31 January 2009

Haiku 31

Slivered perception
Glimmering faintly between
Sunrise and nightfall

But O for the touch of a vanished hand, And the sound of a voice that is still!

Imagine Richard Strauss setting something like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and you have something like Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, and if you’re wondering if that’s praise, it emphatically is, though I should point out I am someone who was genuinely astonished to discover that not all children naturally love German expressionism. I, having heard a recording a few times several years ago and vaguely knowing the plot was about a man obsessed with his dead wife, figured the melodic Korngold was San Francisco Opera’s attempt to produce a non-threatening Puccini-style tearjerker, sort of a surreptitious way of scheduling Madama Butterfly yet again without looking over-reliant on warhorses. I was wrong – this opera is much weirder and wilder than that.

It was fascinating to see how many early modernist tropes show up in the young and ambitious Korngold’s work: the emphasis on dream states and the subconscious, and a presentation of reality that borders on the unreal; an obsessive, internalized, and suffocating love (similar to Marcel’s feelings for Albertine in The Captive and The Fugitive); even the use of Pierrot and the commedia figures. The opera also hearkens back to the romantic and morbid traditions in German opera, with a Tristanian association of love and death and a Faust-like battle between love and the underworld (in the specific shape of Robert le Diable, the opera Marietta the singer is rehearsing). And if some of those impulses seem to be an expression of Zeitgeisty goodness rather than of the composer's internal need, the result is still a riveting and indeed virtuosic piece.

After the performance I could see why the opera isn’t done that often – it must be draining to all involved. Snobbery about a composer who became best known for his film scores may have played a part in it as well. I really don’t think it has much to do with his late-Romantic style; the alleged dismissal of emotion and melody by the austere forces of audience alienation certainly didn’t hinder opera houses from scheduling Puccini and Strauss to the point of monotony.

The staging, with its floating constructions and huge fragmented portraits, was dreamily perfect, and complete with a few moments (like the pyramid formed by outstretched hands) that were straight from the Fritz Lang playbook. Runnicles conducted an amazing performance; I feel he sometimes has a tendency to swamp the singers, and this lush score certainly is one long temptation to do so, but he kept everything under perfect control. Torsten Kerl was a success as the withdrawn Paul and so was Lucas Meacham as Frank, his outgoing, well-adjusted friend.

But I thought Emily Magee as Marie/Marietta was the real dazzler in the cast, successfully portraying three very different women: Marie, Paul’s dead wife; Marietta, the chorus girl who resembles her; and the fin-de-siecle figure of Woman the Destroyer that Paul’s fear makes of her in his dreaming. But in a way all these women are figments of Paul’s imagination; I think it’s significant that we know nothing about Marie except that she is gone and Paul mourns her obsessively. In her few moments as Marietta, Magee created a down-to-earth, perhaps slightly vulgar but appealing woman, who rapidly realizes that Frank offers her a better chance of happiness than Paul does. And even as she realizes that, you can see that Paul is already withdrawing from her and from Frank and adding another room to wander in to his memory palace: the afternoon when he almost recaptured what was lost, and ended up only losing it yet again.

Die Tote Stadt was absolutely the highpoint of this season at the San Francisco Opera, and yes, I realize the season isn’t over, and no, I don’t need to have seen everything to make that judgment. What’s the competition? Another adequate Boheme or Tosca? Please.

30 January 2009

Haiku 30

Pile of chicken bones:
Evidence of gluttony
or fortune-telling

29 January 2009

Haiku 29

Mister Peanut feels
Mandatory monocles
Befit gentlemen


Crepuscular cats
Rustle among grey bushes
Detumescent day

28 January 2009

Haiku 28

This dirty tea mug
Has held how many gallons
But now is empty


How grateful we are
For previous engagements
On some occasions

27 January 2009

Haiku 27

Dreaming syllables
Slipping from dawning half-sleep
Shadows, shards, fragments

26 January 2009

Haiku 26

Last leaves of summer
Swept up after winter rain,
Composted for spring.


Green leaves come and go
The tree remains, for a while;
Even rocks crumble


Gentle ox grazing
Beneath a golden-coin sun
And a red-streaked sky

(Gung Hay Fat Choy)

25 January 2009

Haiku 25

Strangers each watching
(Enigmas of arrival)
For whom does he wait?

24 January 2009

Haiku 24

Solar oranges
Radiant and round, piled high
On a sky-blue plate

A propos of nothing, but regarding the famous flubbed oath of office on Inauguration Day: Is anyone really surprised that a Bush appointee to the Supreme Court mangled the language of the Constitution?

23 January 2009

Haiku 23

Overheated stale
Air of a winter office
Sealed panes, lashed with rain


Before the curtain
Night after night after night
Lost and longing hours

22 January 2009

Haiku 22

White circles widen
And vanish on black puddles;
A wet walk to work


Like wet wounded birds
Abandoned black umbrellas
Flutter by the trash

21 January 2009

Haiku 21

Skitter of dry leaves
Across an empty basin
Grey sky, grey fountain

20 January 2009

Haiku 20

(Inauguration Day)

Waking up once more
Each sunrise is different
Flags can fly again

OK, sorry if I'm being a little hokey, but we've been waiting eight long years for regime change, and I'm feeling as (temporarily) sunny as the rest of the world.

