30 January 2016

fun stuff I may or may not get to: February 2016

Local residents, and probably non-local ones, too, are no doubt aware that the Super Bowl is being played in Santa Clara on 7 February; what even some locals haven't realized is how inconvenient this is going to make life in the Bay Area for the next few weeks (and it's going to continue after the game; they need to take down all the corporate-sponsored tents and suchlike that they put up). If you're planning to go to something in San Francisco during the first half of the month, please be aware that some buses have been rerouted, some streets around the Embarcadero are closed, restaurants will be more crowded, car services will be pricier, and so on. Give yourself some extra time and bring some extra patience. Adding to the bitterness of local residents is anger at the 49ers for decamping closer to the riches of Silicon Valley, though of course neither local team was good enough to get anywhere close to the Bowl of All Bowls. So enjoy, everybody!

Theatrical
Cutting Ball Theater presents Ondine by Katherine Sherman, directed by Rob Melrose. It's described as "a mermaid tale for sleepless nights" which sounds good to me, subject as I am to sleepless nights and seduced by the thought of water; it runs 5 February to 6 March.

Custom Made Theater presents the premiere of Sam and Dede: or, My Dinner with Andre the Giant by Gino Dilorio, directed by Leah S. Abrams. The "Sam" in the title is Samuel Beckett, so I'm immediately interested. The play runs from 11 February to 5 March.

The Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward presents Mrs Warren's Profession by Bernard Shaw; the show runs 11 February to 6 March.

Berkeley Rep presents Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand in Macbeth, directed by Daniel Sullivan. This is a surprisingly difficult play to pull off; you can see if they manage from 19 February to 10 April. Click here to refresh your memory with an excerpt from Macbeth, which was Poem of the Week earlier this week.

Shotgun Players is starting something new this month: the Shotgun Blast Theater Festival, a series of shows, each running for just two nights, that together cover the gamut of offbeat theater. You can check out the various offerings here.

Operatic
The Lamplighters present one of my favorite works by Gilbert & Sullivan, their wonderful parody of gothic horror stories, Ruddygore; or, The Witch's Curse, in Walnut Creek 12 - 14 February, at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco 19 - 21 February, and in Mountain View 27 - 28 February. There are lots of matinees in there, so check here for further details. (Ruddygore is the original spelling of the title; it was changed to the more familiar Ruddigore because it was felt that otherwise it was too close to bloody, which at the time was used as a strangely powerful vulgarity; Gilbert is said to have retorted to someone who said the words were the same, "Not at all; for that would mean that if I said that I admired your ruddy countenance, which I do, I would be saying that I liked your bloody cheek, which I don't.")

Opera Parallèle presents Terence Blanchard's jazz-based opera Champion, based on the life of boxer Emile Griffiths (libretto by Michael Cristofer). Nicole Paiement conducts and Brian Staufenbiel stages the work at the SF Jazz Center on 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 26, 27, and 28 (matinee) February.

West Edge Opera continues its intriguing and offbeat programming with a "Doppelgänger Season" of Opera Medium Rare, a series of semi-staged performances concentrating this season, as the overall title suggests, on lesser known versions of familiar stories. First up is Paisiello's Barber of Seville (to be followed in March by Leoncavallo's La Bohème). There are two performances: a matinee on 7 February at Lisser Theater at Mills College in Oakland and an evening performance on 9 February at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. I'm disappointed to see that West Edge is also continuing its disregard for non-drivers and working people; the Oakland location is difficult to get to without a car and the Berkeley performance doesn't even begin until 8:00 on a Tuesday night.

Vocalists
Dianne Reeves appears at the SF Jazz Center from 11 to 14 February.

The Schwabacher Debut Recitals will take place at the San Francisco Opera's new Wilsey Center; the first one is 28 February and features soprano Amina Edris, baritone Edward Nelson, bass-baritone Brad Walker, and pianist Steven Blier.

Orchestral
Violinist Daniel Hope joins the New Century Chamber Orchestra as guest concertmaster to pay tribute to his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, with an eclectic program featuring works by Bach, Pärt, Glass, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, El-Khoury, Takemitsu, and Bartók. There's an open rehearsal at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center in San Francisco on the morning of 3 February and evening performances on the 4th at First Congregational in Berkeley, the 5th at First United in Palo Alto, the 6th at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and the 7th at the Osher Main JCC in San Rafael.

The Berkeley Symphony will be led by Joana Carneiro on 4 February in Zellerbach Hall in a program featuring Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto with soloist Conrad Tao.

Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony in a program of Dvořák's Carnival Overture, Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with narrator Michael Urie, and the world premiere of Vân-Ánh Võ's Lullaby for a Country; that's 12 February at the Paramount.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Stéphane Denève leads a performance of Nielsen's Violin Concerto with soloist Nikolaj Znaider along with selections from Prokofiev's Cinderella and Guillaume Connesson's A Glimmer in an Age of Darkness; that's 18 - 20 February. Herbert Blomstedt returns at the end of the month with the Bruckner 3 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto 3, with soloist Maria João Pires; that's 25 - 27 February.

The Russian National Orchestra arrives under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony; there are two different programs, one on the 21st and the other on the 22nd; both feature superb pianist Yuja Wang and are conducted by Mikhail Pletnev.

Early / Baroque Music
American Bach Soloists present an all-Handel program. Jeffrey Thomas leads the group in Alexander's Feast with soloists Anna Gorbachyova (soprano), Aaron Sheehan (tenor), and William Sharp (baritone) as well as the Concerto Grosso in C Major and the Harp Concerto in B Flat Major with soloist Maria Christina Cleary. The performances are 26 February at St Stephen's in Belvedere, 27 February at First Congregational in Berkeley, 28 February at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, and (leap year!) 29 February at Davis Community Church in Davis.

