30 January 2013

Shotgun's Woyzeck

Last Thursday I finally made it to the Shotgun Players production of Woyzeck, with music and lyrics by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, directed by Mark Jackson, based on a concept by Robert Wilson. Originally I was supposed to go the first week of January, but I got sick, which was not how I wanted to start the new year. Luckily for me the run had been extended and the box office was able to  switch my reservation to another day. The Shotgun Box Office folks are always extremely helpful.

I had really been looking forward to this show. First of all: Woyzeck! Also, I had really enjoyed the previous Tom Waits/Robert Wilson work I had seen, The Black Rider, which ACT presented a few years ago (like Woyzeck, that was also based on a work better known as a German opera; in that case, Weber's Der Freischutz). I thought it was a cool bold choice for a relatively small theater. Its appearance on the schedule was one of the reasons I became a subscriber.

So sadly I have to say I just didn't connect with the show. I can't say I disliked it; in fact there were many things to like. But, as with their production of Sondheim's Assassins, the show was brutally, inexplicably amplified. Why? Why, in a theater as small as the Ashby Stage, would you need to do that? The advantages of a space like that are intimacy and immediacy and a sense of involvement: why would you sacrifice all that for a pointless wall of aggressive sound that pushes you back from the performance rather than draws you in? At times the amplification blurred the words. All the performers had those ugly little wires taped to their faces with what I guess is the power source bulging out of their back waistbands, which doesn't exactly help the illusion that these people I'm watching are anything but contemporary performers. I guess that's fine if you're going for that Brechtian distancing effect, but it really pushed me back from any emotional involvement with the characters.

It doesn't help that the ending is changed: in this version the child of Marie and Woyzeck is still a babe in arms, and so there is no heart-breaking ending when the little boy goes out to play with the other children and it turns out what they're doing is looking at his mother's dead body. She still dies - in fact, I realized that this is the third Mark Jackson show I've seen in the past few years in which the female lead has her throat slit, though in the other two (Miss Julie and Faust, Part One) she does it herself. The night I saw the play the Marie, Madeline H.D. Brown, was sick. Her understudy was fine, but I've really liked Brown in the other things I've seen her in recently, so I was disappointed not to see her. (I'm afraid I don't know the understudy's name; the substitution must have been a last-minute thing, since Jackson announced they would need to delay the start of the show by a few minutes so she could get ready, and there was no paper slip in the program or any announcement that gave her name.)

Tom Waits is a great songwriter, and a very distinctive one, conjuring up a very specific world and worldview in his songs, but it did cross my mind that maybe that world is just a shade too wistful and picturesque, just a shade too scruffy low-life colorful, for the harsh cruelty and caustic absurdity of Buchner's play. I thought Kevin Clarke as the Doctor and Anthony Nemirovsky as  the Captain were the best at capturing the cruelty and the comedy. The rest of the cast was also strong (Andy Alabran as Karl, an Idiot; Alex Crowther as Woyzeck; Joe Estlack as the Drum Major; Josh Pollock as the Carnival Announcer;  Kenny Toll as Andres; Beth Wilmurt as Margaret). But I just couldn't get past the awful fake sound.

29 January 2013

Birtwistle weekend in Berkeley

Cal Performances had a lot going on this last Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, and though I was tempted by the Joffrey Ballet down in Zellerbach Hall I ended up at two mostly-modern music concerts up at Hertz. Both of them featured works by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, whose music I had previously only heard on CD.

The Eco Ensemble, conducted by David Milnes, played Saturday night. I felt some trepidation as I saw many students filling up the seats, having vivid and unpleasant memories of the weird rude audience at the first Eco Ensemble concert, but this time, at least from where I sat (I slipped into the front row right before the concert started), the audience was attentive and appreciative. The Ecos ambled out and there seemed to be some mix-up or mishap with the set-up, since there was some low-key discussion back and forth and one of the players turned to us and suggested we talk among ourselves. They got it straightened out shortly whatever it was and launched into Birtwistle's Secret Theatre. It's a rich, dense, fun thirty or so minutes. About five wind instruments stood off to the right and jetted and fluted about above the thick, slower flow of the strings. At times I was reminded of some great slow river-beast crawling forward while the bright birds swooped above and around. Layering seems to be a major technique for Birtwistle, in ways that are easier to appreciate during a live performance as opposed to a recording.

After the intermission came a showing of Jean Epstein's 1928 French silent film La Chute de la Maison Usher, with a new score by Ivan Fedele (who came up afterwards to take a bow). The film is pretty artsy and weird and wonderful, as befits both experimental silent films and anything based on Poe, who has always been admired by the French (sometimes more than he was in his own country). Oddly and amusingly, though the very brief English synopsis at the beginning of the movie referred, as in Poe's original story, to Roderick Usher and his sister, the film changed her into his wife; according to the program, this was to avoid the overtones of incest, which I thought were kind of the point. (In fact I wonder if one reason Debussy was drawn to this story for his unfinished opera was because of such hidden links to Wagner's Ring: incest, complications of love, betrayal, and degeneration, followed by a cataclysmic finale.) The intertitles were in the original French. It would have been helpful to have a print with English subtitles as well; I got the gist of each title, but sometimes there were too many words and too little time. But that's a small matter.

I'm pretty sure Epstein took a very good look at Murnau's Nosferatu before making this film; there was a similar eerie carriage ride to a haunted destination, with the local villagers reluctant to go anywhere near; waving bare tree branches scraping like fingers across the gray skies; a soft ghostly grayness playing between the light and shade. There are abrupt transitions and unsettling cuts in the editing and sudden close-ups of hands or faces and pale candles dripping down low. Fedele's music is moody and circular and fits the film very well. Oddly there was less overt drama in this score for what is after all an intensely dramatic plot than in the Birtwistle piece, the theatricality of whose secret theater was very evident.

