31 May 2012

Hungarians and holiness at the Berkeley Symphony


Several Thursdays ago I went to the Berkeley Symphony’s season finale in Zellerbach. They invited me, which was very nice of them, and since they offered me two tickets I was going to take ABW. Her back went out the day before the concert and since she could barely walk to the bathroom she sure wasn’t going to make it across the Bay on BART, so that was a shame. I tried to find another taker, but of course when most people hear that something is on a weeknight and doesn’t start until 8:00 they’ll just turn you down flat. I did end up making productive use of the second ticket, giving it to a friend who was trapped, as he put it, “next to a very large gentleman.” I was glad that I did not also qualify as very large, especially after my beer and pizza dinner at Jupiter, which was not only delicious, but helped to kill at least some of the time beforehand, pizza being one of those things that requires a fair amount of time. After that I moseyed over to Moe’s Books, where I spent about an hour (which still got me to Zellerbach about an hour before the concert started). I walked out of there with a copy of Thackeray’s Paris Sketch Book, Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree (romance among the parish choir!), Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead (relics!), and the New York Times Book Review, which I bought for the cover story on the new edition of Philip Larkin’s poems, an article which, I have just realized, has been sitting unread in the bag since I bought it, because that is the way my life is lived.


The concert was titled A Hungarian Excursion, though that only covered the Bartok and Kodaly works in the first half; the second half was the premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Holy Sisters, Part One. Conductor Joana Carneiro had injured her shoulder in a way that made conducting impossible, so Edwin Outwater stepped in at the last minute and did a wonderful job with what couldn’t have been an easy assignment, especially since there was no way he could have seen the Holy Sisters music ahead of time. I hadn't heard this orchestra before but was impressed by their sound. There were a couple of old women behind me who were the sort who had to comment compulsively on every obvious thing that happens around them but since they managed to keep it mostly under control during the music I was able to find them amusing and colorful rather than the first potential victims of a homicidal rage. They were quite taken with the dapper Mr Outwater and commented several times on how athletic he looked bounding up and down from the podium.


Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta was very attractive, but seemed like a pops piece to me, kind of light and flowing, with scenic countryside music and an ethnic flavor for those who like to latch on to that sort of thing. That was followed by Bartok’s dreamy Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. It seems to me I have heard this music somewhere else recently, but not as well played.

After the intermission we had the Frank piece, in which soprano Jessica Rivera, accompanied by the orchestra and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, sings (I’m quoting from the program) “Biblical texts arranged and adapted by Jose Tolentino de Mondonca (with further arrangements by Nilo Cruz and Gabriela Lena Frank)." The texts all center around women: Rachel, Sarah, Miriam the Prophetess, Hannah mother of Samuel, Mary of Magdala. Frank spoke beforehand. Sometimes an artist’s remarks are illuminating and interesting (and in fact I avoid readings unless the author is going to talk about and around his or her work; I mean, if it’s just reading the words on the page, I can stay home and do that myself). But generally I’m not a big fan of having composers telling us what they were trying to do when we could instead be listening to what they actually did. I also feel that if you’re not going to start your concert until 8:00, you shouldn’t take up time with this sort of thing. Frank seems very genial but I found her talk pointless, since it was all about how the piece came to be commissioned, in the sort of insidery tone that makes me feel very much like an outsider, and which is in any case mostly irrelevant to a listener, and anyway I had already read all the information in the program.


As for the piece itself, I enjoyed it, finding it smoothly flowing with a gentle radiance, but I also found it too unvaried in tone and mood for its length (roughly half an hour) and for the variety of women included. There was some vague reference in the talk or the program to the piece being about “women’s spirituality,” but the notion of some universal, one-size-fits-all spirituality generic to women strikes me as both improbable and uninteresting. Perhaps when Part Two is added the work will go in a different direction. The woman two seats over from me paged through her program for the duration, getting louder and louder with each flipped page. I have no idea what she was looking for, or if she ever found it, or why she was there at all when she was so afraid to listen.


(The pictures are all of the UC Berkeley campus.)

