31 October 2010

Urban Opera: The Witch of Endor

I had missed Urban Opera’s premiere production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas last year, but I’d heard enough raves to keep an eye out for any follow-up productions. Finally a new project was announced: a Purcell pasticcio called the Witch of Endor, scheduled for two performances on Halloween weekend at the Episcopal Church of St Mary the Virgin. I did hesitate a bit since this would be a BART plus bus trip, which meant that getting to and fro would likely take several times as long as the actual performance (which was announced as slightly more than an hour, but was actually a bit less). Then I saw that Shawnette Sulker, whom I had enjoyed so much in the Carter song-cycle last August, would be singing, so I decided to be adventurous and trip out to a different venue. Not only that – I sprang for a Premium ticket. I’m sure glad I did – the performance is one of the most fantastic (in every sense of the word) things I’ve seen in quite a while, and I’ve rarely seen any group do so much with what must be limited resources.

St Mary the Virgin turned out to a small and severely elegant church of dark wood, with the occasional baroque Catholic-type touch – two large statues of swirling angels, an elaborate brocade altar cloth. Director and conductor Chip Grant used the entire space, from the altar to the aisle to the organ loft in the back. All the music (except for one scene for drum circle) was from Purcell, centering on the short scene In Guilty Night, but also incorporating instrumental and vocal music from other compositions, combined with readings (from Rudyard Kipling and the Bible), movement, and film to tell the story of Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor, which ends with the summoned ghost of Samuel announcing that Saul and Jonathan will the very next day join him in the world of the dead. All of these elements combined smoothly to produce something that was both new and yet faithful to the allegorical masque-spirit of the seventeenth century.

After the introductory recitation of Kipling’s The Witch of En Dor (by Gary Graves, as a wandering old street preacher) and the chaconne from King Arthur, the Reverend Dr. Jason Parkin read the relevant passages from Samuel I in mellifluous tones, a prologue that provided anyone unfamiliar with the story (which is also a key incident in Handel’s oratorio Saul) with an immediate understanding of the story we were about to experience.

Though the duration of the performance was short, it was very condensed and rich, with many touches that expanded the implications of the piece and played off one another: for example, Shawnette Sulker as the Witch wore a striking orange pleated cape and costume with a feathered headress, and the drum circle of related sorcerers carried bare white branches, and their outfits evoked the natural world and African spirit mediums and their struggle against persecution by the imperialist reformers evoked by the readings from Kipling and the film clips of British imperial coronations; the dominance and eventual collapse of imperialism is a subject, needless to say, deeply relevant to contemporary America.

The film (and it was actually a filmstrip, with that evocative whir of the projector) illustrated the backstory – the coronation of Saul and his persecution of witches and mediums – using a variety of film clips both new and old, along with images from Goya, and what I think were moments from the weird Swedish silent film Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (the Criterion edition includes the 1968 version narrated by William S. Burroughs, with a Jean-Luc Ponty soundtrack; the date surprised me, since the total effect of that version is so 1950s hipster you can almost smell the marijuana as you watch it). The film work was done by Brendan Bolles. The striking, inventive costumes were by Anastazia Louise. The chorus make-up was by Rachel Rehmet, and I have to mention one of the most stunning strokes, the climax of the work: after the ghost of Samuel announces Saul’s impending doom, you realize that the orchestra and chorus have all been sitting in profile, because they simultaneously turn their heads to show their other profile, each made up to look like a skull, so that Saul is suddenly surrounded by a skeleton chorus. Pure and powerful theater magic, using the simplest of methods. That kind of ambitious invention is evident throughout.

I could just keep on raving about the experience. I should of course mention how excellent the musical portion was. I’ve already discussed Shawnette Sulker, who showed she could handle Purcell as well as Carter. There were also excellent contributions from John Minagro as Samuel, Colby Roberts as Saul, and Lindsey McLennan as the Goddess of Dreams. The orchestra was elegant and powerful. I’m sure I’m forgetting something or someone. Kudos to Chip Grant for spearheading the large and talented crew.

Afterwards there was a generous reception in the church courtyard, with wine and cheese and crackers and grapes. Before the performance those of us with premium tickets had been offered – I swear – fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, which were delicious; I ate more than my share. I didn’t have any of the wine afterwards, since it sometimes triggers migraines for me and I’ve been headachey recently, but if I’d been feeling better I’d have risked a glass out of love for the name of the winery: Forlorn Hope Wines.

OK, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for any upcoming productions Urban Opera might put on. It’s a shame this one isn’t running another weekend, so that word can spread.

Halloween 2: for Hieronymus Bosch

Halloween 1: for Arthur Rackham

Haiku 2010/304

raking the front yard
seems more picturesque now than
warmer weeks ago

30 October 2010

29 October 2010

if you love nineteenth-century novels of adultery, and who doesn't

. . . with their endemic atmosphere of jittery ennui, along with blackmail, sexual politics, class warfare, and oh so much more, then you need to get this book by the great Eca de Queiroz, who would be much better known if he didn't write in the comparative obscurity of Portuguese.

As a public service, I repeat my pronunciation guide to the author's name: AY – sa duh kay – ROYZH. Do that with a slight backward roll on the “R” and you’re close enough.

Haiku 2010/302

how could I resist
buying a loaf of fresh bread
so crusty and brown

28 October 2010

27 October 2010

Bagby does Beowulf in Berkeley

After hearing Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf last night at Cal (the epic unabridged, up to the feast after the killing of Grendel):

Benjamin Bagby, boldest of bards,
Harrowed the hall with the sorrowful song
Of Grendel the grim and the brave man, Beowulf –
Silence the cellphone, shining giver of rings!
Light as the wind on the latte-dark waves
Fly the fleet fingers over the harp,
Fearless the singer and fresh is the song,
Green as the hills hallowed with gold.
But sad are these days and diminished the ways
Of the hall-clan gathered to hear;
Day’s candle has dimmed and the warriors give way
To chuckling trolls and chattering trulls;
The heroes have passed and the praise of the heralds
Falls to the deep, where no man can see
What hands will grasp hard the great offered horde:
The word-horde of wanderers,
Telling the tales of brave glories gone.
The heroes have passed but the poem remains;
Let old men nod to the bardic song
Brought bold as the sea-beasts
To us, the unworthy, the weak and the yearning;
Hard is our fate, and no man is free.

