21 July 2009

in the room the women come and go

At the end of April I had one of those over-planned weeks, with night after night of concerts, and I ended up with a cold that was getting worse as the week passed – initially I thought I might be having just another bad allergy attack, since it was that time of year, but eventually signs so subtle I can’t quite tell you what they are convinced me that it was a cold.

So I sympathized with Magdalena Kozena, who gamely came out to sing to us despite her obvious sickness – her eyes looked exhausted. She has a really interesting face in a way that goes beyond just being a beautiful woman, though she is; I kept thinking that if she had been around in the 1920s Dreyer or Murnau would have featured her in a film. Her husband, Sir Simon Rattle, was in attendance and being quite gracious and genial, from what I could see, which I'm afraid is about as gossipy as I'm going to get. Despite my disappointment that I was not hearing her in her best voice (and she seemed disappointed that she couldn’t give the audience her best), I enjoyed this recital more than some others I’ve attended where the singer was in better voice.

For the first half she sang a Purcell selection and then Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben, but for the second half she sang only the Duparc songs, since she felt that her cold wouldn’t let her do justice to Berg’s Seven Early Songs. So that makes twice this season I’ve missed them, since I couldn’t get to the performance at the Symphony a few weeks later. So it was an early evening, and I hope Kozena had a speedy recovery.

A couple of days later I was back at Herbst for Stephanie Blythe and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for a program called “American Voices.” Usually I read the program notes ahead of time but this time I hadn’t, so as I listened to the first piece, a Trio in D minor by John Antes, I vacillated between being impressed at the fluid and enjoyable music and puzzled that what I had assumed was a contemporary composer could mimic the sound-period of Haydn and Mozart so effectively. It takes real skill to write like that, but it’s an odd act of ventriloquism for a 21st-century American. It turns out that Antes sounds like a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart because he was, which strengthened me in my usual resolve to read the program notes while waiting for the concert to start, instead of doing whatever it was I was doing that night, which was probably staring vacuously around hoping I didn't have a sneezing fit during the performance.

Next came the big event of the program, the Bay Area premiere of Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman, featuring Blythe in excerpts from the journal Margaret Ann Alsip Frink kept in 1850 as she crossed the plains, set to music by Alan Louis Smith. Blythe sang beautifully in clear tones (she had asked that the words not be available until the intermission, which struck some as arrogant; I thought it was a good way to make the audience pay attention to her and not their programs). The music was enjoyable, though I knew immediately which section was going to be about the Indians and which about the buffalo and so forth, and indeed I knew there would be Indians and buffalo, and suitably the most inspired music was for her dream on a mountaintop.

Frink was a plucky, can-do woman, and though there are a few scornful remarks quoted about bringing a woman across the plains you know she’s tough enough to handle it and them; and . . . and I am just not worthy of these pioneer women, so strong, so sensible, so filled with gumption and quiet strength and steady resolve; and there I was, falling to pieces because of a bad cold, surely the sort of ailment that Frink would not even notice as she simultaneously quilted, put up preserves, and built a sodhouse against the coming winter.

I was reminded of how beautifully Willa Cather handles this sort of thing – just when I’m about to crack under the pressure of simple strength and homespun values and human decency and drop the book in favor of anything in which people take too much opium, she darkens the portrait with a farmer who shoots himself in the heart one late winter day or a drifter who throws himself into the combine or some other reminder of the exacting toll of the pioneer life. I wish Smith had darkened his portrait of Frink.

After the intermission we had Gershwin’s gentle and lovely Lullaby for String Quartet, followed by Amy Beach’s Quintet in F-sharp minor for Piano and Strings, Opus 67, which Lisa hated and referred to as Tchaikovsky lite. I’m not going to mount a spirited (or much of any other kind of) defense of the work, but I will say I found it pleasant enough, and if you’re going to wish that these fine performers had instead given us one of the acknowledged masterpieces, then you end up with the repertory of ten pieces that is choking so much concert-going, since acknowledged masterpieces just aren't that easy to write. So if they want to play Beach, sure, I’ll give her a listen, even if I'm not necessarily going back for seconds.

