31 January 2011

fun stuff I may or may not get to: February

February 4-6, Magnificat presents works by Renaissance women composers (Francesca Caccini, Barbara Strozzi, Isabella Leonarda, and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre).

The Conservatory of Music’s Hot Air Music Festival has an utterly fantastic line-up on February 6; unfortunately for me I will have to miss most or most likely all of it, but if I didn’t have a conflict I would be there from opening to closing, because it all looks that good. Check it out and tell them I said hello.

Another interesting event on the afternoon of the 6th: Old First Concerts presents the Wooden Fish Ensemble in songs, piano works, and a new piece for koto ensemble by Young-ja Lee, in honor of her 80th birthday.

The Shotgun Players present Josh Kornbluth’s Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? from February 9 through the 27th.

February 12, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes over the Castro Theater for its winter event, featuring several of Chaplin’s Mutual shorts; L’Argent, a 1928 French film based on Zola’s novel; and the King Vidor La Boheme, with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert.

San Francisco Performances has Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa on the 19th, playing Tartini (arranged by Kreisler), Beethoven, Ives, Bach, and Antheil; and Jenny Lin on the 27th, playing selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier and from Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues.

Ensemble Parallele has two programs this month: On the 5th at the Conservatory of Music they celebrate the 100th birthday of Paul Bowles with music by Bowles, Michele Reverdy, and Maurice Ohana. And on the 26th and 27th they present one of this year’s most eagerly anticipated shows: their circus-inflected production of Philip Glass’s Orphée (based on the Jean Cocteau film).

Cal Performances has the Vienna Philharmonic, but they have them mostly on days when I have conflicts, even if I were willing, with my new-found consciousness of poverty, to pay those ticket prices – I realize this is something special, but for that price I want a full opera (and in the front row), not just the orchestra. They also have Robert Lepage’s group, Ex Machina, in the intriguing-sounding Eonnagata, and I might have blown it with that one by not including it in my choose-your-own subscription, because I thought it was in Zellerbach Playhouse, where they had their last Lepage production, The Andersen Project (Andersen as in Hans Christian Andersen, and Project as in what everyone calls every artistic endeavor these days). Put off by the asinine 8:00 start time in the middle of the week, I figured I’d see how I felt when it came around, because the Playhouse is a manageable size, so that even if I couldn’t get the front row I would have a seat that would be, I will somewhat grudgingly admit, OK. It turns out I should have read the brochure more carefully, because it’s in cavernous Zellerbach Auditorium, and there were no acceptable (to me) seats available last time I checked. Ah well – it’s still at an idiotic time, so maybe that will be a night I sleep well. Maybe. Of course, if I’m not going, it’s bound to be spectacular, so do feel free to rub in what I missed.

The San Francisco Symphony presents Feldman’s Rothko Chapel and Mozart’s Requiem, February 23-26.

And on Monday, February 28, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presents works by Ligeti, Du Yun, Ronald Bruce Smith, and Brian Current.

Haiku 2011/31

yellow sun setting
on yellow cabs slowing for
yellow traffic lights

30 January 2011

Haiku 2011/30

tree trunk streaked with rain
five crows on a wet sidewalk
first tender green weeds

29 January 2011

CMASH at Old First

Last night I trudged up to Old First Church on Van Ness Avenue because Old First Concerts was presenting CMASH, a new-music ensemble made up of soprano Ann Moss and pianist Steven Bailey. CMASH stands for Chamber Music Art Song Hybrid; they were founded in 2008 and their mission statement proclaims them “a new-music repertory group dedicated to fostering and sustaining long-term collaborative relationships between composers and performers.” There’s more, of course, including something about a “commitment to audience engagement and satisfaction” to which perhaps I should have paid a bit more attention, particularly the “audience engagement” part.

Ten minutes after the performance was supposed to start, someone came out, who was maybe someone from Old First Concerts – I only half-listen to pre-concert speeches, because I carry no cell phone or other electronic equipment to turn off, and that’s generally the only important thing these speakers have to say, and I’m cranky at having had to kill the hours until 8:00, so that any further delay just makes me impatient. He thanked the small crowd for being there, said that without us this was just another rehearsal, stuff like that. So after that pat on the head, Moss came out solo and – well, maybe her little speech, in which she repeated most of what the first speaker had said about this just being a rehearsal without us etc, came later.

She came out solo and gestured for us to rise. After a momentary hesitation, I complied, perhaps from force of habit (we were after all in a church, where you rise when the celebrant says to). She then started directing the audience in a clapping/singing/call-and-response thing, and I’m sorry, but that’s when I sat right back down, because that is why we have safe words.

Yes, it was sort of fun to listen to, in the occasional moments when I could disassociate myself from my embarrassed non-participation long enough to listen. It probably would have been fun to participate in, if I had been that person completely different from myself that I’ve always wanted to be. I was immediately plunged back into a hyper-sensitive, awkward self-consciousness of a sort I had thought I had moved past. I haven’t been so acutely conscious of the message my body language sent since the last corporate diversity seminar I was forced to sit through.

I would fold my arms across my chest and then unfold them as soon as I realized I was sending that “I’m closed off” signal. I tried to smile without breaking into hysterical laughter. I tried to avoid shifting (sign of impatience!) too often. I tried not to think of how conspicuous my non-participation was. (I was sitting in my preferred spot, in the front row, and therefore I was visible to the entire audience as well as the performers, so my non-participation was unintentionally aggressive.) I was not only awkwardly aware that I was the only one not participating, I’m hating myself for being the sort of person who just can’t do things like that.

They hate me, I hate me. . . you'd think that would bring us together. Well, maybe no one noticed or cared I was just sitting, which is worse in a way, as it reminds me that, despite my racing and painful self-consciousness, I’m actually completely unimportant to the group. It wouldn’t be the first time I was forced into a team-building activity and let down the team. And it wouldn’t be the first time my non-participation drew the rest of the group closer together.

Apparently the point was to make us aware of the importance of our role as the audience. But I am already way too aware of the role of the audience, and feel strongly that the way the audience participates is to sit there and listen. You really can’t get around that: it’s about sitting there and listening. I already ponder audiences endlessly, because while I love performances, I basically don’t like being crammed in with a lot of other people, and I don’t really like “going out” – whatever need I had to get out and mingle for the sake of getting out and mingling has pretty much left my life. So I don't need to be jogged into contemplating what audiences are for, and what they add, and, more to the point, what they take away, and whether the end result makes them worth putting up with.

You’ll note I'm assuming that audiences are mostly a more or less necessary evil – the best audience is one you don’t notice, in my opinion. And I should point out that this isn’t just some misanthropic though I hope possibly endearing quirk of mine; every single person I know who is a regular theater- or concert-goer struggles with the nature of audiences. It's a truism that, as the playwright tells us, hell is other people.

Being forced to play games to make me think about things I was thinking about anyway reminded me of having to write another silly annual review/self-evaluation for some job (didn’t the Maoists called this engaging in self-criticism or speaking bitterness or something similar?) and I said to my supervisor that one reason I hated doing these was that their only purpose was to give management an excuse not to give us raises by bringing up mistakes and faults that we’d already most likely improved, since I already was constantly evaluating what I was doing; i.e., should I have phrased that e-mail better? was there a more effective way to handle that other situation? He finally explained in patient tones that yes, I self-evaluated all the time (maybe excessively), but many people didn’t. So the evaluations were another thing that I was forced to participate in for the sake of everyone else, even though they would not benefit and could only damage me.

You’ll notice the evening kept reminding me of some of the worst, most painful aspects of corporate life. With all due respect for CMASH’s attempt at an innovative approach to the standard recital format, I’d like to suggest that any format that makes me feel I’m in forced attendance at a corporate team-building event is a format that has failed.