In case you're wondering, that's a recommendation. It's a very different theatrical experience, even though it is, in a way, a recreation of the first one-man shows, and we can see plenty of those these days. The audience was by and large quite into it, though I admit to expecting, and being a little disappointed at the lack of, the more overtly entertaining manifestations of medieval/early music/Ren-Faire weirdness in the crowd. There really was one annoying little troll-man sitting four down from me who kept chuckling very loudly at the weirdest things. If anyone can tell me what is so goddam funny about lines such as:

The great Healfdane, a fierce fighter
Who led the Danes to the end of his long
Life and left them four children,
Three princes to guide them in battle, Hergar
And Hrothgar and Halga the Good, and one daughter
Yrs, who was given to Onela, king
Of the Swedes, and became his wife and their queen*

then I would be thrilled to be enlightened.

You have three more chances to experience the run; click here for information.

*That's the Burton Raffel translation, which is different from the more stripped-down one used in the surtitles.

Haiku 2010/300

my desk was so clean --
sad papers now cover it
like dead autumn leaves

26 October 2010

Haiku 2010/299

dead leaves underfoot
crunching the moonlit silence
of a dark cold night

Denk: Ligeti, Liszt, Bach (with some Adams at the end)

Last Sunday I trekked through the steady rain to Berkeley, to hear Jeremy Denk play Ligeti and Bach. I'm sitting in Hertz Hall, feeling both damp and overheated, and it gets to be almost fifteen minutes after the start time, and I'm starting to wonder what's going on, even though, honestly, I don't really have anyplace else to be, when Matias Tarnopolsky, the Director of Cal Performances, comes out, apologizes for the delay (which he says is weather-related), and then he says that there is a slight change to the program: instead of both books of the Ligeti Etudes, Denk will play only the first book, minus the third piece, followed by Liszt's Dante Sonata. No reason was given for the change. Sadness! It was Ligeti that led me to buy a ticket and brave the rain! And though we are indeed getting a first half filled with Hungarian virtuouso pieces, still. . . . The second half remains the Goldberg Variations, so no complaints from me there. And we are invited to stay afterwards to hear John Adams talk with Denk.

Denk comes out and sits at the piano for a moment, and then says they need a rack. The missing rack is found and put on the piano so he can put his music there. And then he starts playing. He snaps right into it, without any posing or fussing caused by the delays and the necessary adjustments. The first etude is strong and bright and rhythmically forceful in a way that makes me think it an embodiment of everything the Italian futurists ever dreamed of. The second etude, by contrast, is dreamy but muscular rather than languid. I don't keep notes during concerts, so I'll just say the rest of the etudes made me wish we were getting the whole set.

Though I certainly enjoyed the Liszt, still, as I reflected last season when I heard the SF Symphony performing the symphonic poem Tasso: lamento e trionfo, listening to Liszt is sort of like reading Shelley, in that it can be difficult for us moderns to distinguish what was once bold and original but has now become sort of an ur-text of generic Romanticism, and to distinguish those things from what was conventional even in its time.

After intermission came the strong and meditative flow of the Goldberg Variations. They were just wonderful, though I still mourned the dropped Ligeti etudes, which is admittedly greedy of me, especially since Denk, who had given us plenty, first repeated the Etude #5, Arc-en-Ciel, as an encore and then stayed for almost an hour talking with John Adams. Denk is a pianist who acts out – he throws his head back, he shuts his eyes, he pulls his mouth down into a grimace like the mask of tragedy, his eyes roll as if he's watching the notes physically fly past, he glances right at the audience but in an unseeing way, as if we're not there. It's not distracting (or it's easy enough to follow his example and close one's eyes if it is); it's fascinating and sort of enviable, to be so utterly absorbed in the physical act of playing and so drawn into that world of sound he's spinning around him. He seems to have a lot of nervous energy. He kept tapping his foot during the conversation.

The conversation with Adams was quite interesting and Denk is a thoughtful and graceful speaker. About half of the very full house stayed for the talk, though a number of them should have left, since checking their electronic toys was so very urgent and important. There was a rude amount of whispering during the conversation, too, though fortunately not during the music. I'm sure Messrs Adams and Denk were quite relieved that the old lady behind me kept letting us all know that she agreed with what they were saying. There was a lot of static and feedback from the microphones, so Denk and Adams had to keep remembering not to touch the bottom portion of the mikes.

Adams opened by talking about the effect of World War II on the composers who came of age during or right after the war – some, like Boulez, became very ideologically rigid, as if that was the only way to stave off chaos, whereas Ligeti, who had the same sense of the underlying seriousness and importance of art, rejected the deadening hand of ideological rigidity and had a kind of verve and wit throughout his musical career. They discussed the various influences on Ligeti, including jazz -- Adams described one etude (sorry, I don't remember which) as like Takemitsu remembering a Bill Evans tune. This was followed by an interesting and semi-technical discussion of how Denk learned these very challenging pieces, with their constantly shifting rhythms, and how the first etude was put together. At one point during the discussion of form Adams said he thought one of the difficulties of being a modern composer was that there were no standard forms (either to follow or rebel against, was what I took that to mean) – it’s sort of an anything goes time. There was quite a bit of discussion about this entry from Denk's blog.

Adams initiated an extensive discussion of Liszt by mentioning other composers who were deeply read in literature (Berlioz with Virgil and Shakespeare was one example) and asking Denk if he thought Liszt was a deep reader of Dante. It was clear Adams was not exactly simpatico with Liszt. Denk didn’t quite disagree, but pointed out the difference in sensibility from Liszt and his era to us and our era, and mentioned how the wide and partially absorbed influences on Liszt (musical and literary) all came out sounding like Liszt. Adams mentioned an episode from Cosima Wagner’s diaries: the Wagners were having a party, which Richard left early to go to bed. Liszt starting playing the slow movement from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, and when he finished they saw that Richard had returned, and was standing on the stairs with tears in his eyes. Adams, who was clearly restraining himself from just coming out and calling Liszt superficial, said it was difficult to imagine him playing the slow movement of the Hammerklavier so profoundly that it could make Richard Wagner cry. Denk pointed out that Liszt’s playing was a phenomenon of the days before recording and so forever lost to us and that it must have been something extraordinary. The Liszt discussion ended with a mention of some stylistic links between the last Ligeti etude he played, Automne a Varsovie, and the Liszt.

