31 March 2011

Haiku 2011/90

a strange distant cry
low beneath dark thunderclouds
waking me from sleep

30 March 2011

Haiku 2011/89

under purple skies
a silver flash on water
a strange distant cry

29 March 2011

Haiku 2011/88

golden sun setting
dark baroque shadows lengthen
under purple skies

28 March 2011

Haiku 2011/87

we'll meet at twilight
shifting silver moon rising
golden sun setting

27 March 2011

Britten in Berkeley 2: Comedy

(Blogger seems to be removing all of my paragraph breaks today. I have no idea why. I hope I've managed to fix it.)

Last night I went to the Castleton Festival Opera's production in Berkeley of Albert Herring. The Rape of Lucretia, which I saw the night before, is (among other things) about the effects of male power on women, and Albert Herring is about the effects of female power on men. I had seen it on DVD but never on stage, and to my surprise when I looked for a copy this morning among my thousands of discs, I do not own it on CD. Premiered the year after Lucretia, it is a comedy, though I’ll say right now that when the third act of a comedy doesn’t even start until 10:30, my heart sinks and my spirits fail to lift.

During the second intermission, for reasons that will become clearer as I go on, I briefly considered just leaving, but luckily for me my ingrained habit of sticking it out to the end prevailed since otherwise I would have missed the evening's musical highlight, the threnody as the gathered village mourns Albert’s hat (and, they assume, Albert himself). It was profound and beautiful, one of those sudden moments of sorrow that give a comedy depth, though like much of the opera it went on a bit too long. It was past midnight before I got home. I would hate to lose any of Britten’s ravishing music, but I sure could take scissors to Eric Crozier’s libretto.

Like Lucretia, Albert Herring reflects its post-war period, but unfortunately it reflects not the great philosophical questions of the time, which have no answers and therefore tend to endure, but prevailing psychological theories, whose certainties come with a definite shelf-life.

Albert is a Momma’s boy, which means he is "repressed" by his mother (Oedipus and his famous complex undoubtedly hover over the relationship), and this repression (in this theory) inevitably ends in explosion: Albert, anointed the virginal May King by Lady Billows and her gang of do-gooders, goes out on a tear. In the morning he is missing and presumed dead, though in fact he is reborn: a night of drunkenness (along with fighting and perhaps a visit to a prostitute) establishes his independence. Oh, he’s still working for his mother in her shop, and still teased by the local children, but presumably he can handle all of them now.

As far as I know, this opera is usually presented as a straightforward, rather good-natured comedy, a form in which it doesn’t quite work for me: one night of drunkenness doesn’t do away with years of shyness (believe me, I know), and at the end when Albert kisses Sid’s girl Nancy (Sid and Nancy – a lovely coincidence!) I see it not as his cheerful entry into the world of normal guys but as a complex and troubling moment; he’s longed for Nancy but realized she has no sexual interest in him; it’s a strange moment for him and her and Sid. I think it’s high time to approach this opera in a darker and more ambiguous way (much as Cosi Fan Tutte has gone from frivolous farce about trivial people to haunting exploration of the ambiguities of identity).

This production, staged like the previous night's Lucretia by William Kerley, stuck to the shallow end throughout. There was way too much throwing of fruit (and I doubt that a prudent shopkeeper like Mrs Herring would be so cavalier about the stock her livelihood depends on). The three children (baldly and badly amplified) were never quite incorporated smoothly into the action (I assume they’re local and perhaps there wasn’t enough rehearsal time). There was, oddly, no attempt to make the older townspeople look older (the singers are mostly very young, at the beginning of their careers), so that you missed the whole sense of age versus youth.

Albert was played by Brian Porter, who is an immensely likeable performer – maybe too likeable for Albert, who has a strange side that causes children to ridicule him. Porter didn’t seem particularly shy; I didn’t see any of the deep stubbornness that shy people often have, or the deep anger and humiliation that Albert feels, particularly in the scene in the shop after the May Fair, when he overhears Sid and Nancy outside talking about him (and the way it was staged, it wasn’t as clear as it should be that he was overhearing them). When he returns in Act 3 and describes his night to the worried and disapproving townspeople, he seemed fairly sunny and cheerful – there was no edge as he told them how he had deliberately done everything they had just rewarded him for not doing.