Haiku 2012/152

morning's last cool breath
before the sweaty slide down
to summer's embrace

30 May 2012

Haiku 2012/151

through dry itchy eyes
and roulades of short sneezes:
enjoying spring blooms

29 May 2012

Alexander's Feast



A few weeks ago at First Congregational Church in Berkeley I heard Philharmonia Baroque’s performance of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast; or, The Power of Musick, conducted by Nicholas McGegan. It’s a setting of Dryden’s poem, in which the banquet entertainment for Alexander the Great after he conquers Persia is a series of varied set pieces used by the musician Timotheus to control the conqueror’s emotional temperature. The ode then ends with a sudden switch to a later time and place, praising the superiority of St Cecilia’s heavenly music. It all sounds very random, like a baroque variety show, but it all flows smoothly and makes perfect emotional sense.

This work was I think one of the first Handel works I bought, so it’s only now, in describing how the ode moves, that I realized how random it is when it is described as a story rather than experienced as music. Hearing various recordings so many times engraves the work on your mind and it takes only a few notes to summon up entire sections which then recede back into memory. That can be a lot for a live performance to work against, but this one sure worked on me because I found the whole evening quite delightful. I have sometimes felt that Philharmonia Baroque tends to be too bouncy and cheerful in a way that slights the darker and grander side of Handel, but the grim and sad sections came through as grim and sad, though perhaps not enough for my companion, who announced afterward that they were all smiling too much up there.

The soloists were all very good. Dominique Labelle was quite sweet and then charmingly flirtatious as she teased out the lines describing how the prince “sigh’d and look’d, sigh’d and look’d, / Sigh’d and look’d, and sigh’d again.” Baritone Philip Cutlip sat oddly separated from the others, perhaps because he had the songs about such less sociable activities as drunkenness and revenge. My favorite part was the ringing tenor of Dann Coakwell.

There were a couple of odd minor mistakes in the program: the libretto says “Words by Newburgh Hamilton” but two pages earlier Scott Foglesong’s program note makes it clear that Hamilton only arranged John Dryden’s work. It seems odd to omit reference on the equivalent of a title page to the man who actually wrote the words. And in the program note Darius is described as Alexander’s father. Philip II of Macedon was Alexander’s father; Darius was father of Xerxes. Interestingly (though also irrelevantly), the ghost of Darius plays the same role as a reminder of fallen glory in what is probably the earliest surviving play in the western canon, Persians by Aeschylus.


Anyway, as I said I enjoyed the evening very much. I’d like to thank Philharmonia Baroque for the very excellent seats (my friend wondered why I was given such good seats; I told him that apparently no one important wanted them, which was lucky for us). I was especially grateful because a month or two before the concert, since I really wanted to hear this piece, I went on-line to buy a ticket and was frankly stunned by the extremely high prices. (To put the cost in some perspective, I heard three concerts by Magnificat for less than the price of one decent seat for this performance.) The thing is, I can think of many reasons why they would set those prices, but not so many reasons to justify my paying them. Their concerts are, in my experience, very well attended, so clearly lots of people can afford their tickets, but as far as I personally am concerned they’ve priced themselves out of the market. I don’t mean to sound crass by ending my reminiscence of aesthetic delight with a complaint about money, but here’s where bloggers and other nonprofessional reviewers can offer a perspective you can't get from professionals, who are used to receiving complimentary tickets. Professional reviewers talking about ticket prices is like a celibate clergy talking about birth control: they’re entitled to their opinion, but it’s not based on any personal risk. I feel a little awkward expressing sticker shock since I was given tickets, but I do feel I needed to mention it.