I was back up at Hertz on Sunday afternoon for pianist Nicolas Hodges. It was a recital of high virtuosity, but it's a virtuosity of a deeper dazzle than the flash and fireworks usually associated with the term. Though he is now bearded and therefore looking a little more Bohemian than the last time I saw him, he is still completely no-nonsense in his presentation: he strides out quickly, sits down and starts playing immediately, without swaying or rocking or humming or any kind of drama outside of the music he's making. He started off with Debussy's Etudes, Book 1, starting from the simple exercises with the amusing dissonant note insisting on inserting itself and then shimmering and dazzling through to the end. That was followed by Elliot Carter's tuneful Two Thoughts About the Piano, like a clear river.There was extremely enthusiastic applause from the audience when he finished and when Hodges came out for the third bow he extended his arms to each side to still the clapping and told us that that was the first time he had played Carter's music since his death late last year, making it the first time he couldn't call the composer up to the stage, so he asked us to give a round of applause "for Elliott." We obliged. I love it when artists do generous things like that. I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Rolando Villazon because after he sang Dichterliebe at Cal several years ago he picked up the score and gestured to it, directing the applause towards Schumann.

After the intermission Hodges played Busoni's Giga, Bolero e Variazione, Study after Mozart, from An Die Jugend, Book III. It's based on a little dance tune from Nozze di Figaro. This twentieth-century spin on an older form led suitably up to the west coast premiere of Birtwistle's Gigue Machine (which was co-commissioned by Cal Performances and Carnegie Hall). As with the Secret Theatre, a bright, sharp set of high notes dart above a deeper, smoother, steadier base. The piece starts slowly with sort of a stuttering note and rapidly grows in complexity only to die back down and then start up again before dying back down for the final time. A lot of simultaneous motion is packed into a relatively short time (between ten and fifteen minutes). It actually sounded more organic than machine-like to me. I hope I'll get to hear more live Birtwistle soon. Debussy book-ended the recital, with Etudes, Book II following the Birtwistle. It was an excellent Sunday afternoon.

28 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/5

The Erl-King

O who rides by night thro' the woodland so wild?
It is the fond father embracing his child;
And close the boy nestles within his loved arm,
To hold himself fast, and to keep himself warm.

"O father, see yonder! see yonder!" he says;
"My boy, upon what dost thou fearfully gaze?"
"O, 'tis the Erl-King with his crown and his shroud."
"No, my son, it is but a dark wreath of the cloud."

{The Erl-King Speaks}
"O come and go with me, thou loveliest child;
By many a gay sport shall thy time be beguiled;
My mother keeps for thee many a fair toy,
And many a fine flower shall she pluck for my boy."

"O father, my father, and did you not hear
The Erl-King whisper so low in my ear?"
"Be still, my heart's darling - my child, be at ease;
It was but the wild blast as it sung thro' the trees."

"O wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest boy?
My daughter shall tend thee with care and with joy;
She shall bear thee so lightly thro' wet and thro' wild,
And press thee, and kiss thee, and sing to my child."

"O father, my father, and saw you not plain
The Erl-King's pale daughter glide past thro' the rain?"
"Oh yes, my loved treasure, I knew it full soon;
It was the grey willow that danced to the moon."

"O come and go with me, no longer delay,
Or else, silly child, I will drag thee away."
"O father! O father! now, now, keep your hold,
The Erl-King has seized me - his grasp is so cold!"

Sore trembled the father; he spurr'd thro' the wild,
Clasping close to his bosom his shuddering child;
He reaches his dwelling in doubt and in dread,
But, clasp'd to his bosom, the infant was dead.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Sir Walter Scott

This famous ballad is given here in a contemporary translation (Goethe was older than Scott, having been born in 1749 as against Scott's 1771, but he was also longer-lived, since both died in 1832). It's not surprising that this atmospheric German tale of the uncanny should appeal to the man who made the wild moors and men of Scotland a staple of Romanticism. Every time I'm at a bookstore or supermarket and I pass the romance novels and I see covers featuring a brawny tartaned outlaw clasping a fearless lass, I'm impressed once again by the enduring influence of Scott. His English version maintains the original's steady on-driving force (reminiscent of the father's galloping horse) and the sudden stop short at the final word: dead. In the eerie storm-filled night it's unclear whether the sick child is hallucinating the spectral Erl-King and his misty daughter or whether the menacing spirits are real. In either case the father's love and fear are definitely real.

For me the most haunting line in the poem is ". . . and saw you not plain / The Erl-King's pale daughter glide past thro' the rain?" Given the multiplicity of characters (father, son, Erl-King, Erl-King's daughter, galloping horse), the evocative atmosphere, and the primal fear at the poem's heart (death is stealing my loved child), it's not surprising that this poem has appealed to so many composers (Schubert's setting is the most famous).

Everyman's Library has an excellent series of books called Pocket Poetry, some of which are selections of individual poets and some of which are anthologies. I found this version in one of the latter, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the poet John Hollander.

UPDATE: Let me draw your attention to the comments, where Lisa has posted a link to her blog entry in which she has collected several videos of different musical performances as well as the original German text.

26 January 2013

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

The shortest month brings maybe the busiest performance schedule this season:

West Edge Opera (formerly Berkeley Opera) presents Poppea, an adaptation of Monteverdi's great L'incoronazione di Poppea, 1-3 February; they're now out in El Cerrito, but are easily accessible by BART.