It was the end of an exhausting and mostly unhappy week, and I just wanted to treat myself to some live music, not be force-fed a madeleine of social humiliations past. I just wanted to listen. But that makes what I do sound too passive: because I sit there, and, to the best of my ability, I pay close attention. In other words, I was asking the performers to provide something that was going to engage me on a deeper level than most of my life, particularly the many hours of my office life, engages me.

Maybe other people did get something from the kumbaya time, but it frankly didn't make the audience any more attentive or considerate than usual: there was plenty of program-rustling and whispering, though most of it was coming from a small group in the second row on the right (it’s an audience of maybe fifty people, and you’re in clear view of the performers, and you feel you’re entitled to whisper during the songs? really?). But that's what you get when you encourage people to think that their individual experience should be imposed on everyone else, or when they're there for "community." Some of us are only there to listen to music.

The thing about silence during the performance is that it’s a profound act of respect not only to the performers, but also to fellow audience members: you are showing an awareness of their presence, and your silence demonstrates that you feel they are equal to you in importance – it’s a refusal to impose oneself on others. It’s been common for years to use “community” to refer to random genetic coincidences, but that’s a meaningless imposition of a fake bond: during a performance, silence – that is, respect, awareness – is the only form of community possible. And as a different playwright tells us, Silence is the perfectest herald of joy.

And I couldn't just move on, so to speak, when the concert finally started, because there was more: little speeches from the stage that I kept fearing were going to turn into full-blown monologues, having to wait while the lights were turned up so we were all visible, references to people and events that I didn’t know – I mean, congratulations to whoever it was that had that baby that we heard about after the intermission, but I kept feeling I had stumbled into a private party and they were just waiting for me to realize my mistake and leave. I definitely had the feeling that I was the only one in the audience who didn’t already know everyone there.

I think it’s really great if people want to hold a contemporary Schubertiad with their friends and family, but if you are selling tickets to the general public you have to expect there will be strangers who are there for diverse purposes, which could very well include being left alone to listen to music. (That phrase keeps recurring here, about being there to listen to music, because I feel the need to insist that that is, really, the only reason we're sitting in a concert hall instead of sipping a Guiness in a bar.) I half expected someone to come up to me at intermission and either confront me or suggest I just get out.

There are ways of including people – insisting they play games together, assuming that we all belong to the same set so we can refer without explanation to people who aren’t there – that really end up increasing the outsider’s sense of exclusion. And that’s always a danger anyway with small, somewhat in-bred groups, as by its nature a local new-music group would be. I’m sure exclusion wasn’t the intention; Moss seems very likeable and sincere about what she’s doing, but that just left me with an undercurrent of resentment on top of everything else, that I just couldn’t bring myself to play along with such a nice woman who was only trying to help me.

I feel guilty about even going on about this. But there it is! I also resent being jollied into submission. I’ve seldom sat at a concert feeling so deeply uncomfortable and alienated. I don’t mean alienated in an angsty teen, “I’m so much better than these phonies” way; I mean alienated as in vaguely humiliated, as if a sales attendant who is far better dressed than I have ever been had just sidled up to me to suggest in gentle but insinuating tones that perhaps I would be more comfortable at a different type of establishment.

Anguished awareness of revived and relived failures and humiliations as in a drowning man’s last moments of consciousness aside, I enjoyed the music.

Moss has a clear, beautiful soprano, which can get loud without losing its purity. Bailey is a poetic pianist who, as far as I could tell since the music was brand-new, brought out what there was to bring out. The piano accompaniments on a whole seemed to stick to a fairly mezzoforte range, but that’s something I only thought about later; the experience of the songs was quite varied.

The first piece was Matthew O’Malley’s setting of Caliban’s famous speech (“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises”). O’Malley was the only composer not there in person. I really enjoyed this piece, and though I can’t say it took any unexpected turns that gave me new insight into the passage, that might be because I was already so familiar with the passage. Setting familiar poetry has its own challenges, and obviously the familiarity – the stand-aloneness – of the words is one of them. Very lovely solemn peals at the end, leading up to the delicacy of Caliban crying to dream again.

The pieces that followed were all song cycles. First was Liam Wade’s Silver Apples, based on four poems about the moon (the moon is the poet’s friend!) by Robert Louis Stevenson, Poe, Yeats, and Lisa DeSiro. Moss managed throughout all the songs to articulate the words so that they were largely intelligible without reference to the texts in the program. Wade’s settings had a playful quality (particularly, if I’m remembering correctly, in the ragtime-ish setting of Poe’s Eldorado) that brought out the child-like qualities that can be revived by playing in, or just standing in the light of, the moon.

That was followed by Kurt Erickson’s Chicago Songs, a setting of four different poems by Carl Sandburg (the first one, I Sang to You and the Moon, is repeated at the end, as a fifth song). So here’s another difficulty for composers in selecting poetry: not everyone is going to respond to what you respond to, which means that the words you chose but didn't write will interfere with appreciation of the music you did write. In other words, I’m not a big Sandburg aficionado; I find he is to Whitman as Sexton is to Plath, clumping somewhat inelegantly and obviously down the trailblazed path. I’m also not sure that Sandburg’s swaggering men and rough tough women are best presented in a pure, clear soprano – on the other hand, maybe the manlier tones of a baritone would only make them seem even more artificial than they already are. All that aside, there were certainly effective touches in both the words and the music, and I was quite moved by the fifth number (the repetition of I Sang to You and the Moon, though I think – I might be wrong about this – it had a different setting from its first appearance).

After the intermission, which I spent tensely reading an article about Afghanistan in the New York Review of Books, waiting to snap at anyone who came up to me, though in fact everyone around me was catching up with each other, came my favorite set of the evening, Beautiful Things by Miriam Miller. I liked the way her title made us aware of the category of “the beautiful” and how that consciousness carries with it a sense of fragility as well as irony. I guessed from reading these four poems (Anna Wickham’s The Cherry Blossom Wand, Harold Monro’s Overheard on a Saltmarsh, Edward Thomas’s Snow, and Charlotte Mew’s The Pedlar) even before I found the information in the program that they all dated from the early part of the twentieth century, after the Victorians but before the Modernists: they share the aesthetic self-awareness of the period, the delicate Puvis de Chavannes tints, the touch of Japonism, the more refined approach to Victorian staples such as sentimental children or goblins or final partings. Miller brought out interesting things in these fairly obscure poems, writing music that was in keeping with their moods without resorting to period-piece gestures. This is the set I would most like to hear again.

Finally we had Rise and Fall, the oldest (2007) of these pieces, by the best-known composer of the evening, Jake Heggie. It’s a setting of four poems by Gene Scheer, each inspired by a different object from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that cumulatively suggest a woman’s life. The music was fluidly lyrical and inflected with an aura of sensuality or spirituality (or both), and Scheer’s poems are fine, but I bring to any Scheer/Heggie collaboration my experience of some of their other collaborations (including To Hell and Back, which I found an interesting idea, uneven in execution, with a shallow and simplistic libretto, and Three Decembers, which I found unconvincing and fairly forgettable); I found the music of those earlier works pleasant but I do tend to enter these things through the words, and though I’ve admired lots of Scheer’s work (the libretto to An American Tragedy and the parts I've heard of his World War II song cycle) these earlier pieces are not among them. Setting all that aside, I thought this particular piece was fine, but also I think I simply do not connect with their view of women’s lives, which I find a little too Eat-Pray-Love and Oprah-ready – a little too self-conscious of and smug about what they feel is their spiritual evolution.

So that was the concert. After the applause died away and as the lights came all the way up I slipped out the side and went downstairs through Fellowship Hall to the men’s room. When I crossed back through the lobby on my way out I glanced back inside the sanctuary, where everybody seemed to be having a lively chat. I left along with an old woman with a lot of bags in her hands, though maybe she wasn't a concert-goer but just a homeless person who had come in to use a clean restroom. And then I started the trek back to the Civic Center BART station.

