30 June 2014

Haiku 2014/181

sidewalk estate sale:
paintings, candlesticks, mirrors
the sadness of things

Poem of the Week 2014/27

A Decade

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

Amy Lowell

Despite the repressed or perhaps just reticent society of her time, circumstances, and place (late-nineteenth/early twentieth-century upper-crust Boston), I think it's fairly safe to assume that Lowell, a wealthy and worldly individual who chafed under the standard-issue limitations her era attempted to impose on women of her class, meant us to read an erotic pun in her opening words, since come as a term for sexual climax has a long-established history in English (my Shakespeare professor at Cal, Janet Adelman, pointed out to us its frequent use by Antony and Cleopatra during their liebestod).

As an adherent of the new Imagist movement in poetry, Lowell was interested in expressing herself through vivid, concrete details. Her comparisons are with basic food items: honey, wine, and bread. Bread and wine, though mentioned separately, are still brought together closely enough to bring up an echo, however faint, of the Christian eucharist, so perhaps in this poem there is a subtle turn-about on the long tradition of using erotic love as a metaphor for a mystic experience of the divine: here the elements of communion are used to cast a sacred glow around an earthly love. Wine and honey frequently appear in classical Greek as well as Biblical verse: Lowell connects her love song with the elemental sources of English-language poetry, giving her lyric a stripped-down, essential feel. But though all three foods are linked together as images of her love, she does differentiate the red wine and honey (sweet, intoxicating, sensuous) from the more necessary and perhaps more homely daily bread.

Unlike most love poems, this one celebrates not the first intense flame (it is not ignored or dismissed; the first two lines are too alive for that) but the deeper pleasure of a long-lasting love. The ten years of the title have passed, and there is an implication that perhaps things have cooled off, physically at least ("I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour"), but they have been replaced by a deeper sense of contentment -- and here the food images reach their fulfillment as the speaker declares that she is completely nourished.

In the repressed/reticent style of her time, Lowell was rumored to be linked to several women, but it is likely that this poem was written for Ada Dwyer Russell. Of course, from our point of view, approaching a century after Lowell's death, it is irrelevant if she wrote this poem to a particular woman or indeed to any actual person at all. Still, if you have a glass of red wine with your dinner, you may as well toast Russell with it.

I took this from the Selected Poems of Amy Lowell, edited by Honor Moore, in the Library of America's American Poets Project series.

29 June 2014

26 June 2014

25 June 2014

Haiku 2014/176

once the birds flew off
that leafy-green summer branch
suddenly looked bare

24 June 2014

Noontime Concerts: Shauna Fallihee and Miles Graber lead us through a dappled wood

Today at lunch I went back to Old St Mary's Cathedral to hear soprano Shauna Fallihee and pianist Miles Graber performing songs by Wolf and Debussy, presented by Noontime Concerts, though they're really more like 12:45 concerts. The sets alternated between the two composers, creating a unified but artfully varied mood of pining love, fresh spring hopes, trembling flowers, delicate shades of long-beloved trees, wistful regrets and delirious hopes, right there under the shadowy arches of the old cathedral. Graber was a sensitive, evocative accompanist, and Fallihee had an ardent, pure but also expressive voice, clear like a stream; her hair was pulled back and she wore a long white sleeveless dress, looking like a young woman who would indeed be found searching the woods for satyrs and naiads, as she does in one of the Debussy songs (Le Tombeau de naïades). The Wolf selections were all from the Mörike Lieder; in between the three groups of three Wolf songs, we had Debussy's Trois Chansons de Bilitis and then another set of three, the Fêtes Galantes, an evocatively Watteau-like title. I had a lovely time. Outside we could hear the occasional rush of traffic, which seemed farther away than it was, and the occasional hovering strains of the erhu-player, who is familiar to all who walk past the cathedral on the Grant Avenue side on their way to the heart of Chinatown.

Haiku 2014/175

blue bird with grey breast,
your beauty makes me forgive
your theft of my figs

23 June 2014

Haiku 2014/174

sweet day slipping by
why do we do what we do?
fly away, sweetness

Poem of the Week 2014/26

In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Wislawa Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh

Just the other day I was defending self-hatred to a friend, telling him that more people should be, if not self-loathing, at least self-skeptical. Typically for Szymborska, she makes a subtle and even profound philosophical point in an understated, witty way. There is no hierarchy among these animals; the lion is not the (human-anointed) King of Beasts, but on a level with the louse. It's all Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw." As a Polish citizen during the twentieth century, Szymborska certainly would have known a lot about people who would be wiser and better if they were ashamed of themselves. As American citizens in the twenty-first century – well, draw your own conclusions.

I've posted a few other Szymborska poems: one here and then here on the occasion of her death. This is from Poems New and Collected 1957 - 1997. The edition I have appears to be out of print but there is a paperback, called simply Poems New and Collected. I don't know if it contains additional works.

22 June 2014

at the Symphony: Copland, Britten, Shostakovich

Last night I was at Davies Hall for one of the San Francisco Symphony's Britten Centennial concerts, this one featuring the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, along with Copland's Danzón Cubano and Shostakovich's final symphony, No. 15 in A major, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

The Copland piece was brief and fun, almost a fanfare sort of thing. It was enjoyable, but I'm not sure what the connection was with either of the other pieces, except that the program was officially called "Midcentury Masters" and Tilson Thomas likes Copland's music. The problem I have with pieces like this is that the audience has just barely settled in and then it's over and we have to sit there, mood disrupted, while they re-arrange all the chairs for the next piece. It hardly seems worthwhile breaking the flow like that.