Nancy Gustafson gave what I felt was a misguided performance as Lady Billows. This was no grande dame, serene in the assurance that her morally correct attitudes entitle her to direct the lives of lesser mortals (a type not unknown in these parts). Instead she simpered and chortled and blinked and winked constantly, and was dressed oddly not in a dowager’s severity but in light and attractive colors; it was difficult to tell why everyone unquestioningly obeyed her, and why she held the dominant position she did.

The whole cast was up there trying (among those I haven’t mentioned yet, I found Adrian Kramer as Sid and Ashleigh Semkiw as Miss Wordsworth particularly appealing) but I found the whole thing unconvincing. If you’re going to treat something as light and frivolous, it really needs to come in well under three hours and ten minutes. And the story is too much of a stacked deck; we’re primed to ridicule the officious Lady Billows and to applaud Albert when he breaks free, even though, as I noted above, his actual position hasn’t changed much: he’s still sleeping alone.

As I trudged off to catch the train, I reflected that Lady Billows not only really is correct most of the time; in her own way she’s actually a progressive. The opera is set in a period before legal contraception or abortion, when job opportunities for women were extremely limited, and sexually transmitted diseases were not so easily cured: maybe it’s not such a bad idea for her to warn the village girls against sexual activity that could end up leaving them penniless or otherwise even more trapped than they already are. Can we really blame her for condemning excessive drink (I think it’s easy to forget at this point that prohibition was a feminist issue)? And if anyone is going to condemn her condemnation of tobacco, that person isn’t yours truly. (During both intermissions, one of the musicians must have gone out to smoke, because the smell coming from the pit right after was just as nasty as Lady Billows said it was).

I can't see Lady Billows as purely a ridiculous figure. And the terms of Albert’s liberation are presented in a very dated, mid-century way: smoking, drinking, and promiscuity are what mark the behavior of mature adults. It’s all presented as very healthy, even wholesome, and it must have seemed so as the first cracks started to appear in the oppressive gray façade of postwar propriety. I can't quite take it as intended, though, in this time and place.

Well, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. I thought of the young man near me on the BART ride home after Lucretia, who kept talking very loudly into his cell phone about how he "couldn’t find no job" because of that concealed weapons charge. He had decades ahead of him (assuming his life didn’t come to an early violent end) in which to be haunted by his high-spirited youthful excesses. Repression and propriety aren't always such bad things. I realize there are dangerous bigots and sexual prigs at large today, but such people are unlikely to attend, let alone be converted by, arty chamber operas presented in Berkeley.

I’m too much a combination of Albert and Lady Billows to find the ending of this opera convincing or even uplifting. There’s a famous anecdote about Garbo watching Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and murmuring at the end, “Give me back my beast.” Albert had been something out of the ordinary; one night of drunken fighting and suddenly he’s a regular lad, just like the rest. The true tragicomedy of the Good Boy remains to be written.

Britten in Berkeley 1: Tragedy

Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival Opera paid a visit to Berkeley this week, bringing two of Britten’s chamber operas for two performances each: The Rape of Lucretia (I was at the Friday performance) and Albert Herring (I was at last night’s performance). I had been looking forward to these performances, but found them both a bit disappointing, and not just because I was apparently one of the few in attendance who paid anything close to full price (and not just because Zellerbach is exactly the wrong hall for chamber opera, which matters less when you sit as close as I like to).

I had seen Lucretia a few years ago in a knock-out performance in Philadelphia (my reactions are here). I saw it twice and could happily have sat through it a third time. The intensity was much less at the Berkeley performance, and to make comparisons easier, it turned out this was exactly the same production (stage direction by William Kerley) that I saw back east. The first-act close, the menacing and ritualistic repetition of “good night” by Tarquin and Lucretia and her attendants, which was so powerful in Philadelphia, seemed – not quite redundant, but certainly less harrowing.

Some of the business has changed – the Female Chorus no longer glares angrily so often at the Male Chorus, for one thing. The unfortunate idea of dressing the Male and Female Chorus as sort of television evangelists was retained, though the Male Chorus (Vale Rideout, with Arianna Zukerman as the Female Chorus) threw the Bible around more than a preacher should.