19 January 2009

not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Michael Tilson Thomas opened last Thursday’s San Francisco Symphony concert with one of his own pieces, Street Songs. This is an unfortunate title, for me at least, because its echo of the play/movie/opera title Street Scene led me to expect one of those well-meaning but dreary attempts as in the 1930s to make American music sound like “real” people: you know, “We're Americans! Let’s not sound like Europeans – let’s sound like European immigrants!” It’s actually a piece for brass that is like walking through deep canyons; there are great blocks of sound, but they’re not building blocks. I enjoyed it moment by moment, but there were too many moments (it was about twenty minutes long, nearly as long as the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 5 with which Tilson Thomas and Garrick Ohlsson then dazzled us, the slow movement of which was particularly beautiful).

But it was the second half of the program, the Tchaikovsky 5, that helped me figure out what has been bothering me for a while about Tilson Thomas’s conducting the past few seasons. He goes for a certain monumental quality, and while each phrase unfolds with stately and sensuous luxuriance, and has an almost physical volume of sound, certain other qualities – frenzy, fleetness, grotesquerie, and the more diabolical ironies – are lost or crushed. (This may be why some are consistently dissatisfied with his Berlioz and Prokofiev. I think this is what bothered me about his last Mahler 7.)

I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing: although lots of people are impressed by sheer loudness, that’s not quite what (or all that) he’s doing; he successfully avoids the bombastic and produces sounds that are genuinely grand and noble, and it’s too obvious to point out that grandeur and nobility do not perhaps arise naturally in contemporary American culture. No wonder audiences gratefully give him ovations for this achievement. (His Berlioz may not explain to you why that great composer was considered a mad man who wrote unplayable music, but it will consistently remind you that Berlioz was also an artist who adored Gluck.) But I can’t help feeling that there’s a certain petrifaction to some of the performances. While being grateful for monuments, we should also notice, remember, and enjoy the lichen, the cracks, the worn stones, the insects fluttering by.

Haiku 19

(farewell at long last to the Bushies, competent in nothing but corruption & slander)

Through dank sewer slime
Rats scurry back to their holes
Until their next turn

18 January 2009

Haiku 18

Rotting lemons plop
Greenish pollen stains the drive
Sweeping up plant sex

17 January 2009

Haiku 17

Horizons brighten
If you add a gilded dome;
Circle among squares

16 January 2009

Haiku 16

Late afternoon sun
Angled on the wooden floor,
Waiting for a cat

15 January 2009

Haiku 15

(taking advantage of the late Thursday hours at the Asian Art Museum before the symphony)

Buddhas stuck inside
(Through the windows, noisy streets)
Serene in vitrines


Sobbing Russian tunes
Tone-deaf Russians whispering
Musical evenings

14 January 2009

Haiku 14

Waiting in long lines
Sandwich burrito sandwich
Office worker lunch

13 January 2009

Haiku 13

Dappled chords vibrate
Among the ivory vaults
Worship converging

In related news, on January 27 (two weeks from today), Noontime Concerts is presenting the Marin Chamber Players in Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (12:30 at Old St Mary's in Chinatown).

12 January 2009

Haiku 12

Warmth of a creamy morning
Palm fronds undulate

11 January 2009

Haiku 11

Bare apricot trees
Angled dark against blue sky
Backyard Hokusai

10 January 2009

Haiku 10

Glowing TV sets
Light up the night-time houses
Like a starry sky

09 January 2009

Haiku 9

Some mantled old ponds
Remain still unsplashed by frogs
Basho, suck on it!

08 January 2009

Haiku 8

Red hand glowing stop
Across a grey misty street:
Trapped on a wet curb


Red plush candy hearts
Push Santa's stuff out of sight:
Relentless feastdays


Read and tossed aside
Random dove-grey newspapers:
Today is old news

07 January 2009

Haiku 7

Rows of unread books
Stretch grimly down groaning shelves --
Half-off calendars

06 January 2009

Haiku 6

Somewhere in the world
Someone is playing Mozart
But I am not there


(for Henri Rousseau)
Mountaintop monkeys
Dream of lowland gorillas
Bright birds flit between

05 January 2009

Haiku 5

Coughing and sneezing
Swollen red eyes, runny nose
My hair is perfect

04 January 2009

Haiku 4

Four simultaneous seasons (for V)

Icy roses droop
Greenish daffodils spring up
Still maple leaves fall

03 January 2009

Haiku 3

Pollen patterns swirl
Greenish stains on the driveway
Until the rain comes


My plans were one thing
My sickness was another
Nature always wins

02 January 2009

Haiku 2

Waiting for the train
Days go by, people go by
Waiting for the train

01 January 2009

Haiku 1

Sweeping fallen leaves
Embrace the futility
A breeze undoes all