There were a few questions from the audience. Someone asked if Denk was planning to record the Ligeti etudes. He said he hoped to someday, after he had lived with the pieces for a while. His new Ives recording was mentioned; he’s a big fan of Ives (and he suggested that Adams was also an Ives fan, with perhaps some reservations). The last question was about the encore. Denk apologized for not naming it before playing it, and said that it was a repeat of the Ligeti Etude #5, Arc-en-Ciel. He said that the etudes go by so quickly when you’re listening to them that he thought it would be nice to give us another chance at that one; also, he had no idea what else to do as an encore after the Goldberg Variations. Very true on both counts!

Lovely afternoon, even if I can’t help regretting the lost Ligeti. . . .

25 October 2010

Haiku 2010/298

amid daily strains,
distant strains in different modes:
Bach's benediction

24 October 2010

Haiku 2010/297

walking through the rain
I remember yesterday
and its louring skies

23 October 2010


two views of San Francisco City Hall, lit orange for the Giants' National League pennant race; the other team color is provided by the black night sky

random previews: symphony

I almost folded the symphony preview into the opera preview, because I feel pretty much the same way about the San Francisco Symphony as about the San Francisco Opera: the programming is certainly respectable, but not all that exciting. I’ve read through the entire season at least three times, and ten minutes after each time I have only the vaguest memory of what’s being presented. All of them are programs I wouldn’t mind hearing, but most aren’t programs I would go out of my way to hear.

There are some exceptions, of course, notably the Missa Solemnis at the end of the season with some terrific soloists, including Christine Brewer. Most of the other standouts involve the Symphony’s terrific chorus: the revival of El Nino, the Bach Mass in B Minor, a Carmina Burana with excellent soloists. . . . But there isn’t a lot of ambitious, mind- and ear-stretching new/modern music. We do get the Rothko Chapel, but sometimes I think Tilson Thomas only programs Feldman so that he can tell little Borscht-Belt-type anecdotes about him beforehand. I’ve never really bought into the cult of personality the Symphony has attempted to build around Tilson Thomas; I like him fine, am baffled by his reputation for daring programming, and wish he would stop talking during concerts.*

I think it’s the cult aspect that slightly puts me off his Mahler performances; they seem to be a “thing” in a way that isn't really about the music, as if people were there to see a local sight, like the Golden Gate Bridge or Beach Blanket Babylon, one of those things you check off a list. But we are getting the 2nd, 6th, and 9th. And the wonderful Yuja Wang is showing up at the end of the season, and John Adams is the Project San Francisco composer in residence, though he isn’t presenting any premieres.

There was a notable lack of excitement several months ago when the Symphony announced its season. Some speculated that they were saving the sizzle for their centennial celebration next year, but I don’t really understand that reasoning: I mean, a year is a long time, in some ways, and there’s really no reason for professional musicians to stint on what they do for their paying customers. I think it's more that, as with the local opera audience, there’s a large lump of the symphony audience that simply doesn’t like to hear new things, and as with the Opera, they’ve decided to dedicate themselves to that particular segment of the audience, and the rest of us can go fend for ourselves.

That may explain some of the appalling marketing e-mails I receive from the Symphony, which skirt delicately around the fact that you are expected to go and sit more or less still and quiet for whole consecutive minutes at a time, taxing your attention with music. Instead it’s all about “one-of-a-kind social events you won’t want to miss” and suggestions for a “Girls’ Night Out” subscription pack, or a “Football Widows’ Pack” (homage to Anna Russell: I’m not making this up, you know!). Sure, gals: slip on the Manolos, sip your girlietinis, and listen to Mahler brood on mortality for 90 minutes. Then go grab some nibbles at a trendy café!**

What I find so off-putting about this sort of advertising, besides its pointed exclusion of men, is its pointed exclusion of music lovers. I wonder if anyone considers the marketing blowback from this sort of fatuous vulgarity? I know people love to talk knowingly about “putting butts in seats” by, I guess, any means necessary, as if you can trick people into listening to Stravinsky, like hiding your dog’s medicine in a doggie treat – and I love that people who say that clearly love the slight crudity of the expression, because if there’s one thing people love more than sounding in the know, it’s sounding knowing – but frankly the whole “butts in seats” thing is not my problem. I’m more concerned with where I’m seating my butt, and there’s nothing here that’s making me feel the Symphony is a place I need to be, or where I would be particularly welcome, what with my whole “play more Schoenberg!” attitude, plus of course the whole “having a penis” thing.

What’s especially disappointing is that, though there are some smaller local groups taking up the banner of operatic adventure (listed at the end of my opera preview), there’s no one else locally providing the symphony experience on a regular basis (yes, there’s the Berkeley Symphony and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, but both only present four or five concerts a year). It’s a shame, because the symphony orchestra is one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century, and can produce sounds nothing else can. And if you simply cater to the placid tastes of those who consider a symphony concert the sort of conspicuous consumption suitable for their class, you risk irrelevance. That’s what’s always bothered me about the “Davies After Hours” concerts (which are basically a hipper version of the opening night party) – to me the implication is that we’ve had our “it’s good for you” music, and now we can go listen to the music we really connect with and enjoy. There’s no reason to seal symphonic music off in this way. A symphony orchestra is not a natural organism – it needs care and maintenance, and it needs some connection to the life – not just social, but artistic and intellectual – of its time.

* Alex Ross quotes Riccardo Muti: "After the explosive finale of Respighi's Pines of Rome, Muti did some deft stand-up: 'Conductors should never speak.... After a few words, conductors say nonsense. È vero?' " Si, maestro, e vero!

** I labor mightily to be amusing, but I'm not really out-doing the original: "Don your dress, slip on your stilettos, and grab the gals -- it's Girls' Night Out at the Symphony! Enjoy the best in classical music with your best of friends and make it a night on the town. Gal Pal Tip: Kick off the night with cocktails before the concert at the trendy bars and restaurants in nearby Hayes Valley." I think "Gal Pal Tip" is sheer genius, if your intention is to be satirical.