Haiku 2012/150

out this train window
perhaps this time I will see
something yet unseen

28 May 2012

Anatol and the eternal machine


I've started going to the Aurora Theater pretty regularly, but I decided to skip Annie Baker’s Body Awareness, because I have minimal interest in “hot button” theater, and whatever interest I had in seeing the show dwindled as the talk-show issues piled up in the plot description – women’s body images! same-sex couples with children! children with Asperger’s Syndrome! (or some other trendy syndrome – I know that sounds brutal and dismissive of people struggling with real problems, but in this theatrical context it’s also accurate). I’m not usually drawn to plays by their plots, but you have to start somewhere in deciding whether to attend or not; given world enough and time I might have taken a chance, but of course none of us have world and time enough. Nothing I heard about the play made me regret not going.

I did go to Anatol, an Arthur Schnitzler play newly translated by Margret Schaefer and directed by Barbara Oliver. Many years ago in Boston I saw a production of his best-known play, La Ronde, which is a series of two-person scenes, beginning with a prostitute and a soldier, then moving on to the soldier and his married mistress, then the mistress and her husband, then the husband and whoever he's sleeping with. . . . I’m going by memory so I may not have the personnel and the order of the scenes quite right, but you see how the chain works: we ascend the social scale person by person and betrayal by betrayal, until in the final scene we plunge back into the lower depths, as we see some high-level aristocrat who is patronizing (in every sense) the prostitute from the first scene. Running through all the social divisions and sexual liaisons is the fear of spreading venereal disease – people make social distinctions, viruses do not. In the production I saw the audience moved from one partitioned scene to another, intensifying the voyeuristic quality of the experience. I think having the audience rather than the actors move is kind of a trendy thing now, but it was pretty unusual then. I recall the play being very dark, physically as well spiritually, with a sardonic tone, and sadness beneath.

I had a similar experience of Schnitzler’s work watching Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which was adapted from a short novel by him. I liked the movie very much. I realize not everyone feels that way; my theory was that your reaction to that movie came out of your feelings about sex. If your experience was sunny and positive, you wouldn’t like the movie; if it was tense and troubled, you would. All this is to give you an idea of why I wanted to see Anatol, and what I was expecting from it.

The show was entertaining enough, but much lighter than I expected. Schnitzler wrote a series of short plays about Anatol, a man about town in early twentieth-century Vienna, whose main interest in life is his series of love affairs. Each play centers on a different woman, but his worldly-wise friend Max is a constant presence, counseling and mocking his idealistic friend. We were given six of these short plays, three before and three after the short intermission. Each play is roughly twenty minutes – that is, roughly the length of a sitcom, but it wasn’t only the length that kept me thinking of sitcoms.

There’s also the light tone, with the occasional deeper touch, and the way the characters keep falling into the same patterns as we chuckle in affectionate recognition exactly because familiarity tells us in advance how they will behave. When Anatol invites his current flame to an expensive dinner so that he can break up with her, we already know (or at least, I already knew) that not only will she show up intending to break up with him, but that he will feel not relief but comical outrage. In fact I think I saw that particular story on Frasier. I kept thinking of that show during the performance, possibly because of the hovering spirit of Viennese psychoanalysis. And I was never much of a Frasier fan; episodes frequently had a creamy soft center that I disliked, and I felt that the cultural and intellectual interests of the two brothers were mostly there to be mocked and belittled, as surefire evidence of their pomposity and pretentiousness. But at least Frasier was more consistently funny than Anatol.

Max, who is, in sitcom terms, pretty much the sassy gay best friend, is supposed to be the main purveyor of cynical wisecracks. He constantly purses his lips, cocks the eyebrows just so, adopts a knowing air, contorts his face into a preparatory moue, and otherwise clanks through various mannered machinations in order to squeeze out a weak little squirt of wit. The material just isn’t there; the effect is supposed to be terribly clever and shocking and generally Oscar Wilde-ish, but  . . . well, it's not. Initially I thought Tim Kniffin as Max was giving a terrible, affected performance. Then I realized that I have met people exactly like this – people who spend their lives giving a bad performance , imitating some (usually stereotypical) role they just don’t have the personality or wit to carry off successfully. (Who knows if they ever speak or move naturally, or if they even have a natural nature?) So I then started to think that maybe Kniffin was giving a really brilliantly satirical portrayal. I’m still not entirely sure whether he was terrible or brilliant, but since the result of my mental dispute was that I often couldn’t take my eyes off him, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