The Lamplighters present Princess Ida, 25 January to 17 February, but that run is shorter than it seems since it's only a few days in each location, and since the locations are Walnut Creek, San Francisco, Livermore, and Mountain View, chances are only one weekend is going to work (or not) for you. Anyway, more information here.

Berkeley is the place to be for people who like singers and/or string instruments; Cal Performances presents, among other things, bass-baritone Eric Owens on 10 February, violinist Christian Tetzlaff on 12 February, violinist Leonidas Kavakos on 17 February, guitarist Miloš on 19 February, new-music group the Eco Ensemble on 23 February, and soprano Susanna Phillips on 24 February.

On 19 February you can see the west coast premiere of Green Sneakers, a nineteen-part song cycle (also billed as a "mini-opera") for baritone and string quartet by Ricky Ian Gordon, reflecting on and mourning the death through AIDS of his lover. The performance features Jesse Blumberg as soloist along with the Del Sol Quartet; John de Los Santos stages the piece. Ricky Ian Gordon will discuss the work at a 7:00 pre-concert lecture, and the performance starts at 7:30. Be warned that it's out at Fort Mason's Southside Theater; tickets available here.

The San Francisco Playhouse presents The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, 29 January to 16 March.

At the Berkeley Symphony, Joana Carneiro conducts the world premiere of Alfama by Andreia Pinto-Correia as well as Lutoslawski's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (with soloist Lynn Harrell) and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances; that's 7 February.

Charles Dutoit returns to the San Francisco Symphony to conduct Poulenc's Stabat Mater and Berlioz's Te Deum, with soloists Erin Wall and Paul Groves, 6-10 February; Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Prokofiev 5, the Liszt Piano Concerto No 2 (with soloist Stephen Hough), and the west coast premiere of Magnus Lindberg's EXPO, 14-17 February.

Philharmonia Baroque explores the classical style through works by Haydn, Mozart, and Johann Christian Bach; 13-17 February, in their usual various locations.

Opera Parallele, often praised here under their previous name (Ensemble Parallele), presents the local premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar, about the assassination of poet Federico Garcia Lorca, 15-17 February at Yerba Buena.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents Silent Winter, a one-day festival (the day is 16 February) at the Castro Theater, with an awesome line-up: the 1916 Snow White that inspired Disney's classic film, a series of Buster Keaton shorts (you can't go wrong with Keaton's silents), Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (speaking of influencing Disney - the artists behind Aladdin clearly took a good look at this movie), Mary Pickford in My Best Girl (I haven't seen this one, but I'm going to go ahead and guess that America's Original Sweetheart is plucky and endearing in it), and Murnau's Faust (you also can't go wrong with Murnau's silents). There is live musical accompaniment to all the films; times and more information in general here.

San Francisco Performances presents Hilary Hahn playing Faure and Bach along with some of the short new works from her recent commissioning project, 9 February; Alek Shrader singing what appears to be a bit of everything, 15 February; and Thomas Hampson singing Schumann, Barber, and the world premiere of Michael Hersch's Domicilium: A song cycle after poems of Thomas Hardy, 26 February.

Old First Concerts presents the Wooden Fish Ensemble in a concert of contemporary and traditional works of a Pacific-Rimmish nature, on 10 February; details here.

The San Francisco Ballet presents The Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's Nijinsky, 13-19 February. I really loved Neumeier's Little Mermaid.

23 January 2013

Marnie Breckenridge at the Conservatory of Music

Last Saturday I was at the elegant concert hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to hear an alumni recital featuring soprano Marnie Breckenridge (class of '96) and pianist Kristin Pankonin (class of '89). I've enjoyed Breckenridge before in several different roles with several local companies, and she is featured in Opera Parallele's upcoming production of Golijov's Ainadamar. The audience was obviously familiar with the performers and gave them prolonged and warm welcoming applause.

Breckenridge is a beautiful Hitchcock blonde and wore a peacock-blue sheath of Grecian pleats. She opened with two Strauss songs from the Brentano Lieder, giving us an ecstatic An die Nacht and a flirtatious Amor. The entire rest of the recital featured American composers (many living, and in the audience) and so it was in English, which was great; it's surprisingly rare for an American audience to hear a recital where they don't have to keep checking what the words mean. Nonetheless there was more program-rustling and, even more annoyingly, program-folding than there should have been; other than that the audience was fairly well-behaved, though there was one rude idiot who brought her dog. This is not the first time I've seen this happen, and I wish concert halls would crack down on admitting those annoying creatures (you can take that to refer to either the dogs or their owners).

I had thought that the entire recital was going to be built around the theme of a woman's emotional journey (like the recent Kate Royal recital), but officially that was only the second half. Well, that's what happens when you only skim concert announcements, but such skimming has lately been my wont, since after all these years of concert-going I like an evening to hold as many surprises as possible. After the Strauss lieder there were four songs by Henry Mollicone from Seven Songs, setting playful and meditative poems by Walter de la Mare, David McCord, and Emily Dickinson (twice). Breckenridge was very charming as de la Mare's melting snowflake. It's material well-suited to her voice, which is large and pure with an agreeably frosty sparkle to it. I had moved to a vacant seat in the front row, my row of choice, but I did sometimes wonder, given the size of the voice, if I should have stayed further back.

The first half ended with a moving rendition of Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. I had coincidentally heard it with piano rather than orchestra for the first time that morning, as one of three versions on the last disc of the set Samuel Barber: Historical Recordings 1935-1960. I do miss in the piano version the flowing lilt given by the string instruments, but Pankonin really brought out the gentle moodiness and deeper uncertainty of the piece, which showed excellent control on her part since she was clearly close to tears at the end. I liked the very slightly astringent quality Breckenridge brought to the words, which emphasized the questioning and uncertainty of Agee's narrator ("but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am"). It's very easy to get lost in the lushness of the piece and the picturesque word-painting otherwise.