Haiku 2010/296

listening to Bach
glancing at gathering clouds
waiting for the rain

11 June 2016: I've noticed that this particular haiku is suddenly getting a lot of hits. I'd be interested if someone can tell me why.

22 October 2010

random previews: opera

The San Francisco Opera season is well underway, but the one genuinely exciting, do-not-miss production is coming up in a few weeks: Karita Mattila in The Makropulos Case. As for the rest of the season, it doesn’t exactly heat the blood. For a while I thought Gockley’s aim was to turn the local house into the Met Lite, but at this point I’m thinking we should be so lucky, given the Met’s more adventurous repertory and staging in the last few years. We’re eating their dust out here in the West, not that I think the majority of the local audience minds. They seem quite in tune with Gockley’s advocacy of – well, let’s try for something neutral between “beloved classics” and “exhausted warhorses” – the more familiar works in the repertory, sung by already well-established names.

Anyone in search of anything more adventurous or challenging than People You’ve Heard Of, In Works You’ve Already Heard (or even those just searching for novelty) is out of luck. Gockley and the bulk of the San Francisco audience seem perfectly suited to each other. That’s not a compliment. Any potential audience members intrigued by works like Le Grand Macabre or St Francois are once again left to fend for themselves out there in the avant-garde wilds. Thank goodness for DVDs! What we're getting here are brand-name works presented in a more or less plush and traditional way. Nothing here is going to frighten the horses. Going to the opera in San Francisco now isn’t like going to the Museum of Modern Art; it’s like going to Bloomingdale’s.

By the way, I don’t really buy the claims that what San Francisco Opera is currently doing is “all about the voice”; everyone says that these days casting the big Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner works is difficult to impossible, whereas we’re living in a golden age for Handel and Rossini singing. So are we getting Radamisto or La Donna del Lago? We are not. We’re getting inadequate productions of the big Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner works, because a large segment of the audience isn’t interested in anything unfamiliar and no one is interested in convincing them that new stuff can be fun and engaging.

Yes, Aida and Madama Butterfly are great works, and there’s no disgrace in presenting them, but for a veteran of the opera house there isn’t a lot of urgency in hearing them; that’s the thing about Top 40 programming – sooner or later, and probably sooner, you’re going to get another chance to hear that piece. Yet opera is a strange and addictive drug: a few months ago I looked up the performance dates of Aida for a friend, and suddenly was strangely excited at the thought of hearing the opera – Aida, of all things, an opera that has never interested me much outside of Leontyne Price’s involvement with it.

I ended up feeling I didn’t really need to pay those prices for another Aida, though Zajick was definitely a temptation. It turns out to be just as well, since I could have written the reviews without seeing it: the Zandra Rhodes designs were eye-catching but didn’t always work well, and the cast was vocally uneven. (I had seen Zandra Rhodes’s production of the Pearl Fishers and though I loved the colors I thought the setting was too cartoony.) Sung drama is the most basic form of drama, and an art form that has survived in varying forms for centuries deserves an audience that thinks of it as something more than candy-colored camp.

As for the rest of the season, I enjoyed Werther; and though Nozze di Figaro is one of my favorite operas, I loathe this production, which I’ve already seen in two different revivals (my mostly negative thoughts on that 2006 revival are here, and it was actually less vulgar than the first); I love Madama Butterfly, but feel I’ve seen it enough for a while. I did spring for a ticket to Cyrano, because I’ve always admired Domingo and the only other time I’ve heard him live was in Herodiade. And then there’s the Janacek; I assume we have Mattila’s star power to thank for bringing us one of this great composer’s fascinating works. I honestly don’t understand why he isn’t as popular as Puccini – to me he has that same kind of emotional directness and melodic richness. And Jenufa has one of the few happy endings I find convincing, even inspiring. So that’s the one can’t-miss for me this season.

I’m not excluding the upcoming June Ring Cycle from that assessment, either; I hoped that Walkure last June would guide and convince me one way or the other, but apparently I got the vocal off-night, which seems to be how these things go for me (so if I end up not buying tickets, you can be assured you’re in for a treat!). The production itself is not very interesting (my thoughts on Walkure are here, and in there is a link to my thoughts on the Rheingold, which I saw in both DC and here).

Fortunately other local groups are taking up the operatic slack for those who maybe don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for their hundredth Butterfly:

On October 30 and 31, Urban Opera is presenting a Purcell pasticcio, the Witch of Endor. They’re a new group and though I missed their previous presentation, Dido and Aeneas, it was highly praised.

Cal Performances is presenting Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival Opera in two Britten works, The Rape of Lucretia on March 24 and 25 and Albert Herring on March 26 and 27.

Ensemble Parallele is presenting Philip Glass’s Orphee, one of his Cocteau operas, on February 26 and 27, as a follow-up to their kick-ass Wozzeck.

Berkeley West Edge Opera is in a nifty new space in El Cerrito and has some interesting programs, starting with Handel’s Xerxes on November 13, 19, and 21, followed by an adaptation of Carmen called the Carmen Fixation and a new opera by Clark Suprynowicz and Amanda Moody called Caliban’s Dreams.

Festival Opera hasn’t announced its 2011 productions as far as I know. For a while they were doing one warhorse and one more unusual work (like Rorem’s Our Town or Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) but lately it’s been two warhorses. I hope they resume their more adventurous ways. But even if they don’t, they present solid productions in a nice smaller theater, at a much lower cost than San Francisco Opera.

The other big opera excitement for me is the James Levine 40th anniversary CD and DVD sets. Cumulatively the sets are expensive, though the per-disc price is quite low. (And by not buying tickets to Aida, Butterfly, and Figaro, I more than covered the expense.) And click on those links and look at what you get! What I really love and admire here is the commitment to new or “difficult” works (there was a time when Mozart and Wagner were considered difficult. . . ). Two recordings each of Wozzeck and Lulu, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Les Troyens and The Great Gatsby. . . everyone will have his or her particular jewels here, but anyone who doesn't find this collection thrilling . . . uh, is probably a big fan of the current programming at San Francisco Opera. I haven’t watched any of the DVDs yet, and have only listened to about half of the CDs, but I’m thrilled with the set and can’t recommend it too highly. My one complaint so far: the packaging is flimsy and difficult to use. I almost wrecked the DVD box trying to get the tray of discs out, and removing the CDs means reaching into the cardboard envelope and sliding them out by touching the disc – so a fail on the packaging, but the recordings are sheer gold.

