by the quartet as well as Heggie on piano.
They all gave place when the signing was done, and Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone. They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun's bright rays, and then went down. Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother's care, in the fulness of time, to Fanny's neglected children no less than to their own, and to leave that lady going into Society for ever and a day. Went down to give a tender nurse and friend to Tip for some few years, who was never vexed by the great exactions he made of her, in return for the riches he might have given her if he had ever had them, and who loving closed his eyes upon the Marshalsea and all its blighted fruits. They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the froward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar.
Charles Dickens, born two hundred years ago today.
I just heard that the great poet Wislawa Szymborska died last Wednesday, 1 February 2012. She was born in Poland on 2 July 1923 (a sentence which should convey some of the difficulties of her life). She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Here are two of her poems, from Poems New and Collected 1957-1997.
The translations are by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh.
Still Life with a Balloon Returning memories? No, at the time of death I'd like to see lost objects return instead. Avalanches of gloves, coats, suitcases, umbrellas – come, and I'll say at last: What good's all this? Safety pins, two odd combs, a paper rose, a knife, some string – come, and I'll say at last: I haven't missed you. Please turn up, key, come out, wherever you've been hiding, in time for me to say: You've gotten rusty, friend! Downpours of affidavits, permits and questionnaires, rain down and I will say: I see the sun behind you. My watch, dropped in a river, bob up and let me seize you – then, face to face, I'll say: Your so-called time is up. And lastly, toy balloon once kidnapped by the wind – come home, and I will say: There are no children here. Fly out the open window and into the wide world; let someone else shout "Look!" and I will cry.
View with a Grain of Sand We call it a grain of sand, but it calls itself neither grain nor sand. It does just fine without a name, whether general, particular, permanent, passing, incorrect, or apt. Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it. It doesn't feel itself seen and touched. And that it fell on the windowsill is only our experience, not its. For it, it is no different from falling on anything else with no assurance that it has finished falling or that it is falling still. The window has a wonderful view of a lake, but the view doesn't view itself. It exists in this world colorless, shapeless, soundless, odorless, and painless. The lake's floor exists floorlessly, and its shore exists shorelessly. Its water feels itself neither wet nor dry and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural. They splash deaf to their own noise on pebbles neither large nor small. And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless in which the sun sets without setting at all and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud. The wind ruffles it, its only reason being that it blows. A second passes. A second second. A third. But they're three seconds only for us. Time has passed like a courier with urgent news. But that's just our simile. The character is invented, his haste is make-believe, his news inhuman.