Modern / Contemporary Music
Cal Performances presents new music ensemble eighth blackbird on 14 February performing works by Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman.

The Kronos Quartet presents a festival of international music, featuring many new works and special collaborators, including Wu Man, Ritva Koistinen, Mariana Sadovska, KITKA, David Coulter, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, and Vân-Ánh Võ. There are seven concerts over four days (4 - 7 February), all at the SF Jazz Center.

Jazz
See Regina Carter under Violin, Dianne Reeves under Vocalists, and Terence Blanchard's Champion under Operatic.

Violin
Fabulous jazz violinist Regina Carter appears at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on 27 February. The concert is a benefit for the Homeless Prenatal Program.

Piano
San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco recital debut of Igor Levit on 11 February at the Conservatory of Music, with a program featuring Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Prokofiev.

San Francisco Performances presents Richard Goode in an all-Bach program on 25 February in Herbst Theater.

See also Yuja Wang's appearances with the Russian National Orchestra under Orchestral.

Chamber Music
Earplay opens its season on 1 February with a concert in Herbst Theater featuring works by Stefan Wolpe, Shulamit Ran, Eric Sawyer, and Andrew Imbrie.

San Francisco Performances presents the Pacifica Quartet on 12 February at Herbst Theater in a program of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Shulamit Ran.

San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco debut of the Tetzlaff Trio on 20 February at Herbst Theater in a program featuring Schumann, Dvořák, and Brahms.

Cal Performances presents the Takács Quartet in the west coast premiere of a work by Timo Andres, along with works by Haydn and Brahms, on 21 February in Hertz Hall.

Cal Performances presents the Danish String Quartet in works by Per Nørgård, Janáček, and Beethoven, on 28 February in Hertz Hall.

Dance
Cal Performances presents Shiva by the Chitresh Das Dance Company on 27 and 28 February in Zellerbach Hall.

The San Francisco Ballet presents Helgi Tomasson's version of Swan Lake from 19 to 28 February.

29 January 2016

26 January 2016

American Bach Soloists: Bach Favorites

Last Saturday I headed out to First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the American Bach Soloists, who were performing a program they called Bach Favorites. Despite the title, there was no sense of retread over pieces too frequently played; it was quite a refreshing evening. It opened with a cantata, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! pray! pray! watch!; BWV 70), which takes a surprisingly lively and even joyful view of the approaching apocalypse; granted, the text takes cheerful consolation in the redeeming power of Jesus, but I have to admit that there are plenty of times when the thought of the fire next time adds a little lift to my steps too. Right before the music started conductor Jeffrey Thomas turned to us and said that the two cantatas we would be hearing were the ones ABS performed at its first concert twenty-seven years ago. And in a spirit of authenticity, we were invited to sing along with the chorale, just like the Lutherans in Leipzig back in 1723. He led us in a little rehearsal beforehand. I declined to sing; as Sister Maria del Carmen used to tell us back in the day, her gift to God was not to sing to Him; after all, if that's what he wanted, he could have given her a better voice. I believe I was not the only one to refrain. Despite or because of this, Thomas assured us that we sounded better than had the audience in Belvedere the night before. I have no idea where Belvedere is. Thomas may well have made it up for all I know.

Anyway the cantata is mostly solos, and we had a fine set of them: Mary Wilson, soprano; Jay Carter, countertenor; Derek Chester, tenor; and Mischa Bouvier, baritone. The chorus and orchestra were as always strong, clean, and lilting. Wilson sings with ABS fairly often, but I'm not sure I had heard her before; her clear soprano made a striking effect in its one solo, bringing the sort of consolation you find in the one soprano movement of the Brahms Requiem. After this rather elaborate cantata we had the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, only in a new guise: a solo violin arrangement made by our solo violinist, Tatiana Chulochnikova. Her strong, clear, steady tones seemed like an echo of the voices we had just heard. It's interesting to have the massive organ avalanche of this piece replaced by the more sinuous sound of a solo violin. After the intermission, Chulochnikova returned, this time with the orchestra, for an engaging performance of the Concerto for Violin in E Major (BWV 1042). This was, for me at least, the most familiar piece on the program, but welcome nonetheless. It was followed by a second cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life; BWV 147). This piece was written for the feast of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (mother of St John the Baptist), so I guess hearing it was my final farewell to last Christmas. It was a very satisfying end to a satisfying evening. Your next chance to hear ABS will be an all-Handel program, featuring the Handel / Dryden celebration of the power of music, Alexander's Feast. You can find out more information here.

25 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/4

A cry within of women.

[MACBETH:] . . . . what is that noise?

SEYTON: It is the cry of women, my good lord. [Exits.]

MACBETH: I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in 't. I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

[Enter Seyton.]

SEYTON: The Queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Enter a Messenger.

Thou com'st to use thy tongue; thy story quickly!

William Shakespeare, from Macbeth, Act V, scene 5, ll 7 - 29

This is a moment of high drama in the play. Macbeth, who, with the encouragement and aid of his wife, has murdered his way to the kingship of Scotland, is besieged in the castle of Dunsinane by the armies of his victims (The cry is still, "They come!"). Secure in his castle's strength, he also still feels secure in the prophecies revealed by the Weird Sisters: among them, that none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth and that he shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him (Act IV, scene 1). He feels protected against his foes, but also aware that if those prophecies are true, so are the ones that predict his will be a sterile monarchy: no children will succeed him; instead, he has committed murder to the ultimate benefit of Banquo's children. Nausea at life fills him. He has squelched the better instincts of his conscience; perhaps that is why, when he hears the women attendants of the castle screaming, he expresses himself in oddly physical, animal terms: he has almost (almost is important, it drives the uncertainty that torments him) forgotten not the feeling but the taste of fear. The suggestion that fear is nourishing him is picked up later in the speech, when he says he has supped full with horrors. Even his expression of fear seems weirdly detached and animal-like: he describes how his fell (an archaic word meaning pelt) of hair would rise as if on its own – as if there were life in it separate from him. This division between the emotional / spiritual life that eats at him and his physical / animal life will be brought home at the play's end, when (in a stage direction often ignored in productions) his head, severed from his body, is brought on stage.

