28 October 2007


Sometimes more really is less. I had been eagerly anticipating the Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan’s visit to Berkeley. They rarely travel, I love puppets (well, not so much the human kind), and one of my all-time favorite movies (Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide, if you want to fire up the Netflix queue) is based on a Bunraku classic. So, about ten minutes after the inevitable 8:00 p.m. start time that Saturday, we get a beautiful excerpted scene from Oshichi’s Burning Love – The Fire Watchtower. The set fills the stage. The puppets are quite large, maybe two-thirds life-size. I don’t know how they look from the back of that large hall, but I prefer to sit close anyway and even just a few rows away the illusion is amazing. Within this ten-minute scene you forget that there are three puppeteers (two of them hooded and dressed in black, but the main manipulator bare-headed and buskined) working on each doll. The eyelids move, the fingers move, there are slapping sounds to convey their walks. So far, so great. And then, after that brief scene, we were given An Introduction to Bunraku, in which the narrator, and then the musician, and then the puppeteer came out one by one and with the translator’s help spent a solid hour illuminating the obvious by pointing out that they use different voices/tunes for different characters, or that different strings control the different features of the face and so forth, along with some background information which was also in the program and could be read in less than ten minutes.

Does Bunraku really need an introduction? It’s pretty clear how it works, and the theatrical conventions are not so utterly bizarre that they need a condescending hour-long explication. A friend of mine once told me about an inadequately prepared junior-high class trip to the ballet; after about ten minutes his classmate leaned over and whispered, “Duuuude! Why aren’t they talking?” So maybe, under some circumstances, such as a presentation at a grammar school, the Introduction might have been necessary. I don’t think those circumstances include a presentation at a major university on the west (Asia-facing) coast. For one thing, it was clear from the sympathetic chuckles before the translator helped out the rest of us that about half the audience understood Japanese (and as the chuckles indicate, the jocular tone was totally unsuited to the essentially tragic mood of Bunraku, which seems to be the way these talks always work out). There had been a public symposium a few days before, which unfortunately I missed, and then a talk before the show. Isn’t that enough? Does the magician keep stopping his act to explain that he actually pulled the rabbit from a hidden compartment in his hat, or that he was distracting you with one hand while extracting eggs with another? There’s a lot to be said for the willing suspension of disbelief, and for not needing every last detail explained to you, and for strangeness as a desirable aesthetic quality.

Then we had the intermission, of course, and though after that we finally had an actual play, deft and dazzling (Miracle at the Tsubosaka Kannon Temple – Sawaichi’s House and the Mountain), its lyrical beauties came a little late for me. It’s a bad sign when I’m checking the running times and when even my heedless self starts thinking about how much the ticket cost. These were not cheap tickets, and frankly I felt a bit annoyed and ripped off – I was in that theater for two hours and forty minutes, and only one hour and ten minutes of that involved an actual performance. I would have been less annoyed if they’d just performed the puppet works – you know, the thing I paid to see – and cut the evening short. That was something to mull over during the interminable wait for the noisy, dirty, short BART train, and then again as the bus pulled away just as I ran up the sidewalk, giving me at least twenty-five more minutes of mulling time in the drizzly cold.

What a contrast back at Berkeley several nights later when I heard Hilary Hahn (ably accompanied on all but the Ysaye Sonata No. 5 by Valentina Lisitsa on piano). She has very long, elegant, and obviously very strong fingers, and I enjoyed watching them turn printed scores into gorgeous sounds. The first half was Franck, Mozart, and Ysaye, which I thought might be too much sweetness, but Hahn and Lisitsa found various shades of lyricism from seraphic to fizzy that kept the beauty from cloying. After the Franck the performers left the stage. A stagehand entered from the left and closed the lid of the grand piano. A moment later a different stagehand entered from the right, shaking his head and muttering, and raised the lid of the grand piano back up; hilarity ensued. I have to give lots of credit to performers who can come out and dedicate themselves to producing such wonderful music when a lot of the audience is clearly almost as entertained by a stagehand’s mistake. After the intermission Hahn put on her glasses and put up the music stand for Ives’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano, which was a gentler side of Ives but still possibly my favorite piece of the evening. Then they finished with the Brahms Sonata No. 2. The women returned amid applause to give us an encore – “a break from half-hours of lyricism” as Hahn charmingly noted; they played the tangy march from the Love for Three Oranges. This concert also lasted about two hours and forty minutes, but the two young women performed with tireless beauty for all but about half an hour of that time, and then stayed later to sign programs and CDs in the lobby. I decided not to stay, since I got my signed CDs last time I heard her, but I assume she was as personable and gracious this time as she was then. That’s a generous performer, dedicated to her public, and I can't wait to buy her forthcoming recording of the Schoenberg and Sibelius violin concertos. Sometimes more really is more.

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