Did I enjoy the music and the performances? Yes. Will I be on the lookout for further pieces by Miriam Miller? Yes. Do I like the concept of CMASH? On the whole. Would I attend another CMASH concert? Let me get back to you on that one.

Haiku 2011/29

perfectly petaled
one late-blooming yellow rose
glowing through white mist

28 January 2011

Haiku 2011/28

beautifully bent
on its graceful reflection:
the swan's curving neck

27 January 2011

Haiku 2011/27

blue veil at morning
a rushing overbright blur
gray veil at evening

26 January 2011

Haiku 2011/26

how did it happen --
that one ordinary day
saved up in my mind

25 January 2011

Wallace Shawn in Berkeley

Last Sunday I went to Berkeley to hear Wallace Shawn in a program called Real World, Fake World, Dream World, a collage of readings by Shawn and others. He has considerable deadpan charm and speaks with understated drollery, in a surprisingly hesitant manner for such an accomplished performer and writer (though perhaps the hesitation does make sense, when he is not speaking words that he can revise, or that have been written for him). He came out on stage, went to the podium in the center, and suggested that, since he is known for many things, if he was not in the guise we had come hoping to see, we could always quietly and politely exit, and “it would just be one of those evenings.”

I’ve never had the chance to see one of his plays, and though I’ve had it in the back of my mind for years to read them, they’re just one of too many things I’ve never gotten around to (though after hearing him I now plan to make that more of a priority). Of course like any art-house aficionado in the 1980s, I saw his Dinner with Andre. I had seen him in various other movies as well. I knew his father was the famous long-time editor of the New Yorker. I saw him briefly in person once before, during the Boston Shakespeare Company’s brief moment of starry glamour, when Peter Sellars was running the place – Shawn was in the audience the night I saw Linda Hunt as Mother Courage. The rumor was that Sellars was going to direct him in something by Moliere – the Misanthrope, I think, or perhaps the Miser. Then Sellars decamped for the Kennedy Center, and nothing ever came of that.

He subtly planned his readings, I think, so that you were encouraged to think about roles, costuming, and possibilities that never come to pass – not just in the theater, but politically as well. He explained that his Real World was the world of political reality, the Fake World was the world (often to political ends) that people insisted in believing in, and the Dream World was the world of art, where he often worked, and where all of us spent some time. I might have the definitions not quite correct, because he blurred and qualified them as he spoke, and the end effect of the evening was to make you question which world was which.

He started off by reading “Why I Call Myself a Socialist” from his latest book, Essays (published by Haymarket Books, and I have to say they did an absolutely beautiful job – the design, the quality of paper, the quality of the typesetting, are all outstanding; William Morris would have loved it). Starting sometime in the 1980s, he gradually changed from being a standard liberal into what he called “a 1960s radical.” I was fascinated and sympathetic, since I have gone through a similar journey, starting around the same time, and I assume for similar reasons (and if I have to explain to you what they are, either you haven’t been paying any attention at all to American politics and society for thirty years or you’ll never understand). The prose and the argument were so limpid that I couldn’t help remembering this was William Shawn’s son. They were maybe a bit too much so; though I basically agreed with him I couldn’t help feeling that he was maybe a bit too optimistic about human potential – giving too much weight to economic and cultural circumstances, rather than to any in-born qualities (or lack of those qualities).

But then I started questioning that reaction of mine as he moved on to the other readings, which is why I thought the seemingly random selection was so brilliantly chosen – how do we really know what strangers are capable of? Isn't it just a matter of comforting myself to think that some people couldn't have done better than they've done? In the essay, he had built from the casting and costuming of an actor, and how that brings out or distorts qualities in the actor, qualities which are only part of what’s in the actor, to the way we assign roles and even personalities in the theater of the world.

When he finished reading the essay, he announced that we were now moving into the artistic portion of the evening, therefore the lights would now be dimmed. Before the dimming one elderly couple did take advantage of his earlier permission to slip out, though who knows why – it’s hard to believe that an elderly couple in Berkeley would be put off by support for socialism. Shawn then read a selection about a Thanksgiving celebration from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Some Other, Better Otto” that expanded, in the more specific terms of fiction, some of the points – exploitation of others, and how we persuade ourselves that such exploitation is OK, and the changing and mysterious identities of others – that his essay discussed in more abstract terms.

That was followed by a selection from John Ashbery, but first Shawn had the lights turned up and asked how many of us knew Ashbery. The word “knew” threw me: I wouldn’t claim to “know” his work, or to have read more than a few passages, though my mind did immediately produce the title Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and I think I am finally able to keep him separate in my mind from John Berryman. Is that “knowing”? I decided it was close enough, and became one of the few to raise a hand, though fortunately he didn't call on any of us.

I don’t remember the title of the book-length poem which the enjoyable excerpt came from. That was followed by several monologues from Shawn’s latest play, Grasses of a Thousand Colors, first from the increasingly despondent protagonist, who finds himself in a state in which the high point of his time is occasionally masturbating on a pet cat, and then from the woman who lives with this man. He closed with another essay, a brief one from November 2001 called “After the Destruction of the World Trade Center,” which, as he mentioned, is unfortunately as relevant today as when he wrote it.

After that came improv time, also known as the Q-and A. Those are always chancy, but there were no disastrous questions of the type that are really fifteen-minute statements, and Shawn took each question seriously and really got any interest that was possible out of each one. So, working from memory and paraphrasing to the best of my ability:

The first guy pointed out that his bio did not mention what are probably his two most popular performances, in The Princess Bride and in the Toy Story series, and did he write any of the lines in The Princess Bride (no, William Goldman wrote them all, and it was filmed as written) and how did he feel about the popularity of these roles. He gave what I think of as the Sullivan’s Travels response, imagining someone sick, unable to sleep late at night in a hospital, and coming across those movies and having his mood lifted – Shawn said that gave him great joy.

He was asked how he feels about differing stagings of his work, specifically his play The Designated Mourner, which has been staged with the characters sitting on chairs facing the audience as well as with the characters moving about constantly. Shawn said that he found it a fascinating part of theater – that two people could bring such different insights to the same text. Except for the occasional staging that was completely unsympathetic to the aims of the play he enjoyed variant stagings. (I couldn't help remembering Beckett disowning Joanne Akalaitis's post-apocalyptic staging of Endgame.)

He was asked about clothes, and which clothes he’d like to wear, since he had been talking about costuming and roles. I think he took the question a little more literally than intended, saying he was one of those people who basically wore a uniform; he had a summer outfit and a winter outfit. We were seeing the winter outfit. It was dark, and looked heavy and warm. Maybe he was also being metaphorical – he was OK with the role he was playing.

He was asked about long-time collaborators, and whom he’d like to collaborate with. He said he had been working with Andre Gregory for over 40 years, so they had lasted longer than Gilbert & Sullivan (which made me laugh). He mentioned several actors, whose names I don’t remember. He said he would love to work with Mike Leigh (applause from the audience) and if Leigh ever needed a short American in his work, he would certainly be available. He mentioned that he had always wanted to be in a film for the late Eric Rohmer, though of course that could no longer happen.

He was told that he seemed like a good-natured, humorous person, and asked how he reconciled that with the often grim nature of what he wrote. He responded by telling about meeting Hannah Arendt, a person he greatly admired, when he was in his 20s: although she had lived through, and spent her life writing about, many of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, she exuded vitality and energy. So perhaps unless you had some basic faith in the world and in people, you wouldn’t bother to try to save or improve them – why would you want to be a socialist and spread the richness of the world around, unless you thought it was worth having?