After the intermission we had the woman's emotional journey, though truthfully the whole recital could have fit into that theme. As with Royal's recital, there were different groupings; this time it was Longing, Chaos, and Transcendence, which I thought were well-chosen categories. The first poem was Carl Sandburg's I Sang to You and the Moon, set in a longing and mournful style by Kurt Erickson, but all the other poets were women: Edna St Vincent Millay, Anne Sexton, Dorothy Parker, Emily Dickinson again (of course!), and Gini Savage. (There is, just to be accurate, a tiny scrap of Lewis Carroll amid the Dorothy Parker in David Garner's wistful and amusing Star Light, Star Bright.) All of the composers, though, were men. And all are local: in addition to Erickson and Garner, they were Jake Heggie, David Conte, and Gordon Getty. Not to belabor the comparisons with Royal, since both methods were rewarding, but in contrast to her more detailed, novelistic development, a sort of bildungsroman in song, Breckenridge's choices reflected more general states; I felt the moods in her categories could erupt into each other: a burst of transcendence during longing, for instance.

Chaos, not surprisingly, was represented by Anne Sexton (Her Kind and Ringing the Bells), though she also appeared in Longing (Us). I've occasionally dipped into Sexton the past few years, and I am not sure her work is aging well. It definitely suffers when paired with the acerbic wit and crystalline skill of Dickinson, who can turn a feather duster into a query into the existence of God. But Conte's Sexton settings (from Sexton Songs) brought out the best in the poems; I found them much more convincing when sung than when I read them beforehand in the program. I particularly liked Ringing the Bells, which uses sort of a "this is the house that Jack built" rhythm to describe a handbell chorus in a mental asylum for women. Breckenridge brought out the emotional turmoil just below the narrator's deadened surface.

The only other music by Getty that I've heard was a section of Plump Jack performed at a Merola Concert several years ago. It was based on the "we have heard the chimes at midnight" scene of Henry IV part 2, and I did not like it at all. There are subtle quicksilver emotions throughout that scene, and I thought the music flattened out all of them. But I very much liked the Dickinson songs from his White Election, The going from a world we know and, particularly, Beauty crowds me. Not surprisingly Heggie's songs had the richest and most sensuous settings; under Longing we had his setting of St Vincent Millay's generous Not in a silver casket; Transcendence and the formal program ended with his setting of Joy Alone (Connection) by Gini Savage; the ecstatic thrill of voice, piano, and setting more than made up for what I felt were fairly uninteresting words. Then there was much applause and the handing up of several beautiful bouquets to both women and then there were two encores: a return to Barber and Agee for Sure on this shining night and a setting of Dickinson's If I can stop one heart from breaking, / I shall not live in vain, which I think is, however touching and true its sentiment, not one of her greater aesthetic successes. I'm afraid I don't know who did the setting, which I liked.

I very much enjoyed both Royal's and Breckenridge's different approaches, both of them rich and deeply personal, to portraying a woman's emotional life. It's a great way to use the intimacy of the recital form. And I hope some baritone or tenor will now feel inspired to create a similar program exploring the emotional journey of men.

22 January 2013

The San Francisco Symphony battles the Boyg

Last Thursday I was at Davies Hall for the first time this season, for San Francisco Symphony's Peer Gynt program, which combined actors and singers and video projections in a traversal of Ibsen's great play, along with some of the orchestral music written for it (including sections of Grieg's famous score, written at Ibsen's request, and more recent pieces by the late Alfred Schnittke and by Robin Holloway, who was there in person). This program had jumped out at me when the season was announced about a year ago. Ibsen's play, the last he wrote in verse before turning to the prose plays that helped create modern theater, isn't staged very often, mostly because (like its obvious model, Goethe's Faust) it's very long and very weird, combining realistic social drama, the supernatural, political satire, dream and fantasy sequences, myth-making and intimate psychological analysis, working as both biography and allegory.

Key Ibsen themes run through it: an intense examination of the roles men and women play in relation to each other (and how natural urges battle against social structures), the influence of one generation on another, the role of the dreamer or idealist in a workaday world, the danger and the necessity of one's illusions and delusions. Peer is a fascinating character: sort of an Everyman (which doesn't mean he's likable, exactly, though I don't find him unsympathetic) as well as an outsider; a dreamer who achieves (and loses) great worldly success; he's a habitual liar who spins out great fantastic adventures that enthrall his listeners, even those who realize he's repeating stories they told him, but he also can tell blunt and cruel truths that others don't want to hear (as when he runs off with Ingrid on her wedding day; shortly thereafter he tires of her and she berates him, but he points out that she was completely willing to run off with him and he doesn't owe her anything - if she expected him to turn into a solid bourgeois husband, well, who's the delusional dreamer in that pair?). He's a selfish man who is constantly, desperately, seeking to hold on to his self.

I have seen the play performed live: ACT did it some time in the early to mid-1970s. I believe it was either complete or nearly complete (I think it was around four hours, which was a bit much for the other high school students with whom I saw it). At this point I don't remember much about the production except for the scene in which Peer's mother Ase dies. And now available on DVD there's a version starring a seventeen-year-old Charlton Heston in his first film. Directed by David Bradley, it's mostly silent with Grieg as the soundtrack. It's an amateur film, shot in Michigan and featuring mostly local college students. It's surprisingly effective, and Heston is very good: lots of times I'd look at the other actors and think, you're really an American college student from the 1940s in fancy dress, but I always thought of him as Peer. There's also a ballet version, which is where the Schnittke music comes from. In short, it's a story that, for various reasons, mostly practical, is often shortened or adapted.