Haiku 2010/295

quickly the waiter
whisks away the second place,
leaving only one

21 October 2010

Haiku 2010/294

mother-of-pearl light
lights up dead leaves: hammered gold
against the darkness

20 October 2010

19 October 2010

Haiku 2010/292

I saw the mirror
had caught you but when I looked
it was only me

18 October 2010

Haiku 2010/291

soft rain starts falling
I stand under the fig-tree,
eating soft ripe figs

17 October 2010

Haiku 2010/290

the first raindrops fell
as the last leaf was swept up --
I must use my time

16 October 2010

Haiku 2010/289

(Check out Civic Center's entry on the new exhibit of Japanese screens at the Asian Art Museum, which includes the following anecdote from the Saint Louis Art Museum website:
"Scattering fans is associated with the art and culture of the ancient capital Kyoto and a particular outing of aristocrats and ladies along the scenic mountains of Arashiyama. As the procession crossed the Sugagawa River near Tenryuji Temple, the fan of a young courtier was caught by a sudden gust of wind and drifted down into the waters below. Delighted and inspired by the beautiful and poignant image, others threw their fans over the bridge to watch them float on the breeze into the flowing stream.")

I too tossed my fan:
lovelier on the waves was
the one the wind seized

15 October 2010

Haiku 2010/288

sometimes flowering
sometimes stripped bare: bony branch
stretched out to the sky

14 October 2010

Haiku 2010/287

I saw the sun rise
today and will see it set:
smile on good fortune

13 October 2010

Haiku 2010/286

O surveillance age,
try to capture what I know:
this passing moment

12 October 2010

paging opera

I was tired enough last night so that I figured the perfect way to occupy myself was the rhythmic reformatting required to post, at long postponed last, my opera life list, first mentioned here. So there it is at the top of the right-hand column, in the new “page” section. Only operas seen live counted. I excluded musicals but included operettas, though the lines there can get pretty blurry, as we all know. And I excluded oratorios, though I will probably go back and add them in; it seems too arbitrary to list Semele and Acis & Galatea but not Belshazzar or Jephtha. Such are the Solomon-like decisions one is called upon to make. I think I need to go back through the playbills anyway, because I realized while reformatting that I had apparently missed an entire season (2007, in case you’re wondering) – I kept thinking, wait, I saw Rosenkavalier more recently than that . . . wait, there was that Iphigenie with Susan Graham that was so great! . . . and that Macbeth with Hampson that was so bad. . . . which means I did not do as thorough a job as I had hoped sorting through my playbills.

I had them all in order up through probably the mid 1980s, and then, well, things happened, and it took me a while to sort through the piles scattered in all sorts of boxes and bags and suitcases and to try to figure out what I saw when (it’s surprising how many playbills leave the year off) and whether I had duplicates I needed to toss out (of course I did! but not all in the same place). I guess I still need to do another run-through.

What aggravated me about the playbill situation (well, actually, what aggravated me about me) was that I had intended for years to put them in order, and I could have started at any time to put them once again in order and then I would have had a smaller backlog to deal with. But I kept thinking I needed to do the whole thing, eventually, some day, and not just part, so I persisted in my haphazard storage system until the whole project grew so massive I had to deal with it or just give it up entirely.

Anyway, the list is therefore a work in progress, not just forwards, but backwards. I don’t know if it’s of interest to anyone but me, but that’s true of pretty much everything on here anyway. I’m so close to seeing all of Janacek’s major operas! The Excursions of Mr Broucek, anyone?

Haiku 2010/285

sit by the fountain
in silence but for splashing:
sunny afternoon

11 October 2010

Haiku 2010/284

cool and inviting
after the day's heat and glare:
the dark, sealed-up home

10 October 2010

Haiku 2010/283

sunlight on ivy:
what more can I add to that:
the thing in itself

I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs / Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest – . . .

So here was how my Friday evening went:

Having hours and hours to kill after work and before curtain time, I walked from the Financial District down to the Westfield Mall for dinner. I went to the Thai place in the food court (they probably have some more upscale-sounding name for that area, since this is the mall with Bloomingdale’s, but a food court is what it is) – I think it’s called Coriander. They now offer brown rice, so I had brown rice. For my two items, still trying to be healthy, I picked the mixed vegetables and cashew chicken. The mixed vegetables (and I’ve had this before, so I don’t know if this was a server making a mistake or some new stingy policy) turned out to be three smallish stalks of broccoli – really, two and a half smallish stalks of broccoli. Speaking of really – you’re stiffing me on the broccoli and carrots? Really? It looked more like a garnish than a side order of vegetables. The cashew chicken was tasty but I think, if only for technical reasons, there should have been at least one actual cashew in it. So it was OK, but I’m not inclined to hurry back there.

Having hours still to kill, I walked over to Macy’s to check out Holiday Lane, which I have to admit I love in a childish happy way. So I find Holiday Lane for my first visit this year, walk around thoroughly inspecting all the decorated trees and Christmas paraphernalia, and . . . it’s OK. It’s all stuff I’ve seen before, and though I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t excited either.

So that brings me to Jerry Springer: The Opera.

The large cast is very enthusiastic and committed, and that’s not a euphemism for untalented, because there are a lot of terrific voices in the cast (all of them brutally and crudely amplified). I particularly liked Jonathan Reisfeld as the disturbed, reptilian set-up guy in the first half and Satan in the second half, though singling him out isn’t meant to take away from the others. The basic joke, which is summed up in the title, has lots of potential: what we think of as low and crass, poured into what we think of as high art (though of course opera is by its nature more mixed and sensationalistic than, say, chamber music).

But the music isn’t “operatic” enough for the contrast to work really well; it’s through-composed (though oddly Springer doesn’t sing – I could go either way on whether that's a reference to Pasha Selim in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail as well as on whether "this is my Jerry Springer moment, and I don't want it to die" is a reference to Goethe's Faust, looking for the moment so beautiful he will beg that it never pass away) and the music is fun and effective, and there are some amusing take-offs on baroque passion music, but it pretty much has a Broadway/pop sound, and that’s just not far enough from the Springer world for the high/low joke to pack the punch it might.