He was asked if he saw any signs of hope in our political climate. He said that after a strange period of passive quietude and acquiescence after 9/11, there were at last some protests beginning to sound from those concerned with social justice. Progressive groups and publications were increasing in membership and circulation, and people were interested in something like Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. On the other hand, the educational system in this country is being trashed, starved of funds and based more and more on tests, rather than on the sort of knowledge that might lead citizens to question the stories they’re told. (That seems like an automatic applause line in Berkeley, though Shawn clearly wasn't trying to get a cheap hand from it, but oddly enough though I certainly didn't sense that anyone disagreed with him, the crowd was quiet. Strange group!)

There were a couple more questions, both from the balcony. First someone asked – if I understood her correctly – how an egalitarian and socialist could appear on Gossip Girl (I didn’t even realize he was on this show – that’s the first thing I've heard about it that’s made me want to watch it). Shawn gave a thoughtful reply that seemed circuitous but was actually quite direct: basically, you can’t know what effect things will have on people; it’s something he’s thought about a lot, since his plays often depict reprehensible people; he personally enjoyed the show, and was one of the few cast members who had grown up in that milieu (upper East Side privilege); he would feel terrible if someone who worked feeding the indigent saw the show and was inspired to quit such work and start at a hedge fund, but, as he acutely pointed out, the people who ask such questions are always asking on behalf of other, unnamed, presumably less intelligent and moral, people – it’s always “some other people I don't know might be led to believe in something without value” and not “this led me to believe in something without value.”

Finally, there was a long question that reflected in a way on the issues the previous question had raised about privilege and its portrayal in art (at least, I think it did; the question was fairly convoluted): in My Dinner with Andre, there’s a part when Shawn attacks privilege until it becomes a matter of giving up his electric blanket, which he just can’t do – the questioner also had an electric blanket he loved, and thought that was great and inspiring, and was that how the passage was meant to be interpreted, and if so, had he changed his mind as part of his growing radicalization? Shawn said that even at the time the passage was meant to be a bit satirical – to force him to think about moving beyond the political boundaries he had set.

The readings and his answers all played off one another to create a thought-provoking and suggestive swirl of ideas about theater, politics, and privilege. Oddly, I had been discussing related issues out in the lobby before the show, before I had any idea of what Shawn would be saying – NA and I were discussing clothing as costume and as social and political statement. It started as a conversation about hats, and I mentioned I mostly had baseball caps which sometimes led people to assume I was a dedicated fan when I was really a casual visitor – just that morning I had been quizzed about the Pittsburgh Pirates, and though I can say I’ve enjoyed a game in their beautiful stadium, that’s about all I can say about them. NA told me that her cheap thrift-store T-shirts, which are often discards from pricey universities and exclusive golf tournaments, had sometimes led people to make all kinds of strange assumptions about who she really was, as if they were a false passport.

So I was waiting in line for the book signing, having managed to buy a copy of Essays before the rude woman behind me grabbed them all out of the attendant’s hand (reminder to self: if you think you’re going to buy a book at a reading, always do it beforehand). We were up on the mezzanine, and I was leafing through the essays, pondering privilege and theater. One woman behind me announced that she really had to get Nieman Marcus to stop sending her so many text messages. Another group held a lengthy and extensive discussion about which private schools were the “right fit” for their children, and how much college was going to cost them.

When it was my turn to have my book signed, Shawn was extremely gracious and personable and seemed pleased when I told him how much I had enjoyed the selections and his discussion. I know that’s the sort of boilerplate people say at things like this, but here it is a couple of days later and I’m sort of surprised at the deep impression this self-effacing, quietly droll man made on me.

When I got to the BART station I only had to wait two minutes for the train to show up, which was excellent for me because it was getting kind of late, even though the performance started at the reasonable hour of 7:00 – but the readings lasted a little longer than announced, and the question session went on a little longer, then there was the wait for the book signing, which was totally worth it to me because I love getting books signed. . . .

So I was on the BART train and a woman in the car loudly announced to whoever was on the other end of her phone that he had better not be disrespecting her, because she would not stand for being disrespected and he had better watch out or she would kick his ass. Then she started talking in the same volume to another woman two seats away. I didn’t quite follow the conversation because I was hearing it through my noise-reducing headphones (which are the greatest invention since the mute button on the TV remote) while trying to read The Eustace Diamonds. They seemed to be talking about child-rearing, because she said it was better for her to be harsh on her kids than for someone like the BART police to shoot them the way they did Oscar Grant – she started saying, even louder and over and over, “An eye for an eye! An eye for an eye!” Then her stop came and she got out, after wishing the other woman a blessed life.

Haiku 2011/25

playful dolphins prance
looping steady arabesques
on a concrete frieze

24 January 2011

Haiku 2011/24

glowing with moonlight
(or perhaps those are headlights):
nightime reflections

23 January 2011

helpful advice for fund-raisers in the arts

Here it is: I am not kidding when I tell you not to call me.

Perhaps some dimwit consultant has told you that calling helps establish human contact, thereby presumably rendering me more likely to donate. Unless the human contact you're looking for includes irritation and harassment, which, I should point out, make me less likely to give, even to groups I generally support, then please consider that bad advice.

I generally solve this problem by not answering my phone (leading to occasional awkwardness when I do pick it up and it's someone I know who was clearly hoping for voicemail). But some of these groups also have my work number, where I am generally expected to pick up the phone when it rings. And no matter what I say, they keep calling.

I tell them I never pledge money over the phone. ("Oh, why not?" one asked. "Because then people keep calling," I explained, before hanging up.)

I tell them I prefer to donate when I renew a subscription. They seem to think that, since they are so worthy, I should donate on their schedule, not my own.

I tell them that they can send me something in the mail or through e-mail. They then call back to follow up on what they sent.

I do actually donate to arts groups, which is why I don't just hang up on such callers the way I hang up on those people who call suggesting I really need to refinance my mortgage. Hence the awkwardness! But it's a simple and obvious matter of customer relations: you don't contact customers (that is, people from whom you want money) in a way that is guaranteed to piss them off. I am using many italics in this entry, because I can't emphasize this enough, and arts groups really don't seem to understand this. I've already stopped giving to one group in part because of my irritation at their fund-raising practices. And the past couple of weeks another group, one which I still support (ironically, one I give to because I appreciate how considerate they are to their donors and subscribers) has been harassing me at work with calls, which is making me reconsider my normal donation to this group. (Here's a hint: both of these groups have "Performances" in their name.)

All businesses need occasional reminders not only that the customer is not there for their convenience, but that it's the other way around. If you are working from a phone list it's easy enough to put "do not call" next to someone's name. Seriously. How many ways can I say this? And how many times do I need to say this?

fun fact of the day

Gilbert & Sullivan's Trial by Jury was originally intended as a curtain-raiser for the Carl Rosa Opera Company's English premiere of Wagner's Lohengrin.

Well, both involve disputed brides. . . .

This astonishing bit of information is from Gayden Wren's book A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan. He cites as his source Jane Stedman's W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre and duly notes that "it certainly seems an odd pairing to a modern ear." Indeed it does! There are many oddities here, one of them the thought that Lohengrin on its own would not be a substantial enough evening. . . .

Haiku 2011/23

first warm day of spring
children outdoors scream at play. . .
I wish they'd shut up

22 January 2011

Haiku 2011/22

dawn rising bird song
daily what do the birds know
that I do not know

21 January 2011

Haiku 2011/21

turbulent waters
placid ponds and vast oceans
all turn to vapor

20 January 2011

Haiku 2011/20

lying oh so low
the moon slips away from me
the day encroaches

19 January 2011

every woman adores a Fascist

Last Friday I went to the first performance of Eugenie Chan’s Diadem & Bone to Pick, just starting its run at Cutting Ball Theater. Bone to Pick had appeared a couple of years ago on a program with short plays by Gertrude Stein and Suzan-Lori Parks. I did not much like it (the reasons for my reaction are here, about halfway down). I decided to go to the revival because I was curious about the new accompanying play, Diadem, and how Bone to Pick would work in a new context. And I had bought a season pass, so basically I’d already paid for it. And I’m always open to the possibility that I’ll change my mind about something. I’ll put you out of your suspense right now: I didn’t change my mind. If you want to read something nice, you'll need to skip all the way down to the last paragraph.