I enjoyed the Serenade. I was in the first row, practically at the feet of the soloists, tenor Toby Spence and horn player Robert Ward, so my experience was probably better than that of someone placed in the far reaches of that intractable cavern, Davies Hall. Given the performance space (I have often wished that Davies, and also Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, could be blown up and rebuilt at no more than two-thirds of their current size, and perhaps made less 1970s-clunky as well) the ideally intimate atmosphere for this piece was just not going to be there. They compensated by going for more grandeur; each of the six songs, plus the opening and closing horn solos, felt like a separate monument placed before us, carved out of something solid, if not granite then oak. In case this makes it sound too forbidding, Spence was a sweet-voiced soloist and brought conviction to his numbers, particularly the more haunted middle songs (Blake's The Sick Rose and the fifteenth-century anonymous A Lyke-Wake Dirge). His diction was very clear, though once again I wonder why the Symphony doesn't use surtitles, which might have cut down on some of the endless program-rustling – the couple next to me, and keep in mind that if I'm right at the feet of the soloists so are they, had quite the mid-performance exchange about what was being sung (though as far as audience behavior goes, this was one of my better recent trips to Davies).

After the intermission came the Shostakovich 15 – this is the one that famously contains quotations not only from the composer's own earlier works but also Rossini's William Tell Overture and the Annunciation of Death from Wagner's Walkure. It's a somewhat strange, baffling, and haunting work, and it can be emotionally powerful in the way available only to things that express their emotions indirectly. Last night the first movement was terrifically convincing, mysterious yet bonkers, as is the way of this symphony. There was quite a spontaneous burst of applause when the movement ended, and it was deserved. After that – well, I just don't know. The pace slowed to a crawl, and I felt all urgency drain from the music, as it unfolded in a stately sweep that might have been better suited to Bruckner or indeed Die Walkure itself. Can something fall apart by congealing? To me it seemed that the frantic, quicksilver intelligence of the first movement had been replaced by a glacier. And whatever hushed mood of majesty the artists were trying to convey was lost on the audience, which suddenly was filled with dozens of coughers. The couple next to me imperturbably kept on reading their programs through the whole thing.

Haiku 2014/173

someone was whistling
La Donna è mobile
which seemed unlikely

21 June 2014

Haiku 2012/172

soft sweep of grey fog
rolling through the purple sky
wiping out the stars

19 June 2014

Haiku 2014/170

crowded on platforms
jammed into ungracious trains
alone with our thoughts

18 June 2014

17 June 2014

Haiku 2014/168

sudden flash of gold
green weeds stir in a green pond
aqueous rapture

fun stuff I may or may not get to: July 2014

Operatic
The summer season of the San Francisco Opera reaches almost into mid-July; there are only two chances, right at the very beginning of the month, to catch Showboat (which I strongly recommend), but there are several performances of Madama Butterfly and Traviata. Check out the full calendar here.

The young artists of SF Opera's Merola program perform two operas this summer: there's the first local revival of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, which had its world premiere here in 1998, and then Mozart's Don Giovanni. The Previn is 10 and 12 July and the Mozart 31 July and 2 August, and both are in the Everett Auditorium at 450 Church Street in San Francisco. They also present excerpts from various operas at the Schwabacher Summer Concert, which is 17 July (also in the Everett Auditorium) and 19 July (open air, in the park at the Yerba Buena Center). The Grand Finale will be in the Opera House on 16 August. More information may be found here.

West Edge Opera, now handily performing at the Ed Roberts Campus right at the Ashby BART station, presents three operas: first is the Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg Hydrogen Jukebox (27 July, and 2 and 8 August), then the Bay Area premiere of Jake Heggie's operatic version of Graham Greene's novel The End of the Affair (3, 7, and 9 August), and then there's also La Bohème (26 July, and 1 and 10 August). Be warned that seating is not assigned, and apparently they want people to get up and walk around during the performances. I want people to stay out of my way during performances, and I hate open seating anyway, so I am dubious about this set-up but hoping to check out at least the Glass/Ginsberg piece (I wanted to hear the Heggie too, but I think I'd better see how I like the deal with the seating before I spend too much on tickets). More information here.

Baroque
The American Bach Soloists present their annual summer festival and academy from 11 to 20 July at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; this year's theme is an exploration of musical influences on Johann Sebastian Bach and includes a range of music by Buxtehude, Kuhnau, Frederick the Great, and other baroque luminaries up to and including Handel and Bach himself. Likely highlights are performances of Bach's great Mass in B Minor (on 13 and 20 July), Handel's adaptation of Milton, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (18 July), and soprano Mary Wilson (who can be heard on ABS's latest CD release) singing Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi (19 July). Get the full schedule and other information here.

Theatrical
Shotgun Players present Shakespeare's great comedy Twelfth Night, which, as you can probably tell from the name of this blog, is close to my heart. You have the chance to check out what they do with it from 9 July to 10 August; details here.

New Music
At the Center for New Music, Lisa Moore plays piano and sings works by Philip Glass, Martin Bresnick, William Gardiner, Brett Dean, Randy Newman, and Frederic Rzewski. That's on the afternoon of 20 July; details here.

16 June 2014

Haiku 2014/167

each day around now
she stacks up the empty chairs
the café is dark

"We'll never meet again. But it was lovely."

Mr Bloom stooped and turned over a piece of paper on the strand. He brought it near his eyes and peered. Letter? No. Can't read. Better go. Better. I'm tired to move. Page of an old copybook. All those holes and pebbles. Who could count them? Never know what you find. Bottle with story of a treasure in it thrown from a wreck. Parcels post. Children always want to throw things in the sea. Trust? Bread cast on the waters. What's this? Bit of stick.

O! Exhausted that female has me. Not so young now. Will she come here tomorrow? Wait for her somewhere for ever. Must come back. Murderers do. Will I?

Mr Bloom with his stick gently vexed the thick sand at his foot. Write a message for her. Might remain. What?

I.

Some flatfoot tramp on it in the morning. Useless. Washed away. Tide comes here a pool near her feet. Bend, see my face there, dark mirror, breathe on it, stirs. All these rocks with lines and scars and letters. O, those transparent! Besides they don't know. What is the meaning of that other world. I called you naughty boy because I do not like.

AM. A.

No room. Let it go.

Mr Bloom effaced the letters with his slow boot. Hopeless thing sand. Nothing grows in it. All fades. No fear of big vessels coming up here. Except Guinness's barges. Round the Kish in eighty days. Done half by design.