There is a sense in his speech that time is deranged, things are happening both too quickly and too slowly and in either case out of order. When an attendant officer, Seyton, brings him word that the outcry from the women was due to the death (possibly through suicide, by self and violent hands) of his tormented wife, his immediate reaction is to say she should have died later, when he would have had time to feel and mourn and react appropriately. It's possible that at this point he simply does not know how to feel anymore. The Queen had urged him on in the beginning (note his use in this passage of Direness, which not only contains the sound-sense die but links back to her wish, when she first heard of the Weird Sisters' prophecy that he would be king, that she be filled from head to toe with direst cruelty). An estrangement had slowly grown between them; she is unable to help kill King Duncan (. . . had he not resembled / My father as he slept. . .); she rebukes her husband, puzzled, for the apparitions that haunt him (the air-born dagger he sees before the first murder, the ghost of Banquo after he has him killed); Macbeth increasingly acts without consulting her. Her terrible guilt, shown in the famous sleep-walking scene at the beginning of this act, overwhelms her. Though events are foretold to Macbeth throughout the play, they never quite happen as they should, in his eyes, or bring him the certainty and security he longs for. Lady Macbeth's death is another untimely event: under attack, beset on all sides, what can he manage to say or feel?

Despite the chaos and unease swirling around him, he temporarily, extraordinarily, pauses time with a nihilistic aria expressing the disgust he now feels with life. The plodding repetition of tomorrow, the creeping, the petty pace: all suggest and reinforce a feeling of life as a drawn-out dullness, an endless series of trivialities. Macbeth at this point still thinks his life is safe from attack, not yet realizing that there might be a technical evasion hidden in none of woman born. This might seem like the security that he has ached for, but, like the kingship, it brings with it a sense of futility and restless discontent. The days arise and are extinguished, their light serving only to guide fools (that is, humanity) as they return back to dust. Despite the sense of time dragging on, Macbeth refers to time (or is it life? are the two distinguishable for us?) as a brief candle – a flame that burns itself out in short order. He speaks of time as both eternal and brief. Is time stretched out because there is so much of it to endure, or does it seem stretched out because it is simply unendurable? Out, out, brief candle provides another echo of Lady Macbeth; in the sleepwalking scene that occurred shortly before this scene, the Queen enters carrying a taper (now afraid of the dark, she has light by her continually. 'Tis her command.) and repeatedly cries Out to the imaginary blood she is trying to wipe from her hands.

Macbeth reflects on the transitory and unreal nature of life, finding horror rather than beauty (or even consolation) in this "floating world" quality. In a meta moment, he compares life to that most transitory of human creations, live performance: life is a poor player, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage and then heard no more (this is a concise and despairing version of the already edging towards despair Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, which begins by telling us All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players). Calling life an actor suggests that it is controlled by puppet-master forces, and we do not act on our own volition; Macbeth throughout has questioned the role of destiny in his life (If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me); now, he feels himself caught up in the mechanism of Fate (his assurance against harm depends on believing in the Fateful pronouncements of the Weird Sisters). Calling the player poor suggests he is inadequate to his task as well as impoverished (that is, a victim of his own deficiencies or society's); it also suggests a conflicting glint of sympathy ("that poor man!"). It is part of a series of descriptors – petty, dusty, brief – that reinforces a sense of existence as a degraded thing.

Macbeth also finds existence, at this point in his life, a meaningless thing: he moves from describing life as an actor strutting and fretting (strut suggesting vainglory and conceit, and fret suggesting worry and wearing away) to describing life as a tale, but one told by an idiot (which here means not so much just a stupid person, as we use the word now, but a mentally disturbed one). Creating a tale – creating art, telling a story, like the playwright who sends the player out on the stage – is a way of imposing order and meaning on the world. Macbeth here declares that the tale we tell ourselves about life is equivalent to the ranting gabble of a madman – the sound and the fury signify not just nothing, but nothingness. He has moved from comparing life to an actor – a relatively rational albeit "poor" human being – to comparing it not to the idiot, who may be irrational but is still a human being, one whose condition might actually raise pity in the on-looker – but to the "tale", that is, the ranting, of the idiot. Life is no longer even represented as a human; it is words, garbled, crazy words, furious and meaningless air. Earlier there had been hints of a rational order underlying existence; Macbeth sees time stretching out to its last syllable. A syllable suggests an on-going flow of words, of words as history. But finally the words are just random syllables, units of sound lacking meaning – the tale told by a madman.

This relatively brief speech has leapt out of Macbeth, stopping the action and crystallizing his anguish. By its end, he can go no further into despair. He reverts to the world of frenzied action, demanding of the newly arrived Messenger that he tell his story, and tell it quickly. He is back in the world where we pretend stories make sense. But the Messenger has a tale to tell that seems senseless, though it's one we saw coming when we heard Duncan's son Malcolm, in the scene preceding this one, ordering his troops to cut down branches of Birnam Wood to carry before them while marching to Dunsinane, thereby misleading Macbeth as to the true extent of their forces. In short, the hapless Messenger must inadvertently report that the first protection promised Macbeth has fallen: Birnam Wood is marching against Dunsinane Hill.

This is from the Signet Classic edition of Macbeth, edited by Sylvan Barnet. I'm planning on doing a Shakespeare entry at least once a month, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the poet's death.

22 January 2016

19 January 2016

Cappella SF: Russian music in the rain

Under weeping skies last Sunday, looking out the train window at bare black branches or the occasional flurried clusters of dark green leaves tossing in the wind, I went into San Francisco to hear Cappella SF sing an all-Russian program at the Mission Dolores Basilica. It was obviously a day suited to a Russian mood.