I would have preferred seeing the Male and Female Chorus treated with more depth because the double narration of the opera – the Christian framework around the classical tableau – is one of the most fascinating aspects of this opera, and one of several dichotomies (male/female, Etruscan/Roman, military camp/domestic life) that the viewer has to bridge. I had some thoughts on this in my Philadelphia entry, so I won’t go into it much here. But the basic question of why good people suffer was clearly ripe for renewed interrogation in 1946, when this opera was written, and Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan, give us the opportunity by uniting the two main cultural traditions of Europe, the Classical and the Christian, which had either culminated in or been perverted by the murderous violence of the two world wars, and having each tradition confront a terrible act of violence.

The singers were mostly very good. Vale Rideout and Arianna Zukerman as the Male and Female Chorus were both committed, and Michael Rice as Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, brought a lot of depth and anguish to his part. Michael Weyandt as Junius and Matthew Worth as Tarquinius were both very good, but the latter was not as subtle or complex as Nathan Gunn was in Philly. Both female attendants were also excellent – Alison Tupay was Bianca and Marnie Breckenridge, fresh off her local triumph as the Princess in Glass’s Orphee, was Lucia.

That brings us to Ekaterina Metlova as Lucretia. I thought she was the weak link in the cast, which is obviously a problem in an opera called The Rape of Lucretia. I feel the same pain in disliking her that I felt when discussing Jane Eaglen: much as I dislike what she’s doing, she’s clearly committed and trying her best; it’s just that she moves clumsily and is not a very good actress. The simple dignity and depth that Tamara Mumford had in Philadelphia were replaced by acting that was ostentatiously “operatic” in the wrong way: outward and self-dramatizing. Metlova played the first half like Dalila and the second half like Lucia; at no point did I feel she was like Lucretia.

The backstage conversations were clearly audible through much of the performance. And there was weirdness going on in the audience, too, particularly in the second half, and particularly in the front row of the far right. A large woman came and sat down in the aisle seat and a man in the row kept saying something loudly to her (this was during the performance). She kept getting up and then coming back. And during the rape scene, the blubbery child in the row – I’m guessing she was around 11, and I’m guessing it was a she based entirely on the white sweatshirt with a large picture of a patchwork heart and teddy bears that she was wearing – started laughing very loudly, and then slowly and solemnly took her right index finger and thrust it up each of her nostrils, one after the other. Shortly after that they stormed out, appalled by either the rape or their own behavior, and the rest of us could be disappointed in the performance in peace. I can’t imagine why they were there in the first place – why would anyone bring a child of that age and maturity level to something called The Rape of Lucretia?


One advantage of Thursday night concerts in Civic Center is that (depending on the time of year) the Asian Art Museum is open late. About once a month they have some sort of irritating event with loud bad music and crowds milling around drinking and other things I try to avoid. But if you go on a regular Thursday night, it's ideal. The museum's holdings are much larger than its building, so the permanent exhibits are not so permanent and change often. There are also special exhibits; the current one is Bali: Art, Ritual, Performance.
There is also a handy restaurant. Above is the pork stew, with decorative coriander.

Photography is not allowed in the special exhibits, which seems to be a universal museum rule, so all of the pictures here are from the lobby, the gift shop, or the permanent collection.

As is true of many African cultures, until the twentieth century these elaborate and beautiful works were created for use in rituals, sacred and social, rather than as stand-alone art objects. There are several fascinating videos built into the exhibit, showing dances, shadow puppet shows, and even cremations, which take place in animal-shaped coffins under elaborate palanquins, which are then set aflame. Unfortunately the video I saw did some editing on the actual burning, so you couldn't watch the whole progress of the fire, which I have always found maybe too fascinating.

The other main point of the exhibit is how the Dutch, after violently colonizing Bali, then promoted its image as an island paradise. Nothing like palm trees and bare-breasted women to make you forget the sordid economics of exploitation.

The art of Bali has been very influential, particularly on musicians; gamelan has fascinated and inspired composers from Debussy and Britten to Lou Harrison. The fascination with Bali has itself become an object of study and fascination; Evan Ziporyn recently wrote an opera called A House in Bali exploring the sojourns there of Colin McPhee, Walter Spies, and Margaret Mead (I wrote about the opera here).