When I first saw Bone to Pick, I felt that the author undercut the portrayal of Ria by making Theo such a crude fascist bully – it raises all sorts of questions about Ria herself that are never convincingly explored, if they’re even explored at all: What does it say about her that she’s attracted to someone like that? (Yes, he’s supposed to be hot, but everyone knows that personality affects our perception of physical appearance.) If she’s going to make comments all along about what a meathead he is, then isn’t she more complicit than he is in the trouble he causes? After all, he’s just following his nature, but she, as we are told repeatedly – the play could use some pruning – knows better. It seemed to me more effort was put into dumping all the blame on him and excusing her than on exploring the issues raised by the plot.

But then the plot and the psychology are both rather sketchy, and I wonder if the avant-garde, non-linear structure functioned as squid ink, helping to hide their basic incoherence. Even small details don’t add up: I can accept, if you’d like, a waitress who quotes King Lear (“vile jelly”), but it seems improbable that such a woman would also mispronounce “au jus” in a way that draws a laugh (a fairly cheap laugh, I think) from some of the audience. In fact, for all the fanciness of the linguistic structure, I couldn’t help noticing that what the audience seemed to respond to were jokes about cock (as in cocking a gun and, you know, cock) or the number 69 – the same sort of thing that would be laughed at by junior-high-schoolers who think they’re being sophisticated. And there’s a point where Theo hits Ria and threatens her with a gun – and moments later it just seems forgotten, and it doesn’t seem to affect her view of him. I've got to say, that must be one incredibly hot guy. Most women I know would harbor at least some slight resentment at having a gun pulled on them.

Theo is apparently some sort of soldier, or at least vigilante, but he’s not even brave, except when it comes to pushing around anything weaker than he is – he’s not even allowed the virtues of his faults, if you see what I mean. Couldn’t the playwright have been generous enough not to make him a coward, on top of his endless other bad qualities? Bernard Shaw was smart enough to give his capitalists valid arguments and plenty of good lines (he was also theatrically savvy enough to do so; it's always way too clear where the caricature that is Theo is going).

Theo is xenophobic and obsessed with guns and meat. There seems to be some attempt here at an allegory of contemporary American society, in which Theo and his “masculine” values are destructive and stupid and bad, while Ria, needless to say, is only guilty for loving him, almost against her will, in the good old Harlequin-romance way. If a nineteenth-century author talks about, and assigns values to, “masculine” and “feminine” traits (an obvious example is Das Ewig-Weibliche from the end of Faust), then I’ll make the cultural adjustment and see his or her point, but I’m not buying such a reductive and simplistic view of gender from a 21st-century author. If you think arrogance, stupidity, and violence are “male” values, do I really need to do more than gesture wearily towards the loathsome figure of Sarah Palin? And she is by no means an exception.

Imagine if the genders were reversed here: if a young male playwright wrote a solo work for actor, in which he, good-humored, stoic, appealing, hard-working, tells us about his girlfriend, who is stupid, shrill, vain, and shrewish, and he assists her in doing something really destructive but it’s not his fault at all because, you know, she has big tits and he really wants to bone her, and all along the way every reference to women is in some contemptuous, generic, cartoony way – do you really think anyone would buy that?

Diadem proved a good companion piece, since I felt Bone to Pick the first time around suffered by comparison with the Stein and Parks plays. Diadem also tells the story of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, though in a more straightforward classical setting (or decoratively semi-classical, since there is plenty of evidence of modern times and contemporary sensibilities) and with more straightforward language – though even so, there are too many slips and self-indulgences; one example of a slip: Theseus is described as having “biceps rippling in the breeze,” which sounds like something out of SJ Perelman, because biceps can ripple, but not in a breeze (or even a strong wind, or a gale) the way something like water, or hair, or a flag can ripple in the breeze.

There’s a lot of more or less direct recitation of myth. About ten minutes in we were already hearing how the stupid men had killed and eaten Poseidon’s cattle, and I inwardly rolled my eyes, because it was clear we were going to get the same puerile “boys are icky” simplification of a rich and complicated subject (the subject in question being either mythology or gender relations). You know, I love the ocean (who doesn’t?), but I can’t claim to be a devout adherent of the god Poseidon, and I might spare some sympathy for half-starved sailors, anonymous and exhausted, who seized a chance for a rare decent meal, a respite in their rough and perilous lives. Sure, from the ancient Greek point of view, it was blasphemous, but Diadem isn’t exactly a faithful recreation of the classical experience. So why not bring in a perspective that isn’t about an extremely privileged woman (Ariadne is a princess, and a descendant of the gods) imposing her I’m-so-special priestess/goddess fantasies on the lower orders?

There are other examples, but it’s really not worth going on about them. I do not understand Cutting Ball’s commitment to this material. Though these plays make avant-garde gestures (the incantatory and collage-like nature of the language, the use of classical myth, the non-linear presentation), and Chan is not without talent, these plays strike me as hollow; the attempted richness and complexity of language are not matched by corresponding richness and complexity of thought and perception. It’s like seeing a spiky whorled shell on the beach but when you pick it up to examine it, it’s empty inside except for echoes. And unfortunately what it’s echoing is a view of women’s roles that is so smug, self-serving, and reductive that it’s barely worth the energy you’d spend arguing against it. If you’ve seen such stupid slogans as “girls rule, boys drool” that are sometimes marketed to the sillier junior-high girls, then you’ve basically seen these plays.

I will say, though: what I’ll call my lived experience in the theater was not that bad. No one was checking her cellphone during the second half, like the woman next to me at their last show; no one was kicking my seat or rear, like several women at several of their shows; the sets, sound, and lighting were all stylish and striking, in the Cutting Ball way. And Paige Rogers gave a virtuoso performance. My usual experience is that actors, no matter how skillful, can bring me through a piece once, and then the writing has to be there. But Paige held my interest even through my second viewing of Bone to Pick, which, I have to say, was a pretty awesome achievement, under the circumstances.

Haiku 2011/19

late afternoon moon
rising brighter silver as
sunset shades deepen

18 January 2011

Haiku 2011/18

the year is so young
and yet the world is so old
I just want to sleep

17 January 2011

Haiku 2011/17

Have I seen the sun?
Not all day but I did see
its lovely pale light

something old, something new

A random round-up of concerts from the end of last year. . .

The day after El Nino I was back at Civic Center for Elza van den Heever’s recital, with John Parr on piano, presented by San Francisco Performances as part of their Young Masters series. Van den Heever is well known in these parts, having appeared with both the Symphony and the Opera, and there were lots of fans and friends who braved the rain to wish her well. She opened the second half of the concert by telling us how much it meant to her to perform professionally at the concert hall of the school she attended (San Francisco Conservatory of Music); there was clearly a sense that one chapter of her life was closing and another opening, and at times her emotions got the better of her; she was in tears by the end of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und –leben, which closed the first half; she apparently flubbed a note at the end of one of the Strauss songs in the second half, because she broke out giggling and apologized, which was quite endearing. She paid tribute to her homeland, South Africa, with some sweetly sentimental Afrikaans songs.

She’s a tall woman with a lot of stage presence, and her voice is not only beautiful, it’s very large. I was as usual in the first row and during the opening Handel arias I found myself thinking that it might have been better to have sat a bit further back, which is possibly the first time I’ve had that thought at a vocal recital.