He flung his wooden pen away. The stick fell in silted sand, stuck. Now if you were trying to do that for a week on end you couldn't. Chance. We'll never meet again. But it was lovely. Goodbye, dear. Thanks. Made me feel so young.

Happy Bloomsday once again to my mountain flowers.

Poem of the Week 2014/25

The twilight turns from amethyst
       To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
       The trees of the avenue.

The old piano plays an air,
       Sedate and slow and gay;
She bends upon the yellow keys,
       Her head inclines this way.

Shy thoughts and grave wide eyes and hands
       That wander as they list –
The twilight turns to darker blue
       With lights of amethyst.

James Joyce

Today, for Bloomsday, we have a poem by James Joyce. His poetry was mostly written early in his career, before he started turning his prose into prose-poems, and many of his lyrics use conventional rhyme and meter. That's not a criticism; it's just sometimes unexpected by readers who come to him knowing mostly his reputation as the high priest of modernist obscurity. But he was drawn to complicated patterns and repetitions (for example, the way each chapter in Ulysses has a body part and a color associated with it) and regular rhyme and meter would obviously appeal to someone with such a taste. He was musical, and sang in what was reportedly a beautiful but not overly strong tenor. He considered singing professionally but for various reasons decided it was not for him. All this means he had a taste for the lyrical and a familiarity with much of the song literature; some of his lyrics would not be out of place in collections set by Dowland or Purcell.

This one to me is very evocative of turn-of-the-last-century lyricism, with its emphasis on atmosphere as a way of creating a fraught psychological picture. Though the subject – a solitary woman idly making music at twilight – is timeless, the instrument she's playing marks it as coming from the period when any family with pretensions to artistic cultivation had (and used) a piano. Probably the first thing the reader takes in about this poem is how colorful it is, though the colors themselves are not vivid and bright, but tend towards the dark or otherwise muted: the amethyst of twilight, the "deep and deeper blue" as night falls, the "pale green" glow of leaves under the streetlamps, the yellow keys of the piano (piano keys were then commonly made of ivory, so the yellow would be the soft beige-gold of aged ivory; Joyce tells us that this is an "old piano," another touch which helps create an atmosphere cut off from the garish world of day). At the end, he (with his love of patterning) reverses the initial colors, and as twilight progresses towards night the sky is now dark blue, with amethyst only in light spots. This is an accurate description of twilight turning into night, as well as a lovely and evocative picture. But it also creates a psychological sense of isolation around the woman, who is sitting alone in a room that is getting darker and darker.

Clearly she is absorbed in her thoughts, rather than the world around her. And what is she thinking? A hint is in what she is playing: an air "sedate and slow and gay." Gay is an interesting word there, as it connotes something light-hearted and carefree (this was long before the word was commonly used to mean "a (non-insulting) term for homosexual men"). Combining the word with sedate and slow creates a sense of emotional tension. Having a piano in the house is not only a sign of culture, but of a certain level of respectability. The puritanical streak in Irish Catholicism is well-known. The woman's thoughts are described only as shy: is she dreaming of a lover? Or is she feeling a longing less specific and more profound? Her eyes are grave – the word as used here carries the primary sense of serious or solemn, but as an undercurrent we can't help but think of grave in the sense of a burial place. Her thoughts are shy, her eyes are grave, the tune is sedate and slow: yet it is also gay, and her hands "wander as they list" – something a respectable woman could not do, perhaps even in thought (and perhaps that is why her thoughts are shy). There's an interesting tension in the picture, and the sense that this woman is trapped, at least psychologically, as the world darkens around her. The fall of night often carries an implication of approaching death. How long has she been dream-like in this twilight world? Will the music she makes always be a separate thing from her life and even her thoughts?

This is the second poem in Joyce's first collection, Chamber Music. The first poem describes Love, personified as a young man wandering along the river, "All softly playing, / With head to the music bent, / And fingers straying / Upon an instrument." Most readers of the volume would probably start at the beginning and read at least the first few poems consecutively, and would notice that the "head to the music bent" in the first poem is echoed in the "head incline[d] this way" of the second. They are also linked by subject matter – a solitary person making music. But in the first we see not just a young man in love, but Love himself, as shown by his costume (unusual for early twentieth-century Dublin) of pale flowers on a mantle and dark leaves on his hair – note the use of pale and dark, which also connects this poem with the second one. But he wanders freely outside, while the woman is stationary and indoors. There is an implication, though, that there is something melancholy about his love, too: he is playing by the river "where the willows meet." The willow is a traditional sign of unhappy or unsuccessful love, which is why Desdemona sings the "Willow Song" right before Othello smothers her, and why Viola (disguised as Cesario) tells Olivia in Twelfth Night that she would "make me a willow cabin at your gate."

I should probably just go ahead and give you the whole first poem; you're getting them out of order but what the hell:

Strings in the earth and air
       Make music sweet;
Strings by the river where
       The willows meet.

There's music along the river
       For Love wanders there,
Pale flowers on his mantle,
       Dark leaves on his hair.

All softly playing,
       With head to the music bent,
And fingers straying
       Upon an instrument.

James Joyce

I took this from my very old copy of Joyce's Collected Poems, which seems to be out of print, though other editions are available. I have to admit I'm casting covetous eyes at Joyce's Poems and a Play recently published in the Everyman's Pocket Poetry series (the play is Exiles, Joyce's only work for the stage).

15 June 2014

14 June 2014

dance away the night, and we can all be happy till the morning

Last Tuesday I was at the War Memorial Opera House for the third performance of San Francisco Opera's production of Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by John DeMain. I had some quibbles, but on the whole it is a triumph.

The production is fluid yet full of colorful spectacle; appropriately for this very American story, much use is made of red, white, and blue (with Julie La Verne often subtly set apart in somber purple). The first half is so packed with songs that are not just famous but have taken on a life of their own that I was reminded of the legendary theater-goer who described Hamlet as "that play that's full of quotations." The second half of the show has always been a bit problematic, since it lacks the clear dramatic arc of the first half, which combines the romance (from first meeting to marriage) of gambler Gaylord Ravenal and the impressionable and ambitious young Magnolia Hawks with the downfall of her friend Julie La Verne, the leading actress in the show, who has been "passing." The second half covers years rather than months, with an episodic depiction of Julie's descent into self-destructive drunkenness, the desperate Gaylord's desertion of his family, and Magnolia's rise to lonely stardom.