I discovered at Cappella SF's last concert that the sound is very good in the back of the Basilica (near the entrance, that is), so that is where I planned on sitting. The doors were open already when I arrived a little before 4:30 for the 5:00 concert. I went in and then out the side to the men's room, which is right by the old Mission cemetery, which was padlocked for the night by then. I stared for a bit at the rain falling on the headstones under the trees, which is an enjoyably gloomy sensation.


Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin had arranged a nicely varied program, with pleasing obscurities amid the more or less familiar beloveds. The sounds of the pieces themselves worked well together, making a program that was coherent but changeable enough to avoid monotony over the almost ninety minutes of the program. The sound of the chorus itself just seems to get better and better, with something clear and precise yet mellow about it, a sort of amber luster and clarity. The program started with some of the (to me, at least) obscurities. First up was Cherubic Hymn No. 7 by Dmitri Bortnyansky, who lived in the late eighteenth - early nineteenth centuries. He studied under Galuppi and spent a decade in Italy; I've heard some concerts the last few years of music from eighteenth-century Russia that make the case for a sort of European style that gradually gave way in the nineteenth century to national schools. Bortnyansky seems to straddle that divide with his hymn to the trinity. The next two composers, Pavel Chesnokov and Alexander Grechaninov, straddled a different divide, between Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, but both their pieces (Salvation is created by the former and a wavelike setting of The Lord's Prayer by the latter) continued the religious theme and ethereal sound of the music.

The next piece was by a contemporary, Sergei Viluman, and though it was secular, a setting of Alexander Blok's poem Night, street, lamp, drugstore, the text and sound were so meditative and sombre and philosophical that it actually took me a while to realize that it wasn't an officially religious work. By now the rain was falling so heavily outside that it was clearly audible in the basilica, reinforcing the choir ("You die – and then relive it all, the same restart, the same repeat; the night, the ice on the canal, the drugstore, the lamp, the street. . . "). Rainfall is one of the few non-musician-caused noises that I can stand during a concert, a point that was brought home to me in the next section, when three youngish women who had come in late (possibly just to get out of the rain) sat in the pew behind me and proceeded to whisper, giggle, and loudly turn program pages during Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance (Nos. 1, 2, 11, and 12). That's the disadvantage of sitting in the back. You get people like that there: the latecomers, the whisperers, the phone-checkers. The mood was ruined, but fortunately they left after the Schittke. I moved farther back anyway. And I had really been looking forward to the Schnittke. I just can't comprehend people who can hear such music and not be moved to, at a minimum, a respectful silence.

There was a little break for the chorus before the final number; Bohlin played a prelude (Op 23, No 10 in G-flat) by Rachmaninov. The chorus then sang Nos. 1 - 8 of Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, with some lovely solos by mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen and tenor Jimmy Kansau. The program notes promised some low basses here, and they came through, with that deep organ tone that sounds so essentially Russian, or so essentially like a certain conception of a certain Russia.

Cappella SF's next concert will be in May, again at the Basilica, but this time a concert of Norwegian music . As I said, their sound just keeps getting better, and this was a striking and moving concert (audience aside). Check out their next appearance (but please give a wide berth to the solitary man in black sitting in the back of the church!).

18 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/3

Colors
(to Leland)

                                  (Red)

She went to buy a brand new hat,
And she was ugly, black, and fat:
"This red becomes you well," they said,
And perched it high upon her head.
And then they laughed behind her back
To see it glow against the black.
She paid for it with regal mien,
And walked out proud as any queen.

                                (Black)

                               1
The play is done, the crowds depart; and see
That twisted tortured thing hung from a tree,
Swart victim of a newer Cavalry.

                               2
Yea, he who helped Christ up Golgotha's track,
That Simon who did not deny, was black.

                        (The Unknown Color)

I've often heard my mother say,
When great winds blew across the day,
And, cuddled close and out of sight,
The young pigs squealed with sudden fright
Like something speared or javelined,
"Poor little pigs, they see the wind."

Countee Cullen

These poems use traditional, and in the context of their time, conservative rhyme and meter (an appropriation of traditional forms that in itself carries some subversive intent in a Harlem Renaissance writer such as Cullen), but placed together they form an ambiguous and suggestive whole.

The first one starts out with a sort of nursery-rhyme sound and feel: She went to buy a brand new hat; and the very simplicity and cheerful lilting rhythm increase the shock and even crudity of the next, also linguistically simple, line: And she was ugly, black, and fat. This pattern continues in the next couplet, with a possibly innocuous line followed by one that reveals the complexity and cruelty underlying a seemingly everyday transaction. "This red becomes you well," they said might seem genuine until you reach the insidious perched in the next line, and you can see the bright hat teetering ridiculously on top of this very large woman. We're not actually told that the salesclerks are white, though you could infer it from the emphasis in the second line on the woman's blackness, and we're not told if they're men or women – and yet what reader doesn't know these clerks, just close enough to the border of offensive so that they get their mockery across to their victim without going far enough to put themselves obviously in the wrong. They laugh at her, but behind her back: but in the next line, To see it glow against the black, glow tips us off to a beauty – to glow is to emit a steady light or radiance – that they are blind to. The title of this first poem tells us that the color it's about is red, the glowing red of the hat, rather than primarily the black of the woman's skin; this is another hint to see something significant in the bold brilliance of the hat.