There are plentiful warnings that the show is shocking and no refunds will be given to the offended, but . . . well, I’m wondering if anyone is actually offended, and if so, what they were expecting from something called Jerry Springer: The Opera.

It’s almost comical how easily shocked and offended I am in real life – for instance, I was shocked and a bit offended that Duane Kuiper’s offhand remark last spring that Giants’ baseball is “torture” has turned into a team motto; since a vast number of Americans have apparently decided, in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary, and in defiance of simple decency and the better traditions of America, that torture “works” and is OK for Americans (to give, though not to receive), it’s disturbing to see it become a marketing opportunity for a baseball team.

But as for what is shocking in the theater – well, I’ve been reading the Elizabethans/Jacobeans and the Greeks since I was ten, and there is, trust me, absolutely nothing you can put on stage that is going to shock me: incest, pedophilia, mutilation, cannibalism, rape, blasphemy, various fetishes . . . they're all really just a starting point. If you think you're delivering a shock by mentioning these things, and that they're sufficient on their own, then as I start waiting for variations on the theme that never arrive, I start feeling a bit bored.

And I’m not trying to hide shock under an attempted veneer of sophistication, in the manner of those people who say things like, “Well, honestly, profanity is such a bore, isn’t it?” What I mean is that if one character threatens to fuck another character up the ass with barbed wire, even after the first time, let alone the third or fourth, I’m thinking, Well, in the last two hours I thought something similar about four people on the train, six on the two-block walk to the theater, and at least ten right now, and I’m in a pretty good mood, for me. Is that all ya got?

Maybe I’m just a little too in touch with my simmering, festering inner rage.

But I chuckled pleasantly along, and laughed at the Ku Klux Kick-Line (executed, like all the dances, with more good spirits than precision), but then I also laughed when I saw one of those in O Brother Where Art Thou. And I used to subscribe to the Weekly World News, back when they had a print edition (how sweetly old-fashioned of me!) and though I haven’t seen that many episodes of South Park (since I don’t get the stations that show it) . . . you get the picture. Nothing here is anything new – it’s the circus sideshow. It’s the Elephant Man, though the musical doesn’t develop the characters enough to give you the strange poetic side you get in Lynch’s great film – in fact, watching this musical is pretty much like watching the actual Springer show: we’re there to laugh at the freaks, and then at the end there’s a little lesson about accepting people or being different or something. I never saw more than a few minutes of the Springer show, but it’s already feeling sort of quaint – oh, remember when that show was on? Hey, remember when people used to say “talk to the hand?”

In one of the few sermons I remember at all from childhood, the priest made the too often neglected point that sin wasn’t just about sex – that just because society has decided that divorce or living together without marriage is not a sin (yeah, I’m old enough so those were both subjects discussed in hushed tones, and old enough to remember when social justice was still something mainstream society pretended to care about), therefore there is no such thing as sin. Because there are plenty of things that still should be seen as sins, and as more serious ones – the way we turn our back on the poor and the sick, for instance. And while JS the O brings in the religious element (the whole second half is in Purgatory and Hell, where Jerry has to hold one of his shows for Satan, because Satan wants an apology from Jesus), it's all on such a basic level, as if the mere idea of Jesus on a talk show is enough (again, haven't these people ever seen South Park? and even if this musical possibly originated the idea, it's now a pop culture pervasive). The whole second half felt really padded to me, with too much time spent on setting up things that didn’t really need to be set up (like getting Springer to agree to hold the show in hell).

There’s such an embarrassment of riches right now when it comes to things Americans should be angry about and ashamed of, and there’s nothing in this show that’s going to make the audience aware of any of those things, or that will make the audience question itself. I’m fine with a fun evening of naughtiness, but if you’re going to make a big deal, as this show does, about how it’s going to “shock and challenge your perceptions” (I’m quoting the playbill), then I’m going to expect something that is, you know, if not shocking, at least challenging. Sparklers are fun, but don't tell me there's going to be a huge fireball and then just light a sparkler. And though a chorus singing “dip me in chocolate and feed me to the lesbians” might be kind of funny the first time, it doesn’t really get funnier when it’s repeated. And repeated. And repeated.

Certainly the audience didn’t seem challenged, though it certainly was entertained. There’s a raffishly fun midnight-showing-of-Rocky-Horror atmosphere about the whole thing, though at the point when the midnight audiences started being full of people who had heard about this thing and figured since they were cool, despite living in the suburbs, they should be there. Of course jerks ended up sitting right behind me, a pack of pasty-faced aging bitches of all genders (note to V: they were teachers, so you know the type I’m talking about). There’s a very long intermission (guys, about that half hour intermission which you claim is necessary because the theater has such tiny bathrooms: you’re already opening the door into the alley during intermission – put two port-a-potties in there and get things moving!) and I was more or less forced to listen to their blather (“oooh, you’ll simply love Tuscany!”) but then they started talking throughout the performance.

I wasn’t expecting hushed silence, but I also didn’t need a constant, loud commentary on the stage action, especially when it’s as stupid, obvious, and frankly inaccurate as this one was. This was not the occasional whisper, but continued talking. There was no place to move to, and besides I didn't feel that I should have to move because of their obnoxious and inconsiderate behavior. I told the worst offender to shut up. After the show, she attempted to reprimand me. I love it when rude people get indignant when they’re called on their rudeness. She actually poked me. I was furious. So I repeated my request to her to shut up, adding a number of the words we’d just been hearing a lot of, and a few we hadn’t heard enough of. And there it was – my Jerry Springer moment! I truly regret not hitting her in the face with a chair.

And I’m sure she walked away thinking there was something wrong with me, and without questioning her own rude, stupid behavior or unjustified sense of entitlement. So what was she getting out of this show, besides a little laugh at the freak show and a smug feeling that she was so adventurous for being there? I don’t want to inflate what I was expecting from this show, or to leave the impression that I’m blaming the show for not turning our eyes into our very soul, there to see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct, even though the people presenting it seem to think that's a possibility. It’s a perfectly pleasant evening (run-ins with stupid entitled bitches aside, though those are too common to be of much significance, and were only a fraction of the evening anyway), though it drags a bit.