Theater happens in real time and before our eyes, which makes it difficult to illustrate the passing of time – not just as a plot device, but as a theme. If you're Proust, you can write a seven-volume series of novels and show your characters changing (and the narrator's perceptions of them changing) over time. Given the length of time it takes to read thousands of pages, the work gives you a palpable, even physical sense of what the passing of time means. Conveying such a sense in a stage show is much more difficult, unless you want to make the evening into a Wagnerian endurance test. So a reprise of Ol' Man River has to suffice, which actually works pretty well since it is one of the most powerful songs ever written for the American theater.

But from another perspective, the episodic nature of the second act can in a way function (at least it did for me) as a reminder of the passing of time: I do find as I age that things move faster and faster (days may be slow, but the years are swift), and events that I thought occurred two years ago turn out to be from ten. But time passing is just one of the major themes in Show Boat; there's also, obviously, the ugly and tormented history of race relations in America (a daring choice of subject matter, which is one of the reasons for Show Boat's historical and artistic importance), but also the influences and borrowings among black and white performers. When Julie first sings Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man, she is joined by Queenie and Joe, but also by Magnolia, who has learned to shimmy the way they do (this is made a little clearer in the McGlinn recording, in which we hear Joe tell Magnolia to dance "like I taught you"). In the second half, when Magnolia learns in an audition that changing times require a ragtime version of the song, we see the three black stagehands in the background start to dance along – it's their song, and their style. (The dancing throughout the show is outstanding. Michele Lynch was the choreographer; I couldn't find the names of the dancers in the program, unfortunately.) Economic exploitation frequently accompanied what these days is usually called "cultural appropriation" (and the economic exploitation of African-Americans is certainly a major theme of Show Boat, starting with the opening chorus), but it's important to remember that they are two separate and not indivisible things; the history of all cultures is the history of "cultural appropriation."

There's also the theme of theatrical dreams versus harsh reality – there's a reason that when Gaylord and Magnolia first meet, their love duet is Make Believe ("Others find peace of mind in pretending; couldn't you – couldn't I – couldn't we?"). But we see this theme in the very first moments of the show, as the African-American chorus sings of their daily, back-breaking labor while the voices of the white chorus float above them, in pretty and flirtatious banter. The theme is picked up comically when Ellie sings the delightful Life Upon the Wicked Stage, trying to explain to the star-struck girls of Natchez that her life as an actress is not as glamorous as they think it is. And it shows up in various forms throughout the show, so that even the use of an old theater joke about the bumpkin audience member who disrupts the play by threatening to shoot the villain if he doesn't unhand the girl illustrates (as in the second act of Nixon in China) the sometimes perilously thin line between theatrical illusion and reality. It's Magnolia who has learned to survive in the harsh world (as mentioned earlier, Julie sinks into alcoholism and Gaylord, shamed by his inability to support his family due to his gambling losses, runs off), so there's a special resonance when, towards the end of the second act, when she's a big star with the Ziegfield Follies, she acknowledges both the appeal of performance and the sorrow of the world with the lilting Dance Away the Night.

It's this combination in Magnolia that makes the ending so powerful: Captain Andy has worked things so that she will visit the show boat (now a nostalgic evocation of a vanished America) the same night as the returned Gaylord. As they see each other for the first time in many years, they are distracted first by their grown daughter's recognition of her vanished father and then by an older woman on the levee who recognizes them and, assuming they've been together all along, reminisces about the day she saw them married, many years ago. She is glad that things turned out so well. The two lovers stand apart, in a deep and emotionally complicated silence, while the final reprise of Ol' Man River swells overwhelmingly up.

It's tough to know where to start praising the excellent cast. Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal has a sweetly virile tenor and a dashing resemblance to a more elegant Robert Louis Stevenson. Kirsten Wyatt and John Bolton as Ellie Mae Chipley and Frank Schultz, the second-banana comedy couple on the boat who end up in vaudeville, are bright and funny and appealing and dance as well as they sing. Angela Renée Simpson is a vibrant, warm-hearted Queenie, with some beautiful floated notes. Patricia Racette, a long-time favorite here, is a touching, self-destructive and generous Julie. When Queenie is surprised that Julie knows Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man ("I didn't ever hear anybody but colored folks sing that song . . . sounds funny for Miss Julie to know it") she's almost insouciant in her response – she knows that as a "mulatto" passing for white she's in a perilous position; it's almost as if exposure would be a relief at that point. Her rendition in the second act of Bill (another song, this time gently, poignantly comic, about loving a guy even though you know he isn't much good, which is also kind of a theme in the show) is heartbreaking in its directness and simplicity.

But for me the two most indelible performers are Heidi Stober as Magnolia and Morris Robinson as Joe. Magnolia's ability to stay open-hearted while growing from eager girl to mature woman is the emotional core of the show. Stober is just radiant throughout, deftly using her body and voice to capture the changes in Magnolia. What a lovely, soaring voice and a masterly portrayal. Morris Robinson's Joe is the other emotional center of the musical. There's an interesting edge of anger when he first sings Ol' Man River, not just at the racist social system ("don't look up, and don't look down; you don't dast make the white boss frown") but at all futile human suffering, eventually obliterated only by onrushing time. I was sobbing. Joe might have been seen (and is sometimes seen by other characters, including Queenie) as a stereotype of "the shiftless Negro," but the power and dignity of this song always deepen the audience's perception of him; what might look like laziness is actually a form of rebellion and even of philosophy. When Joe, an old man now, reprises Ol' Man River at the finale, it has a more resigned, even elegiac air to it. And if he and Queenie are still on the same dock while Magnolia has been conquering the stages of London and New York, and Frank and Ellie the vaudeville circuit, that's a reminder of how restricted opportunities were for African-Americans.