So far each couplet has had its first line subverted by its second; in the first two couplets the second line exposes the fraught situation of the seemingly direct first line, and in the third couplet, as the situation intensifies, the ridicule in the first line is countered in the second by the suggestion of unexpected and, for some, unseen beauty (the perched red hat glowing against the fat woman's black skin). But in the final couplet, the two lines reinforce each other: she pays with regal mien, and in the next line she walks out proud as any queen. What does the woman herself think? Does she realize she's being mocked, does she like the hat anyway? We're not told. Wearing hats was something ladies did in public; this entire transaction is in a social space, and we're seeing her (ugly, black, and fat) as her society mostly sees her. Her society, in the form of salesclerks, treats her accordingly; we, the readers, see a woman reacting with considerable dignity to a petty humiliation of the sort she must face frequently. The very reticence in the final lines about the woman's actual perceptions or reactions to the joke being played on her increases our sense of her dignity. For the reader, her strength becomes her beauty.

The second poem is actually two brief poems, connected by references to the crucifixion of Jesus. The first part, as with the first poem in the set, begins innocently enough, with what seems like a description of a crowd departing a theater after the show is over. And, repeating the pattern of the first poem, the second line exposes the cruelty hidden by but latent in the first: the mob has been watching a man being lynched. And again as in the first poem, as the suggestion in the first line of a theatrical performance makes clear, we are in a social space. The murder has apparently taken a while, and been protracted, as the victim's corpse is twisted and he has been tortured. He is given the retrospective dignity of an archaic term to describe the cause of his murder: he is swart, that is, swarthy, dark-skinned. He is given the further dignity of having his death compared to that of Christ, expiating the sins of humanity through death on the cross: hung from a tree in the second line prepares us for the direct comparison to Calvary in the final line (Calvary in this section and Golgotha in the next both refer to the hill outside of Jerusalem on which Christ was crucified). The suggestion is that this anonymous victim of a lynching is another sacrificial victim to the sins of humanity. (This reminds me of the terrific line in the Epilogue of Shaw's Saint Joan: "Must then a Christ be crucified in every generation to save those that have no imagination?")

The second section, brief and epigrammatic like the first, plays off the story of Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry the cross up the hill, and Simon Peter the apostle, who (as foretold by Christ) denied Jesus three times on the night of the crucifixion. Simon of Cyrene, like many minor actors in the life of Christ, has had major legends spring up around him. (Even the name of his hometown is a bit mysterious; I searched for the correct pronunciation and was given three different possibilities, each one authoritatively stated: Sy-reen, Sy-ree-nee, and Sy-ree-neh. Since it's a Greek name I'm assuming the second or third is closest to the original, but the pronunciation might have been Anglicized.) Cyrene was an ancient city located in what is now Libya, and though there were both Greek and Jewish communities there, Simon has often traditionally been seen as a native of the region (that is, a black man). He is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a bystander who was ordered to help Jesus carry the cross when the guards feared Jesus would die before reaching his appointed execution spot.

Though it seems clear Simon's assistance was involuntary (which could actually work in this poem, given the American history of race-based slavery), there is an alternate tradition that Simon either was or became a Christian himself, making him a type, like the Good Samaritan, of one who helps the downtrodden. There is a tradition of venerating him as a saint. In these lines, Cullen views him definitely as a black man; it's a bit ambiguous whether he sees Simon's assistance as willing or at least not unwilling, but he makes a pointed, acerbic comparison between Simon of Cyrene's acceptance of the helper role thrust on him and the denial of Christ by Simon Peter, who of course became the first head of the Christian church.

Something beyond the comparisons to the crucifixion connects these two sections, and that is the color of the title: black. In the first section, the man was one of the thousands of black men lynched in America as part of a racially motivated campaign of terror; in the second, the man who helps Jesus carry his burden is, in the emphatic final word, black. Together these two sections offer rich suggestions of the African-American history of slavery, lynching, survival, and the sustenance and spirit of the black churches.

The first two sections have dealt with social spaces, and the titles have indicated very specific colors. In the third section, we are in a domestic space, and the color is unknown. These are existential terrors, affecting Nature as well as people. The high winds howl. The piglets howl along, in their squealing register, as if they've been stabbed – as if, the mother suggests, in another hint of the folkloric or nursery-rhyme element we've seen elsewhere in the set, they can see the wind. Seeing this unseen but powerful force is what frightens the little pigs. In contrast to the first two sections, this third one is relatively direct, lacking the complex social interaction of the first one and the implied cultural and historical references of the second: and yet, in conjunction with their examination of human pain and the suffering and fortitude in the face of pain, it opens the set out into a finally irresolvable vision of human suffering connected not just to race, history, religion, or culture, but to the unseen forces of the Universe.

This is from My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, edited and introduced by Gerald Early. A footnote to the poem explains the dedication "To Leland" by saying "Leland B. Pettit was the organist of the All Saints Cathedral Choir and, apparently, a good friend of Cullen during the mid-twenties. In 1925 he organized a reading for Cullen at the Atheneum in Milwaukee."

11 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/2

The Crossed Apple

I've come to give you fruit from out my orchard,
Of wide report.
I have trees there that bear me many apples
Of every sort:

Clear, streakèd; red and russet; green and golden;
Sour and sweet.
This apple's from a tree yet unbeholden,
Where two kinds meet, –

So that this side is red without a dapple,
And this side's hue
Is clear and snowy. It's a lovely apple.
It is for you.

Within are five black pips as big as peas,
As you will find,
Potent to breed you five great apple trees
Of varying kind:

To breed you wood for fire, leaves for shade,
Apples for sauce.
Oh, this is a good apple for a maid,
It is a cross,

Fine on the finer, so the flesh is tight,
And grained like silk.
Sweet Burning gave the red side, and the white
Is Meadow Milk.

Eat it; and you will taste more than the fruit:
The blossom, too,
The sun, the air, the darkness at the root,
The rain, the dew,

The earth we came to, and the time we flee,
The fire and the breast.
I claim the white part, maiden, that's for me.
You take the rest.