Well, Bali: what's not to love? gamelan, ancient dances, shadow puppets! The three pictures of fabulous shadow puppets above, by the way, are from the gift shop, which means you could walk out of the exhibit with your own work of art. I love how they are elaborately colored, even though they are used mostly to create shadows. I was very tempted to buy one, but I was on my way to Leila Josefowicz's recital at Herbst Theater and it didn't seem like a good idea to carry a delicate and elaborate paper puppet through the rain to a concert and then home on BART. The exhibit runs until September 11, so I guess I have time for puppet-purchases under more auspicious circumstances.

This was my first time hearing Josefowicz. She was in recital with pianist John Novacek. It was very enjoyable, once I adjusted my expectations. Josefowicz is a MacArthur fellow, primarily for her advocacy of new music, so I was expecting something wilder than we got: there were five composers, and four of them were from the pantheon (Brahms, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Schubert), with Estonian Erkki-Sven Tuur (there should be an umlaut over each of those u’s) as the only contemporary. His piece, Conversio, was very attractive, sort of a minimalist hoe-down that ends in icy shrieks. Josefowicz is an astonishing virtuoso who can summon up all sorts of sounds, but (here comes the other expectation I had to adjust) warmth and lyricism were missing, at least in this recital. I don’t know if she felt the program simply didn’t call for them, or if the program was chosen specifically because it didn’t call for them. The playing was dazzling, like sun on a glacier, but I felt we were in a fairly restricted emotional world.

I would definitely go hear her again, but I just didn’t have that “oh, wow, she can do anything!” reaction I had when I first heard Hilary Hahn or Jennifer Koh live. It was the Stravinsky, of all things, that came the closest to an emotional connection; the Eclogues in the Due Concertant went to the heart. Novacek was a hard-driving accompanist. The first half was the Brahms Scherzo in C minor for Violin and Piano and the Shostakovich Sonata for Violin and Piano, Opus 134. After the intermission came the Stravinsky, the Tuur, and Schubert’s Rondo brilliant in B minor for Violin and Piano, D. 895. The encore was, of all delightfully unexpected things, Charlie Chaplin’s Smile (I didn’t catch the name of the person who did the arrangement – Haussman? – and I don’t see it listed on the San Francisco Performances site). The familiar song was not only free of schmaltz, it was oddly free of sentiment – like a pure unworldly shaft of icy light. I would never have guessed it could sound that way, but it was very refreshing and beautiful.

Haiku 2011/86

you hide in the dark
I'll be hiding in the light
we'll meet at twilight

26 March 2011

fun stuff I may or may not get to: April (with a tail-end of March thrown in)

Monday, March 28, Earplay offers works by John Cage, Elliott Carter, Jonathan Harvey, Mei-Fang Lin, and Michelle Lou, at Herbst Theater, with tickets at the bargain price of $20 and the sensible start time of 7:30 (pre-concert talk at 6:45).

SF Conservatory of Music’s Opera Theater presents Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites in English at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason, March 31 through April 2; tickets are available through the Cowell Theater Box Office at 415-345-7575.

On April 1, Old First Concerts presents the Del Sol String Quartet in music by Zhou Long, R. Murray Shafer, Elena Kats-Chernin, Ben Johnston, and Reza Vali.

The Aurora Theater presents Tennessee Williams’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale, starting April 1.

American Bach Soloists present secular works by Bach and Telemann April 1-4, in various locations.

Cal Performances presents Jessica Rivera on April 3 at 3:00 in Hertz Hall, singing Schumann’s Frauenliebe und leben, Debussy’s Ariettes oubliees, and Mark Grey’s Atash Sorushan (Fire Angels), a new song cycle commemorating the 10th anniversary of 9/11, written for Rivera and also featuring Molly Morkoski on piano and MEME (the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble from the University of Chicago).

Also on April 3, at 1:00, Cutting Ball Theater Hidden Classics Reading series presents Marivaux’s The False Suitor in a new translation by Ann and George Crowe, directed by Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose.

San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present their fortieth anniversary gala concert, featuring music by Terry Riley, Beat Furrer, Salvatore Sciarrino, and Charles Boone, at Herbst Theater on Monday April 4 at 7:30. The Riley work is the famous In C. There is a reception afterwards.

ACT presents Sartre’s No Exit, in case you needed a reminder that hell is other people, starting April 7.

Berkeley Rep offers Chekhov’s Three Sisters, in a version by Sarah Ruhl, starting April 8.