OK, I mentioned some quibbles . . . the singing is, as far as I could tell, unamplified, which is as it should be, but the dialogue was amplified, and rather badly (as in, someone speaking would suddenly sound much louder or softer depending on where he was walking). It had that weird distancing effect on some of the dialogue. That may be why I felt that although every musical number landed exactly where it should, some of the more important lines seemed a bit rushed or unemphatic to me (that may also be a side effect of knowing a piece relatively well). I ended up liking Bill Irwin as Captain Andy, but initially he seemed too jittery in a very stagey way (when he wasn't supposed to be on stage, even though of course he's always on stage for the viewers, if you see what I mean). Harriet Harris as his wife Parthy gives an oddly relentlessly snarling performance. I've seen Harris on sitcoms and she is really wonderful at being acerbic and funny. Here I think she needed to be more restrained in some of her reactions. (Maybe it played differently in the far reaches of the opera house.) Parthy is not a particularly winning character and I think it's important to bring out that some of her reactions are due to a starchy sense of what is appropriate (related to her own perception of what makes her a respectable woman) rather than just to meanness and pettiness. Otherwise you wonder what brought her and Captain Andy together, and what keeps them together.

Show Boat is probably best known these days through John McGlinn's massive, all-inclusive 1988 recording, though the famous 1936 film with Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson has recently become available on DVD. (There is also a silent/part-sound film from 1929, which is based on the novel rather than the musical and is partially lost and not readily available, and an MGM musical from 1951, which I've only seen part of, but which apparently changes quite a bit of the play, in particular reducing the importance of the African-American characters). The musical has a convoluted performance history and there really isn't a "definitive" version. This performance had some interesting changes from the McGlinn recording, which served to heighten the racial theme.

For one thing, the opening chorus of black stevedores now sings, "Colored folks work on the Mississippi" instead of "Niggers all work on the Mississippi." "Nigger" is used occasionally in the dialogue, but mostly by low-class characters like the drunkard Pete, who gets revenge on Julie for rejecting his advances by informing the sheriff that she's half-black. The sheriff uses the terms "Nigra" and "negress." I think even in 1927 "nigger" was not a word that "nice" people used, at least in public. In 1927 its use in a musical was meant to be shocking; in 2014 it has become so obscene and controversial that its extensive use would overwhelm the show. These are sensible and sensitive changes. During Queenie's ballyhoo, when she's telling Captain Andy why he's not reaching "the colored folks," she no longer says (as in the McGlinn recording) "My people don't remember that long," but she does tell him, "You don't know how to talk to them." Again, a sensible change that removes a racial stereotype and highlights the difficulty the separated races had in understanding and communicating with each other. And at the end, the old lady on the levee (played by Lillian Gish on the McGlinn recording) is a dignified older African-American woman (Tracy Camp), so that the racial theme does not disappear when Julie La Verne does.

I glanced through the program and noted a bit of a defensive tone about presenting this work, which I don't really understand: no pearls are clutched or lorgnettes raised quizzically when the Opera, without explanation or apology, presents stale Austrian drek like The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus, so why should anyone question their presentation of what is arguably the greatest and inarguably among the most influential American works of musical theater? Who else these days but an opera house has the skill and resources (and commitment to unamplified singing) to present this work as it should be presented, with two choruses (African-American and Caucasian), dancers, singers, and beautiful sets and costumes? Time keeps flowing on (as Show Boat reminds us), and one generation's popular art becomes the next's high art – this happens over and over, with everything from Elizabethan theater and Japanese woodblock prints and the novels of Dickens to the music of Kern, Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, and company. I'm not saying the opera house is the perfect venue for all musicals – The Boys from Syracuse, wonderful as it is, would be kind of lost there – but works like Show Boat or Sweeney Todd certainly have a vastness and depth that can hold their own on that stage.

You have six more chances to see the show (if tickets are available; it was very close to sold out the night I went). Don't miss it if you can help it!  (And I hope the opera's production will be one of the productions released in their new DVD series.) More information is here.

Haiku 2014/165

clipped ivy stays green
for months and months: who can trust
what does not decay

12 June 2014

Haiku 2014/163

waiting in the wings
while summer's light lengthens day:
the ingenue moon

11 June 2014

10 June 2014

Haiku 2014/161

late night crowded trains
the sensible are sleeping
the wise all went out

(for TVG, after a late night at the theater)

09 June 2014

Haiku 2014/160

lozenges of light
diamond down the shaded lane
until the sun shifts

Poem of the Week 2014/24

Like as the Culver on the barèd bough,
       Sits mourning for the absence of her mate:
       and in her songs sends many a wishfull vow,
       for his return that seemes to linger late,
So I alone now left disconsolate,
       mourne to my self the absence of my love:
       and wandring here and there all desolate,
       seek with my playnts to match that mournful dove:
Ne joy of ought that under heaven doth hove,
       can comfort me, but her owne joyous sight:
       whose sweet aspèct both God and man can move,
       in her unspotted pleasauns to delight.
Dark is my day, whyles her fayre light I mis,
       and dead my life that wants such lively bliss.

Edmund Spenser

Culver in the first line is an archaic word for the dove that reappears at the end of line 8. Spenser liked the authority and history of words that were already edging into archaism in his time (he died in 1599, about half-way through Shakespeare's career). These birds were also frequently referred to in Elizabethan writing as turtles (as in turtle-doves), so when you read Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Turtle, or when you read in the King James translation of the Song of Solomon "For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; / The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land" (chapter 2, verses 11-12) the reference is not to a croaking reptile with a shell but to a singing bird. Whether called culver, turtle, turtle-dove, or dove, it was considered the type of constant love. So the first line immediately and dramatically sets the stage: the reference to the dove leads us to expect a love poem, but one in which something is probably wrong, given the stark, wintry detail of the "barèd bough." And we find out in the rest of the quatrain that the faithful bird is mourning her absent mate. There's a bit of a mystery as to where her mate is; he is later than expected (she longs for "his return that seemes to linger late"); is he just delayed, or is he dead? Her love is deep, and she mourns his absence no matter what the cause.