I re-read it before the Symphony show. I'm never sure if that's an advantage or not in these situations: it brings fresh knowledge and context to what I'm seeing, but also makes me maybe too aware of what's been cut or changed. Quite a lot was cut to fit the story within a normal symphonic evening of slightly over two hours. In the spirit of the original play, the Symphony's performance was wide-ranging and episodic, even a bit disconnected; disappointing decisions jostled next to brilliant successes; sometimes it seemed like a play with eruptions of music, and other times like an orchestral piece interrupted by dialogue. I gathered from those around me on Thursday that there was a wide range of reactions, from enthralled to appalled. I've dropped out of most discussions and held off on reading most  reviews until I posted this, but I gather that they cover as wide a range. On the whole I enjoyed the evening quite a lot, despite some reservations. But if the evening wasn't a total success, it was at least the right sort of failure (well, I didn't think it was a failure at all, but you see what I mean): ambitious, thoughtful, new, and creative. Peer Gynt was a particularly bold choice for the Symphony, since I suspect it appeals more to serious theater-goers than to symphony-goers, and there is less overlap among those audiences than one might expect or hope for.

The things I didn't like: the actors were brutally amplified. I've complained about amplification frequently; it flattens the sound and tends to make people sit back rather than lean forward. I do understand that Davies is acoustically tricky and there might be problems with unmiked spoken dialogue in that cavernous space, but two people talking in a normal tone should not be louder than a symphony orchestra. The smashing sound of a large orchestra is one that, sadly, we can't appreciate as much as nineteenth-century audiences did, since all you have to do now is turn the dial up. But at times the volume of the actors shoved the orchestra too far into the background.

Having embraced the evil technology of amplification, the Symphony really should embrace the good technology of surtitles. I've never understood why they don't use them regularly. When the chorus joined in as awesome trolls in Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, it was unclear if they were singing words that meant something or just troll-like sounds.The dialogue was in English, but when Solveig sang, as when the trolls sang, it's back to the original Norwegian, and - well, how many fluent Norwegian speakers are in the usual Bay Area audience? At least Joelle Harvey's lovely singing was not amplified. (Solveig is basically Peer Gynt's Marguerite, to continue the Faust analogy, with the added acerbic twist that at the end, during his ambiguous redemption (or, possibly, his indefinitely deferred damnation), it is strongly implied that the reason he has no Self is because he wasn't more like her - selflessly loving and giving; as several religious traditions hold, in order to gain yourself, you must lose yourself.)

I wish the play-pruning hadn't been so severe in some sections; in particular, Peer's dead father, a genial drunkard who pissed away the family fortune, is important to understanding him, and most of the references to him were gone. There was enough with his mother to give you a sense of their relationship, so Ase's death had the power it should have. But most of the play after her death up until the appearance of the mysterious Button-Molder was gone. It was replaced by what was basically a tone-poem by Holloway, which I enjoyed, but if the action is cut then the music makes its own journey, which may or may not be the journey on which Ibsen sent his protagonist. Having the play fresh in my mind, and assisted by the beautiful projections, I could tell when Peer was in the desert or on his ocean voyage, but Ibsen's words shape and suggest the meanings of those travels in a way you wouldn't necessarily get from the music unless you knew the play well. I enjoyed Holloway's piece, which slips easily among sounds and moods, but it was a bit out-sized: it replaced roughly a third of the play, and at around 25 minutes it was easily the longest single piece of music in the performance. There was a repeated melody that sounded to me like a bit straight out of Peter and the Wolf. When the Symphony performed excerpts from Holloway's opera Clarissa, the fire was represented by a very extensive quotation of Walkure's Magic Fire music, so that sort of quotation is a thing Holloway does, but I'm not sure what was going on there.

When the Woman in Green (the Troll-King's daughter, played by Peabody Southwell) re-appears with Peer's son, she is supposed to be an ugly old woman - that's why Peer doesn't recognize her at first. But on Thursday she was just as uber-hot as in her first appearance, so it didn't make sense that Peer claimed not to recognize her. I wouldn't have had the Boyg chuckle with horror-movie menace: that gives it a certain malevolent definition, and I think the enigmatic blankness of the formless, unseen Boyg is what makes it so terrifying and haunting. (Is it something inside Peer, or outside? Is it trying to destroy him with its advice, or help him?) The program note claims that the Boyg also appears as the Button-Molder, the lean priest, and the ghastly passenger on Peer's voyage home: it's unclear from the phrasing if this is specifically Schnittke's interpretation or is being put forward as inherent in Ibsen. I think it's a possible but not a necessary interpretation, and personally I feel the Boyg is separate in function and meaning from those other characters (the ghastly ghostly passenger, by the way, fell victim to the extensive cutting).

On to the things I did like. The actors, despite having to work against the amplification, were all strong. Ben Huber showed Peer's uncertainty and longing as well as his headstrong fantastical ways, and moved convincingly from wild boy to cynical man. Rose Portillo as his mother captured Ase's love for and frustration with and complaining about and defense of her wayward boy. In addition to the ones I've already named, there was also good work by Jesse Merlin as Solveig's Father and the Troll King, Brian Ruppenkamp as the Brat and the Lean One, Mark Deakins as the Boyg and the Button-Molder, Janice Lancaster Larsen as Ingrid, and Keith Perry, Alexandra Sessler, and Dianne M. Terp as wedding guests. James Darrah was director and production designer, and Adam Larsen was video designer.