John Adams is this season’s “Project San Francisco” composer at the Symphony, so they followed up El Nino with Harmonielehre, which was originally composed for them back in 1985, as the second half of a program that also featured Cowell’s Synchrony and Mozart’s Violin Concert No. 5 in A major, with Gil Shaham as soloist. At first I was going to skip this concert; December was a surprisingly busy month for me (which is one reason I’m posting these things now) and I was getting sick as well. I stuck to my “skip it” guns even as the first raves started coming in from the Wednesday and Thursday concerts. I thought about getting a rush ticket on Friday, but the thought of then having to hang around a dark and drizzly Civic Center for nearly three hours pointlessly killing time while waiting for the Symphony’s idiotic 8:00 start time to roll around was just too much for me, so home I went.

Then Mr G/S Y started raving about the concert, and that’s what convinced me to go on Saturday, because, unlike the others who loved it, he isn’t necessarily predisposed to like a lot of the contemporary music I like. I had one of the free weekend tickets that BART had been handing out, so I figured all I would lose was time if I went to the hall and they were sold out.
I ended up with an almost perfect (for me) seat: front row, dead center. I did not find it too close for the Adams; in fact I enjoyed the sense of being right in the midst of the sound.

The first half was less sonically overwhelming, of course. I enjoyed Synchrony and the Mozart, though Gil Shaham is a bit cartoony to watch, always wide-eyed and grinning and bobbing up and down. Harmonielehre is usually described as a breakthrough piece for Adams, and it’s also wild and overwhelming and fun to listen to (while being serious in substance). He has said that after struggling with the piece for months, the logjam was broken by a dream he had of an ocean liner lifting up like a rocket ship. And that’s exactly what the opening sounds like. Pretty amazing.

So, I’m going to tell you a weird little dream I had (well, all dreams are fragments of dreams), because I thought it was kind of funny. I was in a large house, and a woman who was Laura Bush (even though she didn’t look like her) was explaining to me why her husband – that would be George W, the war criminal – loved the works of Gustav Mahler. “Well, it’s the humor,” she explained. “And . . . [short pause] the humor.” And I thought, wow, even she is not finding this convincing. And I woke up. No wonder I never feel rested. I despise the Bush family and hadn’t even been listening to Mahler, so I have no idea where that came from. Anyway, I offer it as possible inspiration to any composers out there.

The day after the Symphony, John Marcher had invited me to accompany him to British pianist Nicolas Hodges’s performance at Hertz Hall of Stockhausen’s Klavierstuck X and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. We had an unfortunate mix-up as to meeting time and place, so I ended up buying a rush ticket, now that I know such things exist. I was not familiar with Hodges before this concert. What I loved about him is that he looks like the accountant you run into in the office coffee room and with whom you always talk about hockey or something like that, and he comes out on stage and plays this wild stuff. He wore fingerless black gloves for the Stockhausen, all the better to handle the extreme technical demands of the piece.

I’m also not that familiar with Stockhausen’s work (as opposed to his reputation), so I enjoyed the chance to hear some. My recollection is that the piece started off in a very dreamy way and I thought it was going to be one thing and then it got bangy (in a good way) and turned into something else, with lots of notes allowed to die slow reverberating deaths in the air (which reminded me that the Beatles put Stockhausen on the cover collage for Sergeant Pepper).

Hodges removed the gloves for the Hammerklavier. I found the Adagio in particular to be quite beautiful. My discussion afterwards with JM, who did not like the performance as much as I did, reminded me once again of something about the way I listen to instrumental music: I really don’t have an ideal in mind for most pieces, and though I will sometimes find particular performances too fast, slow, emphatic, or whatever within the context of that particular performance, I’m really pretty accepting of whatever direction the performer wants to go in. If I had an ideal performance in mind, the chances are slim that another performer would follow the same path, in which case why not just stay home and listen to whatever CD has set the standard for me? You could, if you are so inclined, read this as my having no standards, or being more or less ignorant, since there are plenty of cases (such as anything involving Shakespeare) where I have very strong opinions about where missteps are occurring. But I've been listening to instrumental works long enough for me to think that's just the way I approach them.

16 January 2011

what child is this

It was the 2001 North American premiere of El Nino that brought me back to John Adams. After listening to Nixon in China semi-obsessively for several years, in 1995 I had eagerly bought a ticket for the premiere at Cal Performances of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, directed (and I believe conceptualized) by Peter Sellars, whose work I had frequently admired when we were both resident in Boston. I wasn’t familiar with librettist June Jordan but I flipped through a book of her poems beforehand and found no cause for alarm.

I have heard from several sources that Adams considers one’s reaction to I Was Etc. as a litmus test, which strikes me as him being ornery in a New England way, because . . . well, maybe he really does think it’s that good. For me it’s a strong contender for Worst Thing I’ve Ever Seen on Stage. I thought it was fake, smug, hacky, and unconvincing (also, way too long, poorly staged, and over-amplified); I hated it so intensely that I couldn’t listen to anything by Adams for more than a year, even though he was (by far) the least guilty of the three perps. I could probably do a “recovered memory” live blog of the whole thing, if I could stand to hear it again. I have friends who will still edge away from me if the subject comes up.

Anyway, several years later I was leafing through the Symphony’s season brochure and saw that the incomparable Lorraine Hunt Lieberson would be singing. Some time later I realized that two other wonderful singers, Dawn Upshaw and Willard White, would also be singing. Some time after that it dawned on me that this was a premiere by John Adams. I have no idea why I was so slow to take in what it all was. So I went, and it brought me back to his work.

I did have some reservations, some of them about the staging, in particular the accompanying cheesy movie by Peter Sellars, which was basically a rip-off of Godard’s Ave Maria. I saw the Sellars movie again recently, since it's incorporated in the El Nino DVD that I watched before I went to last December’s revival at the Symphony. And it irritated me all over again, an irritation that centered on the little metal stud below the lip of the girl playing Mary; what irritated me was that, with the sole exception of that little trendoid touch, she was a completely conventional choice, having exactly the sort of grave and gentle beauty that would lead any self-respecting nun to make her first choice to play the Virgin Mother in the school Christmas pageant. There was no movie at the Symphony this time, and the performance greatly benefited from the more stripped-down staging, though there were some odd and inexplicable touches, like the little Charlie Brown Christmas tree that appeared in the second half.

I also had some reservations about some of the texts used, chiefly the more “political” poems by Hispanic women, in particular the “Memorial de Tlatelolco” by the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos. It is a long (frankly, too long for its role in this work) account of a police massacre in Mexico City. It’s one of those “remember this outrage” poems, which I personally don’t respond to – I find them too one-dimensional to function effectively as poetry and too restricted in perspective to function effectively as history, or even as narrative. To me they end up being about the poet’s righteousness. I do recognize and am grateful that I am in the privileged position of being able to take a mostly aesthetic view of such poems. But then, most of the audience for El Nino is also in such a position.

And although the poem could be heard as a generic account of violent government oppression that is ignored by official media, you have to get past several factors for it to work that way: there are enough specific details so that you’re aware (even if you haven’t read this in the program book) that it’s referring to a specific incident, one that doesn’t mean much to most of the audience (I’m taking the perspective here that this is a work by an American composer in a largely English-speaking country, to be performed to a largely well-off audience); it’s an incident in a foreign country, one that most of the audience is going to consider permanently troubled anyway; and it’s in the language of that country, Spanish, which most of the symphony audience, I’d guess, doesn’t speak. A poem that’s meant to serve as the centerpiece of the section on suffering and injustice should not be so heavily veiled from the audience; I can’t help feeling that an American composer should have illustrated the themes of injustice and suffering with something that would hit a little closer to home with an American audience – it couldn’t be that difficult to find some examples of American hypocrisy and injustice to take that role, in a language that will reach the audience without translation. I realize the use of these poems is a way of reaching for a more universal and inclusive account, but – though I understand others might take a different perspective – it can seem, politically and aesthetically, a bit trendy and slick.