Like the dove, the poet is alone, mourning in his song his absent love; like the dove, nothing can comfort him but the sight of his beloved ("her owne joyous sight"; that is, his joy-filled sight of her). He feels a bit competitive with the bird; he seeks with his playnts (that is, his plaints: complaints, lamentations) "to match the mournful dove"; his love is as deep as the instinctive love of the most faithful of birds. He describes his beloved woman in terms that Dante might have used for his Beatrice: besides the joyous sight of her, her sweet aspect (that is, appearance and air) can move not only man, but even God, and nothing in God's creation ("ought that under heaven doth hove" – that is, hover, which brings birds to mind, though it is not restricted to them) can bring joy or comfort. This is a neat way of tying into the figure of the beloved woman – again, as Dante did with Beatrice – the idea not only of physical beauty but also of moral perfection approaching the heavenly. Not only man, but also God, can be moved by her "unspotted pleasauns"; that is, her innocent, even immaculate pleasantness, charm, amiability.

The concluding couplet shoots off a number of paradoxes like firecrackers to emphasize the magnitude of what he is missing: his day is dark, since she is his light; his life is dead, without her lively (life-giving) bliss. There has been a subtle, gender-reversal paradox throughout the poem: it is the female dove mourning the absent male, but in the poet's case, he is the one left at home, mourning the beloved, absent woman. Since this poem is the last in Spenser's sonnet sequence Amoretti, we can guess that this love story does not have a happy ending.

We think of England as the home of many great writers, as well as a former Empire, but in Spenser's time it was politically and culturally a small island on the edge of Europe (this was even before there was a United Kingdom; Scotland would not join with England until James VI of Scotland (as James I) succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603). Politically and economically England was not a great world power like Spain and Portugal, although it was already beginning its exploration of North America as well as its oppressive colonization of neighboring Ireland, in which Spenser had a role as part of his duties as a government official. And culturally it was a bit of a backwater. An ambitious and patriotic writer like Spenser naturally looked to Italy (as did his great predecessor, Chaucer) as the source of the most advanced art and learning, and attempted to equal or surpass in English the achievements of Italian poets. I've mentioned some Dante-esque elements in this poem, but Petrarch is the major influence here, as he ultimately is for all writers of love sonnets.

This sonnet uses three quatrains and a concluding couplet to make up the fourteen lines, but instead of keeping the quatrains as separate units there is an interesting and sophisticated interlocking rhyme scheme: the second rhyme in each quatrain becomes the first line in the next (so mate and late in the first quatrain are linked to disconsolate and desolate in the second; and love and dove in the second quatrain are linked to hove and move in the third – bear in mind that some rhymes that seem not quite rhymes to us actually worked as perfect rhymes in Elizabethan pronunciation; and some rhymes that seem trite to us (love/dove) seemed much fresher four hundred years ago.

I took this from the Penguin edition of The Shorter Poems (which means everything but The Faerie Queene) of Edmund Spenser, but I have to say how annoyed I am that my copy is imperfect: though a large blank space is left for the woodcuts that went with the Epigrams in A Theatre for Worldlings, the woodcuts themselves aren't there. That's really sloppy printing! So if you do buy a copy, make sure to check it immediately, and I hope you're better at returning things than I am.

08 June 2014

07 June 2014

Haiku 2014/158

first you see one ant
walking where you wish he weren't
then you see dozens

06 June 2014

Daylighting with the Shotgun Players

Yesterday I was at the Ashby Stage to see Daylighting, the latest from the Shotgun Players. It was written by Dan Wolf and directed by Rebecca Novick. Like Cutting Ball's recent Tenderloin, it is based on interviews with actual residents in the vicinity of the theater. Like Tenderloin (my entry on which is here), it is fairly entertaining, but sentimental and not entirely convincing.

The main thread of the 90-minute play is the journey of Bee, an African-American girl who has just graduated from Berkeley High. She is supposed to leave for New York City and NYU, but now she's hesitating; somewhat tipsy and under the influence of marijuana and stress after the graduation parties, she decides to follow the often submerged path of Strawberry Creek back to the home she shares with her grandfather James (who has just sold the house, which adds to Bee's adolescent emotional confusion). Along the way she runs into lots of people who know her. Sometimes the whole cast gathers on stage, Greek-chorus style, and as in a WWII bomber-crew movie, we see the many different "types" all collected together: the wise old black man, the retired professor with a bit of a drinking problem, the Indian taxi driver, the young couple with a newborn, the undocumented worker from Mexico, the down-to-earth older white woman, the woman in the wheelchair. . . . Some of these characters (particularly the Mexican worker) are interesting, but there is a sense, when you see them assembled, of checking off boxes (and yet all these very different people are deeply, and somewhat arbitrarily, connected; it reminded me of my senior year at Berkeley, when I realized I was spending night after night alone, writing paper after paper about the "social web" that connected – that was a thing then, and I guess it's now back – various fictional characters . . .).

There's a bit of a generic feel to many of the characters and their stories, partly because the main thing that makes Berkeley such an unusual place – the University – is pretty much ignored. There is that retired professor, but his story is mostly about his drinking problems and the bitter fight he had long ago with James (something unfortunate, we're never told exactly what, was said while he was drunk). None of the characters are Cal students, or grad students, or work at the University, and there is little political or cultural talk, or even talk about the University sports teams; no one even wears a Cal t-shirt. This elision is a legitimate choice – there's more to the city than the University – but it's the academic environment, and specifically Cal's reputation for rebellion and free-thinking as well as intellectual depth, that draws in people with odd and eccentric interests, scholarly, artistic, and political. Once you remove that, you're left with your basic city with a greater portion than usual of footloose young people (we might just as well be in a town with an army base), and so we hear a lot about standard concerns: real estate, family quarrels, confused young people who party too much, older people worried about growing older, not understanding or accepting change. . . . Despite the occasional local reference (Berkeley Bowl, some of the better-known street people) you don't really get a strong sense from the play of what makes Berkeley distinctive.