If you’re in the mood to go, go. It's there for another week, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were extended. I’m giving it a hearty “meh” . . . . I’m just not inclined to be either shocked or titillated by things like bisexuality or diaper fetishes. Sorry to sound humorless, but what shocks and offends me are things like our on-going cruel and illegal wars of aggression, our heedless destruction of the environment, our lack not only of economic justice but of concern about economic justice, and . . . you can supply your own favorite American corruption. Dip that in chocolate and feed it to the lesbians!

Sorry, JM. I wanted to love it, but it was only like. I just found it less than the sum of its parts. Though I do agree with you that it’s more exciting and challenging than most of what San Francisco Opera is currently doing. But then shouldn’t we set the bar a bit higher than that?

So that was my evening. I thought it was . . . OK. The second Giants game in this round of the playoffs had let out around the same time. When the muted crowd filled the train in the last two San Francisco stops, I didn’t even need to ask if the team had won. Clearly this was not the follow-up they had hoped for to Lincecum’s brilliant first-game win. It was eleven innings of back and forth, only to end in a last-minute loss for the home team. Torture!

09 October 2010

Haiku 2010/282

(for a delusion)

if you write something
and it's pretty, maybe that
will become the world

08 October 2010

Haiku 2010/281

waking you recall
your dream in details that melt
back into dreamland

07 October 2010

06 October 2010

Haiku 2010/279

so rare are the hours
to spend seeing the darkness,
hearing the silence

05 October 2010

Los Angeles Opera's Recovered Voices: the DVDs

At least two of Los Angeles Opera's recent productions from their exciting Recovered Voices series, which features composers silenced by Nazi Germany, are being released on DVD: one disc* features two one-act operas, Zemlinsky's Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) and Ullmann's Der Zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug), and the other features Braunfels's Die Vogel, based on The Birds by Aristophanes. James Conlon, the guiding force behind the series, conducts both.

I didn't see any mention of the DVDs in my admittedly cursory look through the LA Opera's website, and these don't seem to be scheduled for release in the United States anytime soon, or at least I couldn't find them on either Amazon.com or ArkivMusic.com, but the links above will bring you to the British site MDT, which is extremely reliable in my experience and usually has lower prices anyway, and the discs are not region-coded, so they will play on US equipment. I especially regretted not getting down to LA to see the Braunfels, so I'm excited these are forthcoming.

* Check out the blurb on the product page from the Bay Area's own Opera Tattler!


in the Embarcadero BART station

Haiku 2010/278

the words jumped at me:
open-ended conclusion:
watch the words unfold. . . .

04 October 2010

Haiku 2010/277

five gray doves gathered --
I slowly tried to join them,
and off the five flew

03 October 2010

Mark Morris at Cal

The Mark Morris Dance Group made its annual visit to Zellerbach Hall this week, under the aegis of Cal Performances, so I made my usual visit to see them, on Friday and Saturday. All three pieces were west coast premieres, though not all were new; the first piece, Behemoth, premiered in 1990. It was an exceptionally well-chosen program; the pieces all played off each other in interesting ways.

All three pieces used the entire company, and though there are solos in Behemoth, and individual actions, my main impression is of a group, and groups of groups, as in the folk dances Morris studied. The dancers are dressed simply, in tight shorts or the occasional pair of tights, and shirts, mostly sleeveless; the costumes are all in solid shades of green, mustard, or black; sometimes the shorts and tops match, more often they don’t. On the left breast of each shirt is a peculiar small rectangular badge, with a tiny mirrored circle in each of its four corners. The occasional reflection off the tiny mirrors forms the only “set” on the bare black stage; the pale shifting lights look like re-forming constellations, or tiny squiggling creatures seen under a microscope, or the pale autoluminescence of some blind underseas creature.

The opening movement is quite slow, and the gestures are repeated throughout the different segments; the arrayed dancers slowly lift one leg, they slowly lift an arm, they squat like sumo wrestlers, they form a circle with their arms and bend to the left, so they look like a q. Many movements throughout are slow and controlled, though occasionally the dancers (or parts of them) shiver, or they tremble like marionettes.

This is the piece unique in Morris's output in that it is performed entirely in silence, though as we all know, concert halls are never “silent.” I’ve been reading Kyle Gann’s interesting new book, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’ 33”, so I’ve been thinking about these things in particular, though anyone is aware of these issues at some level who goes to a concert hall hoping to hear, say, Beethoven and instead hears Beethoven through a scrim of talking, cell phones, coughing, and cellophane crinkling. Silence is very powerful and disturbing to people, like celibacy, possibly because both seem like an almost perverse denial of natural tendencies and like a sort of spiritual challenge or assertion of spiritual superiority. There are some noises the dancers make, as in the moments when they all clap, and some accidental sounds they make, as when their bare feet squeak as they slide across the floor.

The audience on Friday was surprisingly respectful of the silence, except for the occasional cough; last night by contrast several cellphones went off, despite the usual announcement, and there were several loud volleys of coughing, which I can’t help thinking of as the eternal internal adolescent rebelling against the enforced silence (you never hear coughs like this in the auditorium before or after the performance); though of course the rule is mostly there as a courtesy to other people, something adolescents rarely think of, especially adult adolescents. We even had the outburst of giggles that follows a greater than usual barrage of coughs.

But it’s so difficult for people to surrender themselves even briefly and just sit there and listen (4 minutes and 33 seconds is not a long amount of time, yet how tense and uncomfortable Cage’s piece is for many people). Even in the ten-minute “pause” between Behemoth and the second piece, many around me were pulling out their electronic toys – seriously, if you’re so important, or so restless, that you can’t last an hour without checking your e-mail/Facebook/eBay auctions/whatever, or you can’t sit ten minutes after a dance without distracting yourself with an electronic game, you should probably just go to a bar.

As NA mentioned to me last night, the dance creates its own music – not so much in any sounds that result intentionally or accidentally, but in the sense of rhythm, and also in movement through and in time. As its name implies, Behemoth is a vast piece (around 40 minutes long), with something primitive and mysterious about it; some short segments seem like fragments of dances, as if the movements were continuing after the darkness fell. It’s an interesting piece for Morris to make, because although it has many of his usual characteristics (the folk-dance influence, for example), it seems like a deliberate rebellion against his reputation as the ultra-musical choreographer, and his reputation as a wit and jokester. The effect of the piece was ceremonial and fairly somber.