I loved the chance to hear so much of the possible Peer music; I knew the Grieg but not the others. It was always immediately clear which of the three composers was being performed, and that eclecticism is very much in the spirit of the play. I loved Schnittke's eerie vaporous Boyg music. Grieg's Morning Mood sounded as fresh and lovely as sunrise on a spring meadow, the way it was meant to sound before it became a cartoon signifier of spring dawn. It was great to hear the Hall of the Mountain King with chorus. I loved the vast irregular white shape on which the projections were shown; it looked like both mountains and mist. The projections themselves were striking and well done, moving from black-and-white to color and from church interior to lush forest to vast ocean and many points in between. The long narrow stage space was used well, with the occasional addition of action up the aisles.

Mostly, I just really love that they did this at all.

21 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/4

This week's poem comes from the Tales of the Elders of Ireland (Acallam na Senorach), an anonymous Irish text (recently translated for Oxford World's Classics by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe), probably compiled around the late twelfth century, though it draws on earlier sources. It's a strange book: St Patrick meets some of the great warriors of the pre-Christian days; at his repeated request as they wander the countryside, they tell him the tales associated with different sites. Some of these involve the pre-Christian supernatural realm of fairies and shape-shifters, as well as the legendary heroes. St Patrick rather improbably approves of all this and causes his scribes to write down the stories. lest they be lost. Poems of praise and lamentation erupt throughout the text. Even in the late twelfth century there was clearly a sense of the pre-Christian world slipping into oblivion, and this book is an attempt to preserve it and reconcile it with the Christian present. The Ireland that emerges is an island very much on the outskirts of what was considered the civilized world, an isolated area still verdant with vast uninhabited areas and still very close to the uncanny. It's a world that is fragile, perilous, and beautiful. The ancient warrior clans seem in some ways very close to and connected with the wild animal world around them, yet also threatened by it. In this excerpt, in which a young wife mourns her drowned warrior husband, the birds and beasts mourn alongside her, and the waves that indifferently killed the young man also sound in eternal sadness. Lamentation is one of the earliest wellsprings of poetry.

The italicized words (which are thus in the Oxford World's Classics edition) are place names. I haven't been able to reproduce the accents used in the Celtic names.

On the last day of the battle a tragedy occurred; [the warrior] Cael was drowned, chasing his opponent into the sea. Other poor wild creatures of the same age as Cael died grieving for him. After he had drowned he was washed ashore. His wife and the nobles of the Fian found him and carried him to the southern shore. . . .[His wife] Crede came and lay down beside him with great mourning and lamentation. "Why should I not die here," she said, "mourning my husband, when wild creatures recklessly die in sorrow?" She then recited the following poem:

"A roar rises from the great flood of Reenvere.
The youth from Two Hound Lake has drowned, the waves along the shore lament.

"The crane's clear song from the marsh of Druimm nDa Thren,
She who cannot save her young from the jaws of the two-coloured fox.

"Sad as well is the cry of the thrush on Druimm Cain,
And no less sad the strains of the blackbird of Leitter Laeig.

"Sorrowful the sound of the stag on Druimm nDa Leis,
A mighty lament for the death of the doe of Druimm Silenn.

"I grieve for the warrior's death, for the one who lay with me,
The son of the woman of Daire Da Doss. A cross above his head.

"I grieve for the death of Cael, now lifeless by my side.
The tide flows over his pale side, its beauty still affects me.

"Sad is the cry of the wave, striking against the shore.
I weep that the noble youth ever encountered the sea.

"Sad is the sound of the wave against the northern shore,
Encircling the glistening rocks, lamenting the death of Cael.

"Sad is the crash of the wave against the southern coast,
And I, whose time has come, am now destroyed by grief.

"Swelling is the song of the wave of Druimm nDa Leis.
My treasure is no more since I heard its roaring boast.

"Since the son of Crimthann died, no love remains for me.
Many a chieftain he killed. His shield in battle screamed."

Crede then lay down beside Cael and died of sorrow. They were buried together in a single grave. . . .

Anonymous, Tales of the Elders of Ireland (Acallam na Senorach), translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe

15 January 2013

in the bleak midwinter

The last performance I went to in 2012, though not the last I will be posting about, was Philharmonia Baroque's all-Bach concert, conducted by Masaaki Suzuki. I was at the Sunday concert in First Congregational Church in Berkeley, whose clean New England lines only reinforce for me the plunge-into-the-past quality of hearing baroque music in a church on a brisk winter night; I spent many evenings like that long ago when I lived in Boston. Hearing Bach under such circumstances is for me a regular Currier and Ives print of a horse-drawn sleigh sliding through a snow-bound little town. Very Christmassy, if you were in the mood to take it as such.

The first half of the program was the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 (the piece with the famous "Air on the G string" so beloved of those who compile discs with titles like "Greatest Hits of the Baroque!") and Cantata No. 63, Christen, atzet diesen Tag (Christians, etch this day); the second half was the Magnificat in E-flat major, BWV 243a. ("Oh, look," the man behind me announced. "This one has words!") The celebratory cantata and Mary's poem of praise and acceptance of the Lord's will both relate to Christmas without being indissolubly linked to the season, which was the brilliance of the program; you could take it as a holiday concert, or, if you preferred, as a general reminder of the pleasures of Bach. Suzuki led a rich and ebullient performance of the works; the orchestral suite gleamed like dark gold. The vocalists in the other pieces were excellent, chorus as well as soloists: soprano Sherezade Panthaki, whose voice was so large it even eclipsed the woman coughing in the back; Claire Kelm, second soprano in the Magnificat; mezzo-soprano Fabiana Gonzalez; dignified bass-baritone Dashon Burton, and tenor Dann Coakwell, whose joy in performing was infectious. All in all, a very pleasing way to end the year's concert-going.