Louise Bogan

Here's a witty, teasing poem by Louise Bogan that begins in innocence and ends in experience. Maybe because the subject matter (offering an apple to an innocent) ineluctably brings to mind Satan and Eve in the Garden of Eden, there's an air of seduction here (It's a lovely apple. / It is for you. – how wonderful, these two brief sentences, with the delicate pause between, and the parallel structure suggesting that this lovely thing must be for you). But even more, there is a feeling that this seduction will bring with it great knowledge. Given this hint of the Biblical Fall, the appearance of cross will carry with it a reminder of the crucifixion, though in both the title and the end of the fifth stanza what the word officially means is that the tree is the product of interbreeding between two species (which are named in the sixth stanza). As a further troubling hint, in that detached line at the end of the fifth stanza (It is a cross) we might also be reminded of some other meanings of cross: to impose or thwart someone, or a burden one must carry (as in "it's her cross to bear").

In addition to the Biblical resonance, there's also a bit of a fairy-tale atmosphere here, with the offered apple pure red on one side and pure white on the other, and the magical-sounding five seeds as big as peas that will breed five different trees that together are capable of giving you what you need to survive in a forest (warmth, shelter, food). The tree that produces this striking apple is described as unbeholden, which means free of duty or obligation to anyone, though I feel there's also a suggestion there of un- (not) beheld (seen by anyone): that is, this is a fantastical tree, as well as a tree that doesn't owe anything to other trees – though this tree is yet unbeholden, suggesting that the tree will come to be beholden to (or beheld by) someone, perhaps the maiden who eats the proffered apple.

We move from a description of the many types of apple in the speaker's orchard to this particular and significant apple, with one side red (suggesting fire, passion, blood, love) and the other white (suggesting purity, innocence, virginity). The resonance of these colors is strengthened by the names of the parent trees (which I believe are Bogan's invention, not actual apple varieties): Sweet Burning for the red; the pastoral Meadow Milk for the white. Though joined in one fruit, the two sides seem self-contained. As the speaker moves into a description of this special apple, the language grows increasingly erotic: fine on the finer (which I take to mean superlatively fine?), the flesh is tight, grained like silk. Even the pips are potent to breed.

The speaker (I'm tempted in this case to say the seducer) says Eat it, which sounds like a command, but turns out to be part of an elaborate explanation: this apple will bring you more than a wholesome snack! In fact, it's not necessarily wholesome at all; it brings with a bite a deep, encompassing knowledge of the physical processes of earth: not just the pretty blossom and the dew, but the suggestive darkness at the root – a literal reference to roots underground in the dark earth, but also a symbolic reference, possibly to Original Sin, or maybe just to the mystery at the core of things; and with this, the knowledge expands towards the metaphysical: the earth we came to, and the time we flee, / The fire and the breast. The earth we came to might refer to the place these two have met, or more generally to the earth they were born into; the time we flee might refer to the lovers running off together, or more generally to death. They will share the apple, though it might be more accurate to say they will split it, since (as noted earlier) the two halves seem quite separate and even contradictory. The speaker will take the white part (the innocence), telling the maiden You take the rest – but rest is exactly what she won't get, since, as the repeated use of cross suggests, this love is not likely to be a happy one, though it might still have been worth it to move into the orbit of fire and the breast. (Of course, this is a speech from one side: we are never told what the maiden actually chose.)

This is from The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923 - 1968 by Louise Bogan.

05 January 2016

fun stuff I may or may not get to: January 2016

January has rolled around again; it's the start of a new year but also the halfway point in most theater seasons. A sort of odd new tradition seems to have sprung up in recent years in which the year end brings not only Nutcrackers and Messiahs but also pleas to donate as part of "your year-end giving". I understand the tax reasons for donating before the end of the year, but I'm also keenly aware that the end of the year is when I'm particularly conscious of having failed (again) at controlling expenses, and my "year-end giving" tends to be to credit card companies. When I do donate to arts groups, I tend to do so when I renew a subscription, which is usually toward the end of the theater season, which puts it mid-way through the calendar year. And I do wonder why I would donate to a group when I don't know what they're doing next season – as a general sign of faith, I guess. Well, enough of this little digression; I hope all of us can contribute support to the arts in some way in the coming year. You might start by buying tickets to one of the shows listed below! (And if you buy tickets to certain Cal Performances events before 26 January you could take advantage of their Winter Sale: buy at least one ticket to two performances and the tickets are only $25 each.)

Theatrical
ACT presents Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout, directed by Gordon Edelstein, a one-man show in which John Douglas Thompson portrays both Louie Armstrong and Miles Davis; that's 13 January to 7 February at the Geary Theater.

The Aurora Theater presents Little Erik, a contemporary adaptation of Ibsen's Little Eyolf, written and directed by Mark Jackson; the show runs 29 January to 28 February. The theater's website does not allow you to choose your own seat, so your best bet is to call them at 510-843-4822 between 1:00 and 5:00 Tuesdays through Fridays.

At Shotgun Players, Agatha Christie's Mousetrap, directed by Patrick Dooley, has been extended to 24 January. They also present the latest in their Reading Series, Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, directed by Molly Noble, on 18 - 19 January.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the Moss Hart / Irving Berlin revue As Thousands Cheer on 29 and 31 January, with direction and choreography by Michael Mohammed and music direction by Lauren Mayer.

Modern / Contemporary Music
Old First Concerts presents the Ives Collective performing Paul Hindemith's Quartet and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time at 4:00 on 31 January at Old First Church on Van Ness Avenue.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present a program on 19 January at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, featuring La forma dello spazio by Zosha Di Castri, Worker's Union by Louis Andriessen, and For Samuel Beckett by Morton Feldman.