April 8 at the Community Music Center (544 Capp Street in San Francisco), new music ensemble Redshift and percussion trio Rootstock present music by Marc Mellits, Derek Bermel, Belinda Reynolds, Ryan Brown, Steve Reich, John MacCallum, Guo Wenjing, and Chilean folk music.

Between the Lines, the new music ensemble at the SF Conservatory of Music, presents Homage to Andrew Imbrie, featuring Chicago Bells, from Time to Time and String Quartet No. 5, plus Gunther Schuller’s String Quartet No. 4, on April 9.

Philharmonia Baroque closes its season with Haydn’s Creation, April 8-13, in various locations.

SF Conservatory of Music presents An Evening with Frederica von Stade, in which she will offer coaching, career advice, and stories from her career to voice students, on April 12 at 7:30. Admission is free but tickets are required; contact the box office at 415-503-6275.

San Francisco Ballet offers two programs; Program 7 offers Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.

The San Francisco Symphony presents Osmo Vanska conducting the world premiere of Red and Green by Thomas Larcher, the Ralph Vaughn Williams Symphony No. 2, A London Symphony, and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, with soloist Alexander Barantschik playing the same violin (presumably) used at the work’s world premiere in 1845. That’s April 8-9; on April 14-17, Charles Dutoit conducts the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique and Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lontain (with cello soloist Gautier Capucon).

San Francisco Performances is taking up a lot of real estate on my April calendar, with the Paul Taylor Dance Company in three different programs (March 30-April 3); the much-praised Pavel Haas Quartet playing Schulhoff, Debussy, and Haas himself (Quartet No. 2, Op. 7, From the Monkey Mountains; that’s on April 3 at 7:00); Dubravka Tomsic playing Chopin and Beethoven (April 9); the Tetzlaff Quartet playing Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Schoenberg (April 16); Lucinda Childs recreating Dance, her 1979 collaboration with Philip Glass and Sol LeWitt (April 28-30); and Philip Glass playing solo piano works by himself (April 30).

Haiku 2011/85

the night will listen
no matter how quietly
you hide in the dark

25 March 2011

Haiku 2011/84

sing more jeweled songs
in the radiant evening
the night will listen

24 March 2011

Haiku 2011/83

in a stranger tree
I imagine fancy birds
sing more jeweled songs

22 March 2011

Haiku 2011/81

a bird sings at dawn
what's he got to sing about
he can fly away

21 March 2011

Mission : Modern

from a trip last October to Mission Dolores and the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

Haiku 2011/80

alone in the world
a beggar walks in the rain
a bird sings at dawn

20 March 2011

portrait of a composer and his audience

It’s a shame that Pierre Boulez’s delightful music is not as widely known as his long series of deeply silly pronouncements (all the art of the past must be destroyed . . . blow up all the opera houses . . . Schoenberg is not pure enough . . . any musician who has not felt the necessity of the dodecaphonic language is useless). It’s difficult to believe that even the angriest revolutionary doesn’t realize that if you blow up the past it merely reforms in a more or less different guise, and that revolutions have their own logic and their own ironies that tend to develop apart from any conscious intentions of the revolutionaries involved, and it’s impossible to believe that a Frenchman born after 1789 wouldn’t realize these things. I understand that artists, in order to forge their own way, sometimes need to insist on the historical inevitability and importance of what they’re doing. And they need to shock complacent listeners into paying attention. But it’s difficult to avoid seeing Boulez’s remarks, given the frequency and the extremity of their (very dated) revolutionary rhetoric, as an attempt to position himself as the arbiter of the acceptable, the infallible Pope of a nonexistent church.

Time has brought Boulez from enfant terrible to eminence grise, and the historical inevitability of dodecaphonic language now looks as tenuous as many other historical inevitabilities of the twentieth century. That doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy it. (If I followed the logical imperatives of historical inevitability, I guess I would now be listening exclusively to neo-Romantic music, or maybe just rock and hiphop, but fortunately being historically inevitable is not really important to me.) In fact, when Cal Performances added the Composer Portrait: Pierre Boulez concert to their schedule, I was, according to the box office person I spoke to, the first person to buy a ticket. I called twenty minutes after the tickets went on sale, and was actually worried for a moment that the concert had already sold out. I was worried about that because I am insane.