Though I’ve gone on about this, it’s not a major problem (the way I found the texts for Dr Atomic and I Was Etc. to be major problems). Most of the texts are very well chosen and evocative. This is a Messiah for a more secular and culturally diverse time, meaning that the emphasis is on the nativity not as an historical and theological event but rather as a mythic and poetic story (in fact the last word of the whole work is “poesia,” a poem, and it gently ebbs away in the ethereal voices of a girls’ chorus), a tale of birth, suffering, and the acceptance of love despite its difficulties, a tale to be told by alternative voices.
Many of the texts from the Apocrypha have a charming folk-tale quality. I’m always delighted by the little orchestral roar that accompanies the dragons in Pseudo-Matthew’s story of Jesus and the dragons – it’s hard not to picture little toy dragons. There are other baroque-style illustrative touches in the music, as in the upward figures when the three countertenors sing (when Mary visits Elizabeth) “the babe leapt in her womb.” The opening of the work reminded me of the opening of Das Rheingold, as we hear a murmur of indistinct, childlike syllables that gradually form distinct words, beginning with “maiden.” Though there were many moments that brought fleeting reminders of other traditions, the whole work is totally and distinctively Adams.
I went to the Friday performance, so I heard Jessica Rivera instead of Upshaw. I thought her lovely and lyrical; I also enjoyed Jonathan Lemalu and the three countertenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Steven Rickards, though I found them more effective in unison as the Archangel Gabriel rather than individually as the kings Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Michelle DeYoung had the difficult task of taking over for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, a singer I referred to earlier as “incomparable,” and I mean that quite literally: there’s no point in comparing anyone else to her. Hunt Lieberson had an emotional intensity and authenticity that gave her singing a rare spiritual depth. I feel fortunate to have had some experience of her art, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the different quality that DeYoung brought to the part; she had a certain almost operatic grandeur and dignity that brought out the drama in her part.
The Symphony Chorus was wonderful, powerful and tender and expressive throughout their difficult music. I do have to complain about the amplification of the soloists; I assume this is a deliberate aesthetic preference on the composer’s part, but it distances and flattens the sound in a way that to me detracts from the experience of live music – if I wanted to experience the music mediated by a sound system, I’d stay home and listen to the CD (or watch the DVD). Honestly, after hearing the soloists would be amplified I hesitated before buying a ticket; finally I decided that hearing the chorus would be worth trying for a rush ticket. I ended up being so glad I went, despite the amplification. It was wonderful to get another chance to revisit this music in performance. I've been listening to it semi-obsessively ever since the performance.
(The image of votive candles at the top is from St Patrick's Cathedral in New York City; the statues of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe are from a chapel in the Basilica near Mission Dolores in San Francisco; and the trumpeting angel astride a pulpit is from the American Wing in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.)

Haiku 2011/16

unexpected spring
warmth flooded the day mocking
my wintertime mood

15 January 2011

Haiku 2011/15

late afternoon noise
disrupts contemplation of
late afternoon light

14 January 2011

Haiku 2011/14

daily doves gather
on that same stretch of phone wire --
I would fly far off

13 January 2011

Haiku 2011/13

blood-red skies at dawn
purple-gray clouds roll over
blood-red eyes at night

12 January 2011

Haiku 2011/12

turning the last page
of a familiar novel:
back into the world

11 January 2011

good news from the archives

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra is marking its thirtieth anniversary by launching its own record label, Philharmonia Baroque Productions, and they are very wisely leading off with a treasure from their archives: Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who had a long association with the group, recorded live in 1995 singing Les Nuits d'Ete and Handel arias. The release date is March 8, and you don't need me to tell you that you have to buy this. You can get it on iTunes or Amazon (though it doesn't seem to be listed yet).

They will be releasing two more discs this year as well: live recordings of the Haydn 88, 101, and 104 (coming this April, in conjunction with their performances of Haydn's Creation) and a studio recording of instrumental Vivaldi (coming next September as they open their 31st season).

Here are the details for the Hunt Lieberson disc:

Berlioz, Les Nuits d’été

Handel, “Figlio non è…L’angue offeso mai riposa” from Giulio Cesare
Handel, “Ben a raggion…Vieni, o figlio e mi consola” from Ottone
Handel, “Mirami altero in volto” from Arianna
Handel, “La giustizia ha già sull’arco” from Giulio Cesare
Handel, “Ombra cara di mia sposa” from Radamisto
Handel, “Ogni vento, che al porto lo spinga” from Agrippina
Handel, Encore: “Qual nave smarrita” from Radamisto

Haiku 2011/11

why did I wake up
this cold winter night thinking
befriend your regrets . . .

10 January 2011

Composer Portraits and Self-Portraits

Some recent and noteworthy additions to the concert calendar:

On Monday March 14 at Hertz Hall in Berkeley, Cal Performances presents a Composer Portrait of Pierre Boulez, featuring violinist Graeme Jennings and the Eco Ensemble performing Anthèmes 2 and Derive 2. When this concert was announced as a late addition to the schedule a few weeks ago, I called as soon as I could, and was told that mine was the first ticket sold. Good for me!

And San Francisco Performances added two concerts that feature not only the music of living composers, but the composers themselves:

On Saturday, April 30, at 3:00 in the Novellus Theater at the Yerba Buena Center, Philip Glass will play his Etudes and other works for solo piano (he's in town for a revival of Dance, his 1979 collaboration with Lucinda Childs and Sol LeWitt).

And on Sunday, May 15, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall, Magnus Lindberg on piano will be joined by violinist Jennifer Koh and cellist Anssi Karttunen in music by Stravinsky and Lindberg himself.

Haiku 2011/10

go ahead and fall,
you quivering half-dead leaf:
spring will replace you

09 January 2011

Naumberg winner Soyeon Lee

Early this evening I went to San Francisco Performances’ annual Naumburg Competition Winner concert, featuring pianist Soyeon Lee, a petite young woman who can raise mighty music. I very much enjoyed her crystalline and vigorous playing, and even more than that I enjoyed her adventurous and interesting program, made up of a number of brief but intense pieces. Even the longer numbers – Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major, which started off the concert, and Schumann’s Carnaval, which made up the second half – are collections of short contrasting pieces.

Far from seeming disjointed, though, there are similarities in mood and intention among these short pieces (as in the fragments in The Wasteland) that give an underlying cohesion to the whole: most of these pieces look both backwards and forwards, uniting tradition and innovation: Bach writes new dances in traditional forms, Shostakovich (the Prelude and Fugue No. 15 in D-flat Major, Opus 87 No 15) imitates Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier; Ligeti writes an etude (but for virtuoso – Etude No. 6, Autumn in Warsaw) and his student Unsuk Chin writes another etude, also for virtuoso (Etude no. 6, Grains); and Ravel (the first half ended with La valse) deconstructs the waltz. And as for Schumann, the December 23 issue of the New York Review of Books has a fascinating article by Charles Rosen about Schumann’s innovative piano music (unfortunately I can't link to it since it's subscribers only but it's worth seeking out if you're interested in the subject).

I was especially glad to see Ligeti and Chin on the program; I haven’t heard much of Chin other than Alice in Wonderland and enjoyed her crisp and daring etude. The program wasn't all crispness, though; Lee can produce softer poetry too, as she proved in her sole encore, a Chopin Nocturne that crept softly over the audience in a twilight dreamy way.

Haiku 2011/9

I thought I saw snow
drifting past my late roses
O California

08 January 2011

breathing out and in at the symphony

To start off, I’d like to offer sincere thanks to SFMike for kindly taking me to the Symphony last night and for being a thoughtful and considerate host, because I’m going to start sounding like a whiney little ingrate right about . . . now, because Davies Hall is not only depressingly ugly and acoustically problematic, it’s also excruciatingly uncomfortable, and not even in a gratifyingly severe “I am sitting still for hours on this hard bench absorbing Parsifal because I am a worthy warrior for Art” kind of way, but more in a “why does this fine expensive plush seat feel like steerage” kind of way, because – and I’ve noticed this phenomenon in that hall many times and in many locations, so it’s not just that we all, me included, might have a bit of winter holiday weight to take off – if you get three regular-sized men sitting next to each other, you’re crammed in so close that any move on anyone’s part, unless carefully controlled and regulated and slowly and calmly executed, can seem like the sort of territorial grab that can only end in ugliness.