PBO's next concerts, 13-17 February, feature one of Bach's sons, Johann Christian Bach, along with Haydn and Mozart, in an exploration of classical style.

14 January 2013

Kate Royal gives a lesson in love

Several Saturdays ago I headed down to Herbst Theater to hear Kate Royal in recital with Malcolm Martineau, presented by San Francisco Performances. The concert had been rescheduled from last season (or the season before? time does get away. . . ) when Royal had to cancel her tour (someone told me later that it was because she had learned she was pregnant). Shortly after the cancellation we ticket-holders received, courtesy of Ms. Royal and EMI, an apologetic note and a copy of A Lesson in Love, the CD recording of the program she had been scheduled to sing. I thought this was not only a clever way of whetting our appetite for her return, but a lovely and gracious gesture, but then lovely and gracious are adjectives that tend to attach themselves to Royal.

Royal arranged the program in four section that are meant to chart the emotional progress of a woman's life: from Waiting to The Meeting to The Wedding to Betrayal. I can see several reasons why a contemporary singer would not want to end such an arc at the wedding, but even so I found it kind of amusing that the inevitable end is Betrayal. Well, as they say, it's funny because it's true, I guess. The program begins and ends with Bolcom's Waitin', though after the emotional journey of the evening the effect is not so much of circling back to the beginning as of launching a new and deeper cycle.

The songs come from a wide variety of composers, some familiar to recital aficionados and some less so (in addition to Bolcom there was Schumann, Wolf, Liszt, Debussy, Schubert, Tosti, Canteloube, Copland, Beach, Ravel, Faure, Richard Strauss, Duparc, Brahms, Britten, Sibelius, Hahn, and Herbert Hughes), and they are in a variety of languages (mostly English, French, and German). This may sound like a hodgepodge but it all flowed smoothly, with a beautiful emotional logic. Within the four main groups each song delineates a subtly separate emotion. In the first group, after Waitin'. there's Schumann's Jemand (Someone) in which the girl is awake, dreaming of someone she loves; he is distant and possibly unaware of her existence, but she is devoted to him and asks Heaven to protect him - it's a very spiritual, emotional kind of love. That is followed by Wolf's Die Kleine (The little girl), in which she starts off with a sort of fairy-tale description to her mother of three young huntsmen on three shining steeds, then she moves closer to home, saying that when Father returns he and Mother can kiss, but she has no one to kiss, but when she's a woman she will have, and she'll kiss all night long - so this song transitions from a more purely emotional and even childlike view of love towards physical longing. Then this set closes with Liszt's Es muss ein Wunderbares sein (There must be something wonderful), in which the girl (sounding more mature now, combining the spiritual and emotional with the physical) longs to be absorbed in a love that will last through to death. The same care was taken in arranging the other sections.

In the Meeting section, Wolf's Erstes Liebeslied eines Madchens (A maiden's first love song) made some in the audience laugh, for reasons that sort of escaped me. I say "sort of" because - well, first let me explain about the song. A young fisher girl checks her net and she has caught either a tasty eel or a dangerous snake, which wriggles in her hands and twists to her breast and bites her and "blissfully burrowing . . . will be the end" of her. So I assume the audience members who laughed were responding to the obvious phallic symbolism. But the song is really - and I think this is also obvious - about the panic, excitement, and fear of a girl both aching for love and fearful of what it will do to her, tangled emotions that Royal conveyed in a very convincing manner. This doesn't strike me as a particularly comic emotion, but maybe some people are more amused by young people's panic and confusion than I am. Maybe they don't remember what it's like. Moments like that are why I frequently feel bemused by my fellow audience members.

The song after that, Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), was the most haunting version I've ever heard. I had it going through my head for days afterwards: the subtle emphasis she put on words like nimmermehr ("never"), the slowly building sense of desperation, the hypnotic rhythms of Martineau's piano. To me it was the high point of a moving recital. I only wish there had been surtitles instead of the printed programs; the immediacy of surtitles would have helped a lot given the variety of languages and the specificity of each song's emotional content. The encore was a limpid Danny Boy, and there may be those who can resist that song, but I am not among them.

Poem of the Week 2013/3

For Tony, Embarking in Spring

Mrs. Davis' younger son was home
On furlough, but the boy who was on Bataan
She has not heard from. Nor has Max Ribera
Had any word from his boy on Bataan,
And Frank's boy was drowned
In the Indian ocean.
      Today at last it's spring.
The leaves of the pear tree follow the petals
So fast the tree is green and white. The ditches
Flash red with the peach petals they carry away
Singing. The flag went up on the new army hospital
Yesterday; today the major takes us out to see it.
We hear the war news generally at noon,
In your room, on your radio, and your mother sews your curtains.
We hear it, and then we go outdoors again
To get our bearings from the spring trees.
Goodbye, dear boy. Thought can be the life of God
In each man, and God is love.