Also, I just don't buy the cozy idea of "community" here. As Bee wanders home, she doesn't meet any strangers, or anyone threatening, which seems odd in a city with such a large homeless and otherwise transient population, some of whom clearly suffer from addiction and mental illness, and many of whom are young and heedless. Many of the actual inhabitants of Berkeley know they're only there for a few years, and behave accordingly, but in the play everyone is rooted there – even though Bee is planning to leave, you get the feeling she'll eventually come back. As she wanders, everyone she meets wants to help her, and is looking out for her. This is not a city of isolation, alienation, or even irritation. You see this in fiction and rarely in life: you move in and your neighbors turn out to be fascinating, colorful characters who bring you into their lives (I think of this as Sally Bowles syndrome). That shady, perpetually drunk guy two houses away whose noisy parties keep you and your baby from sleeping and who might be a drug dealer? He's actually a friendly (though slightly confused!) fellow who is going to offer you a beer and give you a little bio of Bernard Maybeck! That angry woman who screamed at your friend for cutting back the jasmine branch in front of her house that was hitting his legally blind face? You're all going to end up in her backyard eating home-made apple crisp and talking all through the night! Early on, Bee flirts and comes on physically to an attractive guy, a few years older, whom she knows slightly from school. (They're sitting, and she drapes her legs over his.) He's interested, and excited, but then she suddenly pulls away from him and tells him curtly she just wants to smoke dope with him. He leaves, disappointed and slightly annoyed. They're both kind of drunk and high, and there's no anger, no physical threat, not even a nasty word or two about what a tease she is? I mean, I'm glad there wasn't, but is such harmlessness really how life goes?

In the early stages of that flirtation, Bee had rapped with the guy and his friend. There's a lot of rap in the play. I don't dismiss rap – it's been around a long time now, and has appealed to a wide range of people, many of them very intelligent and musical – but I don't connect with it. And in plays like this, I feel that we (the mostly white, mostly older audience) are supposed to believe that there's something raw and "real" about it, a sort of youthful energy bursting out of the streets. But it seems to me an art form as elaborate and artificial as baroque opera. Later in the play (skip this sentence if you're planning to see the show) Bee runs into her mother, now a drug addict living in a park. After a tense encounter, after the mother has to run off because the police are coming to rouse the homeless out of the park, Bee delivers an angry rap at her departed mother. It reminded me, in its emotional effect and elaborate structure, of a rage aria in baroque opera. That's not a bad thing as far as I'm concerned, but to me it was part of the artificiality (like some of the melodramatic plot points, those single moments that changed everything) and not the authenticity of the play. But at least it's some sort of cultural or artistic element, which is otherwise lacking in the picture of the city (the retired professor does very briefly quote King Lear to the Indian cab driver, but that mostly just seems pretentious). The show does come through with some touching moments, particularly at the end, but I just didn't recognize the city I lived in for several years, or indeed any city I've ever seen outside of fiction. The play's heart is in the right place, but I wonder where its head is.

From the large cast I particularly liked Juan Amador as Manuel, the Mexican laborer, as well as in a few other roles, and Donald Lacy as the grandfather. Brit Frazier was Bee; the rest of the cast is Mary Baird, Christina Chu, Karina Gutierrez, Abhi Kris, Paul Loomis, Tim Redmond, and Megan Schirle. The musicians were Olive Mitra, Brian Rodvien, Hannah Birch-Carl, and (the night I was there) Alex Garcia, and for once Shotgun didn't brutally amplify the music. The show runs until 22 June; get more information here.

Haiku 2014/157

between sidewalk cracks
little tufts of brown-green grass
living their whole lives

Friday photo 2014/23


rue in flower, San Leandro, April 2014

05 June 2014

Haiku 2014/156

long-gone songs and airs
rise to mind and die away
sudden, sweeping winds

04 June 2014

03 June 2014

Noontime Concerts: The Jarring Sounds sing sweetly of love and loss

During my lunch hour today I trotted up the street to Old St Mary's to hear the Noontime Concert (actually 12:30ish concert, depending on when the noon mass ends). Today's program, Songs of Love and Loss, was performed by Jarring Sounds, a duo formed recently (2011) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, consisting of mezzo-soprano Danielle Reutter-Harrah and Adam Cockerham on lute, theorbo, and guitar, though today he played only on the first two. They perform both contemporary and early music; today was solidly in the early music column, with works by Dowland, Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Strozzi, Vivaldi, and Purcell.

It was overly bright out on California Street and cool and shadowed inside the church. Old St Mary's, which must be the smallest (former) cathedral I've ever seen, is an excellent, sympatico venue for such intimate songs. It really is a relief to be able to escape into such a sheerly pleasurable concert in the middle of a work day – I can guarantee that nothing I or anyone around me in the office did today was as important as listening to this music. Cockerham was a delicate, dreamy accompanist, and had some strong, delightful solos (such as Dowland's The Frog Galliard). Reutter-Harrah has a strong, pure voice; her diction is excellent, and I didn't really need the words for the songs in English (this did not prevent one elderly man near me from flipping through his program book constantly; I have no idea what he was looking for, or if he ever found it, but why do these people always sit near me?). Many of the numbers were in Italian, with one in Latin. Not all the words were in the program, I don't know why. The text of the Monteverdi, a long solo lament among his madrigals called Se pur destina, was not in the book. My operatic Italian gave me only a partial understanding of the text, but Reutter-Harrah varied the mood nicely throughout this comparatively long selection. The mood throughout the whole concert, actually, was varied nicely, from mournful songs to the pert Purcell number that ended the hour. The piece in Latin was Vivaldi's Transit Aetas, a contemplative aria from Juditha Triumphans, in an arrangement for solo theorbo by Cockerham; it was interesting to compare it to the recent, full-on performance by Philharmonia Baroque.

I hadn't heard of the duo before. I'd love to hear them again, and I'd love to hear them in contemporary music as well. They have a CD just out, which I've just ordered, which is available on their website, which is here, but be warned that the site plays music when it's opened, which is obnoxious, no matter what the music is.

Haiku 2014/154

so early, this year,
grass withers tan in dry earth
fledglings have flown off

02 June 2014

Haiku 2014/153

abandoned mattress
stained, grey, fringed by scraggly weeds
songbirds perched on it

Poem of the Week 2014/23

Family Affairs

You let down, from arched
Windows,
Over hand-cut stones of your
Cathedrals, seas of golden hair.