And as always the Center for New Music has lots of stuff worth checking out; things that looked particularly interesting this month are the A/B Duo on 9 January premiering works by Ken Ueno, Brendon Randall-Myers, Brooks Frederickson, and Francisco Castillo Trigueros; Ken Ueno and Matt Ingalls and Sinecure improvising on 15 January; and Wild Rumpus and Synchromy playing new pieces by Jason Barabba, Nick Norton, and Jen Wang, and (presumably newish) pieces by Joshua Carro, Ursula Kwong-Brown, Richard Valitutto, Dan Van Hassel, and Scott Worthington, on 26 January; you can check out the whole schedule here and probably find something fun that I've overlooked.

Early / Baroque Music
Jeffrey Thomas leads the American Bach Soloists in an all-Bach program, featuring the cantatas Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben and Herz (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life; BWV 147) and Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! Pray! Pray! Watch!, BWV 70) with soloists Mary Wilson (soprano), Jay Carter (countertenor), Derek Chester (tenor), and Mischa Bouvier (bass), along with the Violin Concerto in E Major, with soloist Tatiana Chulochnikova, and Chuluochnikova's own transcription for solo violin of the Toccata & Fugue in D Minor. That's 22 January at St Stephen's Church in Belvedere, 23 January at First Congregational in Berkeley, 24 January (4:00) at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, and 25 January at the Davis Community Church in Davis.

The San Francisco Early Music Society presents the Quicksilver ensemble in rare and unusual works from 17th century Vienna, featuring compositions for the court of the Holy Roman Emperor by Valentini, Bertali, Buonamente, Pandolfi, Kerll, Legrenzi, Fux, Muffat, and Schmelzer. That's 29 January at First Presbyterian in Palo Alto, 30 January at St John's Presbyterian in Berkeley, and 31 January at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

Choral
Ragnar Bohlin leads Cappella SF in an all-Russian program on 17 January at Mission Dolores Basilica.

Vocalists
San Francisco Performances presents tenor Nicholas Phan at one of their intimate Hotel Rex concerts, which start at 6:30. This one is on 28 January, so a Thursday rather than the usual Wednesday for this series. Phan will be singing settings of Whitman and Dickinson by Ives, Rorem, Heggie, and Copland.

Jazz
San Francisco Performances presents the Luciana Souza Quintet on 31 January in Herbst Theater, in a program called Speaking in Tongues.

The Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour plays Zellerbach Hall for Cal Performances on 24 January.

Dance
San Francisco Ballet begins its post-Nutcracker season with two mixed programs: Program 1 (24 January to 5 February) features Helgi Tomasson's 7 for Eight, Yuri Possokhov's Magrittomania, and the North American premiere of William Forsythe's Pas/Parts; Program 2 (27 January to 6 February) features Christopher Wheeldon's Continuum (to music by Ligeti), Liam Scarlett's Fearful Symmetries, and Balanchine's Rubies.

San Francisco Performances presents Company Wayne McGregor in Atomos, 14 - 16 January at the Yerba Buena Center.

Cal Performances presents the Cloud Gate Dance Theater of Taiwan in Rice, 22 - 23 January in Zellerbach Hall.

Piano
Cal Performances presents Yefim Bronfman in the first of a three-concert series in which he will play all of Prokofiev's piano sonatas. You can hear the first four at Hertz Hall on 24 January.

See also appearances by Stephen Hough and Jonathan Biss with (or under the auspices of) the San Francisco Symphony, under Symphonic.

Symphonic
Cal Performances presents the St Louis Symphony, conducted by David Robertson, in two programs: the Mahler 5 and the John Adams Saxophone Concerto with soloist Tim McAllister (29 January) and Messiaen's Des Canyons aux Étoiles with pianist Peter Henderson and visuals by Deborah O'Grady (31 January).

The San Francisco Symphony has an excellent-looking program centered on European explorations of foreign myths, conducted by Edwin Outwater and featuring pianist Stephen Hough in the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto 5, the Egyptian, along with Weber's Overture to Oberon, excerpts from Busoni's Turandot Suite, and Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Weber. That's 28 - 31 January (the performances on the 28th and 31st are matinees).

Jonathan Biss plays the Mozart Piano Concerto 21 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Pinchas Zukerman, presented by the San Francisco Symphony on 24 January. The program also includes the Overture to The Magic Flute and the Tchaikovsky 4. On 25 January, Zukerman leads the Royal Philharmonic in Beethoven's Egmont Overture, Elgar's Enigma Variations, and is the soloist in the Mozart Violin Concerto 5.

Visual Arts / Cinematic
The Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive re-opens in its new location in downtown Berkeley, a block away from the Berkeley BART station and right outside the UC - Berkeley campus. There are various preview days from 28 to 31 January and then a lot of interesting-looking programs and exhibits.

04 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/1

Sestina

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It's time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle's small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

Elizabeth Bishop

As the title indicates, this poem is a sestina. An old form dating back to the twelfth-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel, the sestina, as its name implies (deriving ultimately from the Latin sextus, six), is built on the number six: six stanzas, of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi, or short concluding stanza. You may use any six words to end the lines of the first stanza, but then each of those six words must re-appear, in a traditional set pattern, as the end-words in the remaining stanzas. And then all six words must re-appear in the envoi.

Bishop follows the classic pattern of end words in the stanzas:

Stanza 1: A (house), B (grandmother), C (child), D (stove), E (almanac), F (tears);
Stanza 2: F (tears), A (house), E (almanac), B (grandmother), D (stove), C (child);
Stanza 3: C (child), F (tears), D (stove), A (house), B (grandmother), E (almanac);
Stanza 4: E (almanac), C (child), B (grandmother), F (tears), A (house), D (stove);
Stanza 5: D (stove), E (almanac), A (house), C (child), F (tears), B (grandmother);
Stanza 6: B (grandmother), D (stove), F (tears) E (almanac), C (child), A (house);
Envoi: first line: F / E; second line: B / D; third line: C / A.