Haniel Long

Haniel Long is an American writer (1888 - 1956) who was born in Burma to missionary parents, returned with them to the United States at a very young age and lived in Pittsburgh and other eastern locales until 1929, when he relocated to Santa Fe. Though this poem clearly refers to World War II, it's easy to forget in our more instantly connected days that there is still silence and mystery (some of it intentional, some just life) over here about what's going on out there. A sense of dread about the possibilities of a soldier's fate builds up in the first few lines, from the boy on furlough to the two boys not heard from to the boy already killed. Calling the soldiers "boys" emphasizes their youth (their endangered youth) and their status as children - the viewpoint is that of of parents worrying, and trying not to. The switch to spring seems sudden, but maybe it isn't an evasion or a distraction so much as a deeper way of feeling a connection with these young men: spring is traditionally associated with youth, freshness, rebirth and renewed possibilities, and love; the fragile and fleeting nature of these things is emphasized in the details given of spring: in the maturing leaves that follow the fresh pear blossoms almost simultaneously, in the ditches that flash with the petals they carry off. Towards the end the narrator makes it clear that indeed the trees are a way of connecting with the soon-to-be absent son and of putting the worry and danger and uncertainty in perspective. No explicit statement is made about the value of that particular war, or of the causes involved (think of how often in our days people glibly talk about "our warriors" defending us from unspecified threats), but the last line, a statement of faith in connection and love, sets up those qualities in subtle and permanent opposition to war.

This poem is from the Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker, and I'm posting it for JL, shipping out to Bahrain.

08 January 2013

for those wondering

cherry blossoms drop
and absence makes hearts fonder:
haiku hiatus

After posting at least one haiku a day for the past four years I felt I needed a break from the 17-syllable treadmill; after nearly 1500 of them I felt the bucket was clanking down and down in the well and not coming up with much fresh water (though I never know how these things come across to those not living in my head, so I hope I was the only one feeling that way). I may resume them at some point, since obviously I like the form. In the meantime, for those who come here for poetry, I have started a Poem of the Week, and I am planning to post a daily poem during National Poetry Month, the way I did last April. And I will of course continue to post on my continuing adventures in cultural consumption; sadly, since I have a list of about forty entries I mean to write (including my thoughts on posting late, which I've been meaning to do for a while), and new stuff looming on the horizon, taking a break from haiku won't help me there at all, since I write the two things in different ways. Such is life.

Deepest thanks once again to everyone who has read some or all of the haiku (or anything else I've posted here). I hope you've enjoyed them, and please continue to visit.

07 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/2

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Emily Dickinson

This is #258 in the Thomas H. Johnson edition of the Dickinson's Complete Poems. It's one of my favorites. Have you seen such a slanting winter light? If so, you have probably felt as I did that Dickinson has captured an evanescent and deeply interior moment in words that would forever after cling to the phenomenon. She subtly sanctifies the language and the landscape with references to cathedrals, Heaven, Death ("the Seal Despair" could come straight from the Book of Revelations). Yet the light is actually the most substantial element in the landscape; it's compared, not to cathedrals, or even cathedral tunes, but the heft of cathedral tunes (that strange significance taken on by echoing mighty music in some vaulted holy place). She describes not Heaven, but Heavenly hurt, which leaves no outward sign, only an internal importance so deep it can't be put into words (the "internal difference" and the "Meanings" are all unspecified, as if even Dickinson can only hope we find an echo of them in our own experience). Shadows, already by nature insubstantial, become even less of a presence as they "hold their breath"; and we see not Death itself, or even the look of Death, but the distance of the look of Death. Perhaps the most important distancing, as the poem moves inexorably from painful internal enlightenment towards Death, is of whatever the imperial* power is that sends this affliction – whoever or whatever this power is, it manifests itself only by effects, often sublime but also painful, and is felt mostly as an absence.

*I am reminded of Milton's frequent punning in Paradise Lost on imperial/empyreal

01 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/1

Let's get this party started with this witty and subversive poem by Ishmael Reed, a novelist-playwright-poet-critic who now lives in the Bay Area but whose interests and influences are worldwide. He deliberately sought out non-Western models on his own as well as the Western ones he was taught, taking Yeats' use of Celtic mythology as a model for his own use of Egyptian mythology and continuing on into a deep study of African-sourced religions (he explains this in his introduction to New and Collected Poems 1964-2006, from which this poem is taken, though I see that the currently available edition goes up to 2007). In this poem, however, he allies himself with a mostly American, specifically mostly African-American, tradition. Usually the notion of "political poetry" conjures up dreary smug attitude-striking and empty self-righteous harangues, and the vicious foolishness of someone like Pound, who thought the reason we weren't all Provencal troubadours was, you know, the Jews; but Reed's politics are subtler: not just about an individual against the collective, but about an individual choosing (or assembling, or creating) an opposing tradition, one that is all the stronger for being often scattered, oddball, homespun, and marginal, valuing what is pleasurable, and actual, against some allegedly inevitable wave-of-the-future collective. Reed doesn't specify which looming would-be Utopia he is reacting against, but someone is always trying to crush others under some such monolith; who wouldn't want to join Reed on his steamboat?

The Reactionary Poet

If you are a revolutionary
Then I must be a reactionary
For if you stand for the future
I have no choice but to
Be with the past

Bring back suspenders!
Bring back Mom!
Homemade ice cream
Picnics in the park
Flagpole sitting
Straw hats
Rent parties
Corn liquor
The banjo
Georgia quilts
Krazy Kat

The syncopation of
Fletcher Henderson
The Kiplingesque lines
of James Weldon Johnson
Black Eagle
Mickey Mouse
The Bach Family
Sunday School
Even Mayor La Guardia
Who read the comics
Is more appealing than
Your version of
What Lies Ahead

In your world of
Tomorrow Humor
Will be locked up and
The key thrown away
The public address system
Will pound out headaches
All day
Everybody will wear the same
Funny caps
And the same funny jackets
Enchantment will be found
Expendable, charm, a
Love and kisses
A crime against the state
Duke Ellington will be
Ordered to write more marches
"For the people," naturally

If you are what's coming
I must be what's going

Make it by steamboat
I likes to take it real slow

Ishmael Reed