While I, pulled by dusty braids,
Left furrows in the
Sands of African beaches.

Princes and commoners
Climbed over waves to reach
Your vaulted boudoirs,

As the sun, capriciously,
Struck silver fire from waiting
Chains, where I was bound.

My screams never reached
The rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history.

Tired now of pedestal existence
For fear of flying
And vertigo, you descend
And step lightly over
My centuries of horror
And take my hand.

Smiling call me
       Sister.

Sister, accept
That I must wait a
While. Allow an age
Of dust to fill
Ruts left on my
Beach in Africa.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou died last Wednesday, 28 May, at age 86. I think there has been a tendency to see her as a purveyor of Facebook-appropriate uplift, so I thought I'd undercut the kumbaya with this caustic poem in which she politely but firmly disassociates herself from white women who feel that they are her sisters in oppression. She describes these women using fairy-tale imagery, and an abundance of it (arched windows, hand-cut cathedral stones, seas of golden hair, princes (as well as commoners) climbing over waves, the rare tower, even the surreal and striking touch of the woman giving birth to badgers). In contrast, only a few stark details are given about the speaker's life: "pulled by dusty braids," she leaves furrows in African beaches; she is in chains and screams unheard. What goes unspoken, as they often were in American culture, are the reasons for these things: the abduction of Africans (dragged to the ships waiting just off those beaches) to be sold as slaves in America, and the history of sexual exploitation of slave women (referenced indirectly in the "swarm of / Unclean badgers" – burrowing, tenacious, dirt-dwelling animals – consuming the daughters). But when we seek explanations of the speaker's oblique references to her life (why is the woman being dragged forcibly down African beaches? why is she in chains? why is she screaming, and why is she unheard?), we are forced by the poem to remember these things, and to notice that they are officially unspoken, though the woman herself cannot forget them.

The woman in the tower, Rapunzel-like, lets down her own hair; the speaker, by contrast, is prevented from acting on her own, and is pulled by her hair away from her native land (this use of hair reminds me of a similar device in Celan's famous Holocaust poem, Todesfuge (Death Fugue), in which the "golden hair" of the typically German Margarete – note that the name is also that of the innocent young woman in Goethe's Faust – is contrasted with the "ashen hair" of the Jewish woman Shulamith). The woman in the tower also is allowed to change her own status: "tired now of pedestal existence" she descends her tower on her own, stepping lightly, easily. The speaker is not unsympathetic to this woman; a fairy-tale life is not quite a real human life, and neither is life in a tower. Indeed she does not reject the woman's addressing her as "sister"; she returns the title, perhaps with some irony, as she points out that she cannot overlook the woman's complicity in her own tragic story. And the title of the poem, Family Affairs, while suggesting that both women are members of the overall human family, also carries in this context an unavoidable underlying remembrance of the sexual exploitation of slaves. The capricious sun shines on both of them. But their troubles are not the same, and the speaker rejects easy, self-serving identification.

The "fear of flying" line is clearly a reference to Erica Jong's 1973 novel of that name, which became a cultural touchstone for 1970s feminists. The date of this poem also suggests that it was written in response to the women's movement of that period (it was published in the 1983 collection Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?; I took it from The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersand). But I think it is too limiting to read the poem solely in light of internecine battles during what is now called second-wave feminism (at the time we called it simply "feminism"); rather it is also a reminder, despite all we have in common as human beings, that there are some irreducible, historical differences, and the broader your category, the more likely it is to be useless. (This is as good a place as any to suggest that if you haven't already done so, it's worth spending the time to read Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent article The Case for Reparations.)

I heard Angelou speak once, at the Boston Public Library, shortly after I had moved there in 1981. It was one of the most astonishing, indelible performances I have ever seen, and I still remember it vividly over thirty years later. She captivated a packed auditorium with stories from her life – clearly, many of those in attendance had already read her famous memoirs and knew these stories, but wanted to hear them from her. She obliged, and spoke, moved, and even sang for us like the expert performer she was. (And as she signed books afterwards, she had something warm and gracious to say to each person.) I think it's important to remember that as a writer, she started as a performer: she represents the poet as public witness, as prophetic speaker. For most of us, poetry is written and interior; she represents what remains of the great oral tradition of poetry, the bardic tradition in which you serve as the public's memory. I was completely captivated by her powerful presence and her story-telling skill. The evening had special resonance for me, since a few weeks earlier I had been the victim of racial violence. There was some culture shock involved in moving from post-Flower Power Berkeley to post-busing crisis Boston, and I had noted that when I had to tell people (mostly co-workers, who were mostly white) what had happened, they fixated on the fact that it was black guys who had (out of the blue; I was in what I didn't realize was the wrong neighborhood, and some genius had scheduled a football game between an all-black school and an all-white school which had ended in a semi-riot, and I met some of the audience going home) attacked me, but they rarely seemed to pick up (though I was always careful to emphasize it) that it was another group of black guys who, at some personal risk, helped me out. At the time I didn't even have a working phone, or a TV (of course this was long before personal computers), and everyone I knew was back home in California. I had a radio, so when I got back from the hospital emergency room to my tiny, shabby apartment, I turned on the MIT station, which for some reason was playing nothing that weekend but gospel music. That seemed like one perspective on what had happened to me, and so was hearing Angelou speak several weeks later. History is complicated, and so are people, and life is very difficult, and though these things seem incredibly obvious, people seem to keep forgetting that these things apply to all of us, in different ways. When Angelou told the Boston crowd about her first trip to Africa, she mentioned stepping off the plane and realizing that for the first time in her life she was surrounded by people who looked like her – that, for once, she was not a "minority." She paused and said to the crowd in her molasses voice, in an ironic, slightly amazed, seductive tone: "Heady, isn't it?" She was a remarkable American.

01 June 2014

Haiku 2014/152

glowing marigolds –
sturdy, cheerful, old-fashioned –
brightly rebuke me