I think some members of the audience, particularly last night, wanted Morris the flashy comedian and didn’t know what to make of the piece. Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of them, and went wandering during the intermission so I wouldn’t have to listen to their silly conversations. But I’ve been watching Morris’s group for decades now, and I’ll just watch wherever he wants to go.

Speaking of Morris’s wit, and of Kyle Gann, the second piece, Looky, had plenty of both. This is a piece from 2007, set to Gann’s Studies for Disklavier, which is a set of player-piano pieces that sound almost like simple scales and studies until the notes start to go “wrong” and it sounds jaunty and captivating. I think the costumes for this one are a combination of costumes from other pieces – I’m sure I recognized several from the Hard Nut (Julie Worden was wearing her older sister mini dress, for example). Some of them look like ordinary things to wear (Michelle Yard in her simple black dress) and some were definitely not (John Heginbotham in pants and jacket both decorated in small squares, each square made up of pale gray and dark gray triangles – by the way, I still think of those two as St Teresa and St Ignatius, thanks to Morris’s production of 4 Saints in 3 Acts). Samuel Black’s elegant muscularity was draped in the flowing oversized silky white pants and tunic of a stripped-down Pierrot, which may be why on Friday the piece reminded me of the melancholy festivities of Watteau. Last night it looked more antic to me. As with the party scene in The Hard Nut, there’s a lot going on in each section of the dance, and I think you’d have a different impression every time you saw it.

After the post-Behemoth pause, the house goes completely dark, to let the audience know it’s time to pay attention again, and so, wittily, when Looky begins we aren't looking at anything – we can only hear the piano at the back of the stage. A spotlight gradually lights it up, and we see that it’s a player piano – which strikes many in the audience as a novelty worth pointing out to each other, even though it’s really all you can see at that point. Then we see Dallas McMurray sitting in a Hard Nut tunic on the back of the stage. What follows are a series of short scenes, mostly about looking, and mostly about looking at various forms of art. There’s a gallery or museum scene, a dance performance, a brawl in a Western bar as imagined by a boy.

The scene of the dance performance is particularly witty; several of the dancers sit in chairs, chair and dancer leaning to the right, looking variously intrigued and mostly bored, while the other dancers strike picturesque poses; two of the most bored-looking viewers are in front, with the dancers behind them; when the dancers strike their final tableau, the two suddenly wheel around, as if they’re suspicious that they've just missed something. There’s a lot going on in Looky, and a lot of it is about how people interact or not with art; in the final scene, a solitary viewer wanders between two rows of dancers unmoving like statues, all striking baroque poses, until suddenly they surround her, violent and threatening, and the piece abruptly ends, with an image of the viewer overwhelmed to the point of danger by Art.

After the intermission came the most recent of the pieces, Socrates, which premiered last February. It’s set to Satie’s Socrate. I recently read Nadine Hubbs’s interesting book, The Queer Composition of America’s Sound, which makes Socrate seem like one of those secret wellsprings of alternate modernism (that is, the Franco-American school of such as Thomson, Copland, and Rorem, as opposed to the followers of Schoenberg). (By the way, I recommend the book, but reading academic prose is like reading Chaucer; it makes perfect sense when you’re immersed in it, but if you pick a page at random it can seem like a foreign language.) I had heard recordings of Socrate, but this was my first time live; its effect reminded me of the effect of Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915; both tread into deep emotional territory but in a gentle way, as if you’re being cradled by a melancholy wisdom. Live music is always an attraction of the Morris company, and Colin Fowler on piano and tenor Michael Kelly gave an outstanding rendition of Satie’s work; without distorting its simple, straightforward textures, they subtly varied its declamatory style to avoid possible monotony.

The dancers are semi-nude, dressed in filmy skirts or short togas with bare (or half-bare) chests for the men and loose-fitting tops for the women, in soft shades of olive, rose, sky-blue, and wheat. The back of the stage is divided into two large blocks of color, the right half black, the left sort of golden wheat. Classical (or neo-classical) art is evoked throughout; dancers frequently strike a reclining river god pose, or are arranged as if they were sculptures on a pediment (this may sound artificial and obvious, but it’s too fluid to look that way during the dance; I didn’t really register the pediment effect until the second time I saw the piece). Rows of dancers frequently cross from one side of the stage to the other, with graceful, controlled and dreamlike movements, as if you were seeing a classical frieze come to life. The famous uplifted index finger from Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Socrates is a frequent motif, particularly in the third segment, the death of Socrates.

The first segment is the Portrait of Socrates, in which Alcibiades describes what his friend is like. The dancers are in pairs, each clasping one end of a rope, knotted in the middle, which joins them. They could just drop the ropes and go off on their own, but no one does. The image made me think of the fable told in the Symposium, in which love is caused by each person searching for his or her original other half. It’s a portrait of a companionable society, as is the second section, On the Banks of the Ilissus, a pastoral scene in which Phaedrus and Socrates walk along the river shore, discussing the pleasures of nature, and, briefly, the nature of myth. There is no one dancer who plays “Socrates” or any of the other speakers; the identities shift among them, individually and as a group.

The longest section is the final one, showing the calm resolution of Socrates in the face of his court-ordered death, and the sorrow of his friends. He refers gently to the mourning rituals they will engage in for him (Phaedo will cut his long hair, a cock will be sacrificed to Aesculapius). They try to hide their tears. He commends the goodness of his jailer, who has often come to talk to him during his imprisonment – another image of companionable communication as the highest human good. Sometimes the dancers mirror the actions described by the words: they lift the dying Socrates's feet, or touch his chest where his heart would be, each playing "Socrates" in their varying turns; or they rub their elbows together when the chirping of crickets is mentioned. Other times the movement is more abstract and patterned. When the piece ends, all the dancers are lying on the floor, then after a brief pause slowly and slightly lift their legs and arms – an image of the final death shudder, or of rebirth.

The total effect of this dance is so moving – a peaceful wisdom in the face of the arbitrary and ignorant. There’s something flowing and elegant about the movement, and something about the deep reservoir of feeling hidden behind, that makes watching this dance a profoundly restorative experience.

Haiku 2010/276

putting on music
so sounds I want will mask sounds
I don't want to hear

02 October 2010