It makes it difficult to enjoy a fine performance.

Mike was on the aisle and I was in the second seat in; the third man slipped in beside me right before the concert began and though he was lean and about my height I could tell right away that I had to sit there with my arms folded across my chest, trying not even to breathe too deeply, lest I bump up against both seatmates. I kept having to shut my eyes during the performance because without meaning to I found myself scanning the view for empty seats I might slip into at intermission. The house was quite full, but there was a tempting row behind the stage, an entirely empty last row mocking me with the promise of unattainable comforts.

We started off with Elegie, from 2002, by Valentin Vasilyevich Silvestrov, which is one of those pieces of music that are like a Japanese ink painting showing distant mountains and the occasional tree looming through the silvery-gray mist. Hearing the musicians warming up beforehand, I caught what I assumed to be, and what indeed turned out to be, parts of the score, so I knew it would be somewhere in the direction of the Arvo-Partish, the Tavenerian, the Goreckian in general effect. Silvestrov’s name was sort of familiar to me but I can’t say I had heard much of his music. I still can't say I've heard much of it, since Elegie is only about six minutes long. It’s a rich six minutes, and I realize that this is not an aesthetic era of the expansive but rather an age of the fragmentary, the brief, the allusive – or maybe that perception is just a function of my increasingly distracted and impatient mind – but still. I hate it when the Symphony pretends it's championing new music and performing it frequently, when really they’re just tossing a tiny amuse-bouche towards us, and the last notes are melting away before the coughers and wrapper-rustlers have even started to settle in.

Next up was the evening’s main event, the glamorous Helene Grimaud performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor. I have the impression of a lively, glowing performance, with her steely fingers (of which we had an excellent view) producing surprisingly warm and fluid sounds, but I have to admit that even though I love Grimaud and I love Schumann, and hearing her play him was the reason I wanted to go to this concert, I kept being pulled back into my own physical discomfort and sense of constriction – wondering which thigh was going to go numb first, holding my legs rigidly together so they didn’t crash into anyone else’s space, occasionally attempting to extend my arms in front of me only to find that crossed on my chest was really the only place they’d fit . . . conscious the whole time of being in my body. I couldn't even watch Grimaud's fingers flashing over the keyboard without being conscious not of the wonderful sounds they were producing but of the prodigious physical effort and muscle memory involved. I felt the experience was a subject suitable for a high-toned allegory in some nineteenth-century French salon painting, featuring lots of those marbleized and slightly surprised-looking nudes that fill those slick pictures: The Soul, Yearning for Union with the Transcendent as Represented by the Muse of Music, Is Thwarted by the Pains of Mortal Matter.

All those talented people up there, with their years of education and practice and experience, laboring mightily to produce the sensational vibrations of music, and all I could do was try to figure out when I could gulp some air and whether I could risk wiping my nose. I wish I had something better to offer you, but I can’t pretend (or won’t pretend) that that wasn’t my experience of the concert. It’s ironic because to me singing and other forms of music-making are very much about the body, its capabilities and endurances, its muscles and strength and the air that we take in and send out (which is one reason I prefer unamplified singing, amplification being in my eyes akin to steroid use). And I just could not get outside my own body.

At the intermission Mike gallantly offered to switch seats with me, so that I could lean into the aisle, after I happened to mention what an unbelievably excruciating contortionist ordeal I had suffered. But happily several people behind us left, so as the lights dimmed and right before conductor Kirill Karabits came back out (well, since Mike had pointed out the resemblance, I kept thinking of it as “right before Justin Timberlake came back out”) I slipped into the aisle seat in the row behind us. I asked the twinkly old man sitting three seats in if it was OK for me to sit there and he said, “Yes! Now I don’t have to try to see over you!” So there was an empty seat between me and him, and between Mike and the third man. If Robert Frost had been a concert-goer, he would have realized that it is not fences but empty seats that make good neighbors.

You’d think I’d now be able to relax and enjoy the second half of the concert, which consisted of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, once, of course, I got past the irony that it was the first part of the concert I really wanted to hear. You’d think that, but . . . having been so tightly boxed in for the first half, I was now distracted by my new-found ability to lean and loaf at my ease, in a free and Whitmanesque way. I don’t know, I might have been less easily distracted by the chance to use the armrests or extend my legs slightly if we had been given a different piece of music, for the Symphonic Dances, though perfectly pleasant, seem like the sort of thing I could hear and find mildly enjoyable every few years without remembering that I’d ever heard it before. It kept seeming as if it were about to turn darker and more absorbing, like one of the more exciting Rachmaninoff pieces it kept being vaguely reminiscent of, but it never quite got there, despite the dedicated efforts of Karabits and the crew.

Haiku 2011/8

under a gray stretch
a lemon tree, ripe with fruit:
green sky filled with suns

07 January 2011

Haiku 2011/7

frost like white frosting
spread glittering over lawns:
sunrise sugarcake

06 January 2011

fun stuff I may or may not get to: January

Happy Epiphany/Twelfth Night/Feast of the Three Kings/Orthodox Christmas! A new year starts off, but we all know it’s really the halfway point in the theater year. . .

Helene Grimaud plays the Schumann Piano Concerto at the San Francisco Symphony today through Sunday; the program also includes Silvestrov’s Elegie and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, Kirill Karabits conducting.

On Sunday, January 9, San Francisco Performances presents its annual concert of the Naumburg Competition winner, this time featuring pianist Soyeon Lee, with a fantastic program featuring Bach, Chin, Ligeti, Shostakovich, Ravel, and Schumann.

Cutting Ball Theater revives Eugenie Chan's Bone to Pick, with a new companion piece, Diadem, January 14 through February 13, with an interruption on Sunday afternoon, January 30, for their Hidden Classics Reading Series presentation of Plautus's The Braggart Soldier.

Philharmonia Baroque presents David Daniels in arias from Giulio Cesare, as well as Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater. There’s Telemann as well! January 15, 16, 18, and 21, in various locations, as is their wont.

The Berkeley Symphony has two concerts this month: on Thursday January 20, Joana Carneiro conducts the world premiere of Du Yun’s Mantichora, along with Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques (with pianist Natasha Paremski) and the ever-popular Pastoral Symphony by Beethoven and on Sunday January 16 they have a new music concert in their Under Construction series (details here).

Cal Performances presents An Evening with [the irresistible] Wallace Shawn: Real World, Fake World, Dream World on Sunday the 23rd. Jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman appears the night before. They are also having a winter sale through January 20th; details here.

Old First Concerts has several interesting offerings, including the Navitas Ensemble on Friday January 21, playing works by Bartok, Schulhoff, Schnittke, and Dohnanyi; and on Friday, January 28, CMASH, a “new-music repertory group” featuring soprano Ann Moss and pianist Steven Bailey, who will perform contemporary songs and song cycles by Matthew O’Malley, Liam Wade, Kurt Erickson, Miriam Miller, and Jake Heggie.

And on January 29, the San Francisco Ballet begins its season with Giselle.

Haiku 2011/6

sleeping on the train
my eyes and my novel shut
outside speeding by

05 January 2011

Haiku 2011/5

my window spider
has not returned to his web
half-destroyed by rain

04 January 2011

Haiku 2011/4

glancing at a leaf
trudging off to work, again
our little living

03 January 2011

Haiku 2011/3

those houses glow pink
in the sun, so low so soon
now they're washed with gray

02 January 2011

Haiku 2011/2

Christmas in boxes
lights and tinsel, packed away
only stars shine now