Delia MacDougall played all six women, nicely differentiating each of them, and if I occasionally found her effects too broad, I think the fault was Schnitzler’s. She was quite poignant as a married society woman who runs into Anatol on the street while he’s trying to buy a Christmas gift for his new, lower-class girlfriend. She has strong feelings for him herself but lacks the daring (or, perhaps, is too clear-sighted) to act on them. This episode was wisely placed right before the intermission; I know it made me decide it was worth staying to see the rest. The actors were just slipping off stage and the mood from this evocative interlude was still hanging in the air when it was promptly shattered by the shriveled bird-woman sitting to my right, who announced, “That was a good one.”

Mike Ryan played Anatol. When he first walked out, I thought, uh, I don’t think so – he was short, stocky, balding, with a pug nose; not at all what I expected from the romantic lead. But he played Anatol with such sensitive charm, such tender sincerity, such endearing idealism and naivete, that within ten minutes I was completely convinced that all those women did, in fact, find him irresistible. (I also won’t rule out the possibility that all those women are less superficial than I am.) That's theater magic!

And that was Anatol, and Anatol. I felt a bit let down by Schnitzler. But when you concentrate on a character like Anatol, a person of privilege, leisure, and cultivation; a person, most of all, of a certain class and income, both of them apparently impervious to shock or loss  when you concentrate on such a person, things are going to slide along on a fairly even keel. Schnitzler's original audience may have enjoyed these love fantasias as a refuge from the world, and it was certainly pleasant enough, but I can get pleasant at home. Is a bit of syphilis or the occasional love-suicide too much to ask for as my evening's entertainment?

Haiku 2012/149

lying late in bed
foggy like the morning sky
a mourning dove coos

27 May 2012

Haiku 2012/148

star jasmine blooming
star-filled skies float by my feet
unwaking walking

26 May 2012

Haiku 2012/147

shells found in childhood,
washed up again from storage
I recede, shells stay

25 May 2012

24 May 2012

Haiku 2012/145

do waves feel random?
driven by the sightless moon,
dashed on jagged rocks

23 May 2012

22 May 2012

Haiku 2012/143

flat rows of tile roofs
morning, but all is still still
no light but the dawn

21 May 2012

20 May 2012

Haiku 2012/141

beneath spring's bright greens
lies a twisted black-bone branch
waiting for winter

19 May 2012

Haiku 2012/140

some days should be shot
in pearly-toned black-and-white
with pensive music

18 May 2012

17 May 2012

16 May 2012

Haiku 2012/137

shutting the window
against beautiful bird songs:
sometimes you choose sleep

15 May 2012

14 May 2012

13 May 2012

11 May 2012

Haiku 2012/132

from this high window
that bird's sleek black wing blots out
little crowds below

10 May 2012

Haiku 2012/131

mindful of effects
birds fall blank during daytime:
their songs need the night

09 May 2012

08 May 2012

07 May 2012

Haiku 2012/128

garbage trucks rattling
down empty dawn streets grabbing
what we once valued

06 May 2012

05 May 2012

04 May 2012

03 May 2012

more for May

No sooner had I posted my May preview than I learned there was more . . . because there's always more, isn't there?

The Kronos Quartet (with special guests Tanya Tagaq and Van-Anh Vanessa Vo) presents a program called Women's Voices at the Yerba Buena Center on 11 - 12 May, featuring works and performances by Vo, Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Anderson, Nicole Lizee, and Derek Charke; more information here.

On 25 May at the Berkeley Art Museum you can celebrate what would have been Lou Harrison's 95th birthday with a program of his music including his awesome setting of Buddhist texts translated into Esperanto, La Koro Sutro; more information here.

And the San Francisco International Arts Festival is running 2 - 20 May, with lots of theater, dance, and music; it all looks interesting and you can look for yourself here.

Haiku 2012/124

leaves stir in the breeze
young shoots sit expectantly
they said it would rain

02 May 2012

01 May 2012