The sestina form, with its sense of obsessive repetition, is a brilliant choice for this poem of somewhat claustrophobic, recurring, and inward sorrow. The first appearance of tears in the poem is as the final word, the climax, of the first stanza, as the grandmother laughs and talks, reading the jokes in the almanac, trying to hide them. They re-appear in their appointed end-lines, transformed into drops of water dancing down the hot kettle as they disappear into steam, into the tea the grandmother and the child share, into the buttons on the suit of the man in the child's drawing, into the little waxing and waning moons pictured in the almanac – tears run through the poem. They seem to be a regularly recurring thing for the grandmother, who thinks them foretold by the almanac just as surely as the weather; she considers her tears equinoctial, that is, related to the equinox, the twice-yearly point when the sun crosses the equator and daylight and darkness are of equal length.

This suspension between light and dark suggests the mood of the scene pictured here (as well as the grandmother's laughter to cover the simultaneous tears); things look cozy and quaint (grandmother and grandchild drinking tea, the rain outside, the old-fashioned Marvel Stove inside, warming them up) but are fraught with unspoken troubles (why is the grandmother crying, and why is she trying to hide her tears from the child? why are these tears regular events, as if they're calendared? why is the child with the grandmother – where are her parents? does all this have something to do with the child's drawing of a mysterious man buttoned up by tears?). The child's drawing seems to have some relationship with the unexpressed troubles, and not just because of the mysterious man; the house she draw is rigid, but the pathway to it is winding; the contrast between the adjectives suggests some of the problems between an inflexible social or family life and the wayward approaches of our lives.

The equinox referred to must be the fall equinox (roughly 22 September), given the September rain falling on the house. The onset of autumn brings with it associations of growing cold and darkness, and intimations of the end of life. This is one of the details, like the failing light, the heavy rain on the roof, the chilly air that leads the grandmother to put more wood in the oven, that cumulatively create a melancholy atmosphere. The two seem rather isolated in the rain, and in the world. The grandmother seems to be a bit cut off from the times; by the period of Bishop's poem (the vague middle of the twentieth century), the Marvel Stove and the almanac so prominently featured here were long past their heyday as cutting-edge developments in technology and information dissemination, representing instead an old-fashioned quaintness that charms because most of the world has forgotten them. There's kind of a fairy-tale quality in the poem, with the singing kettle and the magical almanac and the kindly grandmother, and of course there's always underlying danger, often around lost family members, in such stories.

Marvel is the brand name of those sort of curving and ornate-looking wood-burning stoves that, at least for my generation, represent the image of an old-time oven; and the almanac, an annual publication with schedules of tides and moon cycles and other information handy for farmers and sailors and suchlike, is most likely The Old Farmer's Almanac, which was popular in mid-century America and included jokes and humorous items along with the more practical stuff – but even the title, with its reference to an imaginary Old Farmer, hearkens back nostalgically to a vanished America. The stove and the almanac are, in a way, intrusions (however out of date) from the outside world into the emotional world of the grandmother and child. Both speak with certainty (It was to be / I know what I know); both are linked with the emblematic tears. Are the certainties of the outside world linked to the private sorrows? The almanac hovers like a bird above the child, bringing to mind the Paraclete, usually pictured as a hovering dove, bringing spiritual enlightenment and comfort. The stove and the almanac are useful, not only for heating and cooking and weather-related information, but as ways of occupying and distracting the grandmother and the child. Yet their presence also emphasizes how removed the grandmother (and therefore, the child in her care) are from their times. Their relation to the scene remains both powerful and mysterious.

The grandmother is aware of the gloomy mood and keeps trying to lighten it, or to keep the child from noticing it, not only by adding more wood for warmth but by reading jokes to the child and tidying up and sharing a comforting cup of tea with her – but the tea is seen (by the grandmother – possibly by the child as well) as a cup of brown tears. Like the grandmother's other attempts to create a more cheerful atmosphere, this one isn't successful, though the attempts show heart-breaking care and love. Yet despite this, the gap between the grandmother and the child is never really bridged; the former feels that her returning tears are only known to a grandmother (and perhaps beyond a child's full comprehension; the generations divide these two), and the latter feels that the flower bed she drew in her picture of a house is secretly filled with tears in the form of the almanac's moons (the waxing and waning moons turning into tears are another suggestion of a deep cycle of sorrow). Neither of the two shares her sadness or her thoughts with the other; instead, touchingly, they try to protect each other from their personal burdens of pain.

Why does such a deeply emotional poem (the mystery behind and repression of the emotions only deepens them) have such a bland and even generic title? Is it an attempt to deflect the very painful emotions portrayed, as if to draw attention to the form itself and the poet's mastery of it, rather than to the tear-haunted house she is portraying? Or does the almost defiant highlighting of the poem's form perhaps suggest that the act of creating art of some sort – of finding and fulfilling a suitable form – is the best way of dealing with human pain? The summation in the envoi includes the grandmother singing to the stove (hoping to distract the child? in temporary pleasure at the stove's warmth?) and the child drawing another inscrutable house. An old woman singing and a child drawing: though at a much lower level of sophistication than Bishop's creation of this poem, both are still ways, however limited and rudimentary, of directing sorrow into the joy of creation.

But the house drawn by the child remains inscrutable; it betrays no secrets to the outside viewer. Though her drawings are imbued by the sorrows of the household (and the world: the little moons from the almanac falling into the carefully drawn flowerbed), those sorrows are, ultimately, unknown to us, and perhaps unknowable. What we see expressed here are the effects of those family sorrows, and we end knowing the emotional and psychological states of the grandmother and child, but not the source of those states. Through her art, the poet has connected us with a remembered emotional condition, but the point is not the particular cause (the starting item of gossip, as it were), but the transformation of it into a work of art. (This is why I have avoided an autobiographical reading here, though anyone who knows something of Bishop's early life can make assumptions about the connections between this poem and the poet's life.)

This is from The Complete Poems 1927 - 1979, by Elizabeth Bishop.