The night after that I was at Philharmonia Baroque’s performance of Handel’s Athalia, and let me thank them for starting at the sensible hour of 7:30 since I was exhausted from crossing the prairies the night before, plus of course the debilitating effects of all that cold medicine. I enjoyed the performance, particularly after the couple next to me left at intermission – I don’t know what they thought a performance of Athalia was going to entail, but they were clearly bored and increasingly noisy about it – and if the evening didn’t really catch fire for me, I think I need to lay some of the blame with Mr Handel.

He is one of my musical godfathers and I love the oratorios, but I have to admit that the characterization of the title character is a little underheated, and I don’t think this is one of those cases in which we can’t hear 18th-century rage because we expect 20th-century noise and confusion – he re-used a lot of the music in Parnasso in Festa, a celebratory serenata written for Princess Anne’s marriage to Prince William of Orange, which indicates a surprising degree of flexibility in music written for the story of a wicked queen who tries to kill the child heir to the throne – incidentally, during intermission I overheard several members of the audience who seemed puzzled about the story, which is basically pretty simple; surely it is not possible that our audiences are not immersed in the Sacred Scriptures?

The cast was solid. Dominique Labelle sang the lead and Marnie Breckenridge, always a pleasure to hear, was in the equally prominent role of Josabeth. Celine Ricci as the youthful Joas sang well but should not have been allowed to thumb her nose at the thwarted Athaliah, such hijinks being unsuitable for a child raised in the Temple.

And then the night after that I was at Berkeley hearing Dianne Reeves. I had never heard her before, live or on CD, and wasn’t sure quite what to expect. She looks so elegant in all of her photos that I was expecting someone a little more ethereal. She’s very down-to-earth, has a beautiful voice in the Sarah Vaughn style, and expertly told some funny stories (though sometimes, as in the one about getting in trouble for trying to add her particular flare to her high-school performance of Bach’s Magnificat, I had to overlook the subtext, which is that classical music is restrained and someone else’s style and only jazz allows you to express yourself). The etiquette is always a little different at jazz concerts; years ago I heard Sarah Vaughn herself in concert and one woman in the audience formed her own Amen Corner, leaving white boy here in the awkward position of wondering if it’s inappropriate/racist to want people to shut up and listen. So this time I had the Three Sisters behind me going “mmmmmm-hmm”, but they weren’t too bad and I was drugged up on cold medicine anyway yet still enjoyed hearing a singer new to me. And then the week was over and so to bed.


Civic Center said...

Gosh, I'm ready to repair to bed for the next week after having read this and the phrase I will remember in my feverish dreams is: "though I knew immediately which section was going to be about the Indians and which about the buffalo and so forth, and indeed I knew there would be Indians and buffalo."

vicmarcam said...

About the pioneer woman (I'm sure you knew that's what I was going to write about): I'm so glad you wrote what you did about Willa Cather. I heard an interesting piece on the radio lately about how we love to hold onto our mythologies. The discussion started with Rosa Parks, who was actually quite an activist. But we insist that she be a tired, simple woman, instead of a tired, complicated woman who very much knew what she was doing. As the historian said, "Why can't it be enough that she did what she did? Why do we have to have more?" I feel that way about the Pioneer story. It doesn't diminish the story to learn that the hardships often drove people to insanity. As much as I'd like to think I could take it, three days of 100+ temperatures in a row would send me screaming into the night.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Yes, I knew the pioneer women would get you. Joan Accocello wrote a fascinating short book about the history of Willa Cather's critical reception, exploring how various interested parties distorted or misinterpreted/overinterpreted what she wrote to fit what they wanted her to have written.
With Rosa Parks, maybe it's the American aversion to activists -- you wouldn't know from most descriptions of Helen Keller that she was a socialist, for instance.