When the day of the performance arrived, I was glad I had bought a ticket in advance, because otherwise I probably would have skipped it. I couldn’t have known when I bought the ticket that I would be feeling kind of ill, or that we’d have a surprising amount of steady rain. I had also forgotten how much adjustment the previous day's “spring forward” time change takes. And I had been to two concerts the day before. Also: the Boulez concert was at 8:00 on a Monday night, which is ridiculous. I am pretty sure I was the only person in the audience who had to be in a cubicle by 8:00 the next morning.

Which brings me to the weirdness of the audience. Maybe I was simply assuming that, if there was one concert whose audience would be full of raptly attentive true believers, it would be one featuring two works by Pierre Boulez (Anthemes 2 and Derive 2). Instead . . . well, during the intermission it became clear that there were lots of rude and inattentive students there, who had been playing with their electronic toys during the performance, despite the usual announcement about turning off the toys. First I heard a very frustrated man tell a stupid-looking girl that her constant texting was incredibly distracting. She seemed dumbfounded and later I saw her actually crying, though my heart hardened when I saw that she continued texting in the second half, though possibly not during the music. Then someone told a girl behind me that the light from her device was very distracting. She said that she would “try to hide it” but she “really needed to talk to this person now and she didn’t want to fail this course.” Huh? What the hell are they teaching them over at my alma mater? So she’s going to pass just by sitting in a room, not only not paying attention, but actively disrupting the performance for others? Why can’t they restrict the rude and inattentive students to lectures, rather than forcing the paying public to sit next to them at concerts? I can only hope and assume the rude little bitch failed anyway.

And during the second piece, a short and hairy old man in the first row (he would have been next to me if I hadn’t moved over) actually spoke several times, loudly enough so that the conductor turned and glared at him. Why would you bother spending an evening at a Pierre Boulez concert if you didn’t want to pay attention to the music? And the troll’s horrible troll wife came back from intermission reeking of cigarette smoke – I could smell her disgusting stench from three seats away.

So there was lots of weird, angry energy in the room. I would gladly have skipped the whole thing if I hadn’t enjoyed the music so much. The first piece, Anthemes 2, featured Graeme Jennings on violin and John MacCallum on electronics. Jennings plays the violin, using, it seems, just about every possible technique, and the sound gets repeated and distorted and sent to different speakers around the room, where it reverberates and dies, adding a varying spatial and temporal dimension to the sound. The effect is both austere and virtuosic, sumptuous within a controlled range. The second piece, Derive 2, went in an entirely different direction, replacing the exploration of a solo instrument with eleven players (the Eco Ensemble) and a conductor (David Milnes) in a busier music. It started out with lots of squidgy little figures, which fit in almost too well with the agitated mood I was feeling. The figures keep returning in different figurations and overlapping patterns until it all starts to make intuitive sense. It was a very rich piece, superbly performed by the ensemble; it would repay repeated listening, but when are we going to get the chance to hear it again?

Haiku 2011/79

and they still vanish
birds, clouds, rivers, rocks, home, friends:
alone in the world

19 March 2011


It might have been foolhardy, after a week of severe headaches, to go to an all-percussion concert, or to plan on two concerts in one day. But I am an artistically intrepid sort so I headed to Berkeley last Sunday to hear Les Percussions de Strasbourg in the afternoon, before Jonas Kaufmann’s local debut in the evening.

This was a fiftieth-anniversary tour for Les Percussions, though the personnel has changed since their early days (the current line-up: artistic director Jean-Paul Bernard, Claude Ferrier, Bernard Lesage, Keiko Nakamura, Francois Papirer, and Olaf Tzschoppe). The program covered just about every sound possible from a percussion ensemble, starting with a classic of the genre, Varese’s Ionisation, which has a clattering, very urban sound – funny that it’s the repeated siren that anchors this piece in the urban experience, just as (in some of the other pieces) a stick striking wood can summon up traditional Japanese theater, or a temple out in the woods.

Edmund Campion’s Ondoyants et Divers took us into a gentler place, followed by Philippe Manoury’s more metallic Le Livre des claviers. After an intermission we had the more industrial sounds of Raphael Cendo’s Refontes, followed by Yoshihisa Taira’s Hierophonie V, which ended in a swelling of frightening drumming, accompanied by the drummers’ shouts, something which always strikes me as slightly ridiculous when it’s written into a score. It was an invigorating way to spend a rainy afternoon. I had no trouble getting a rush ticket, though Hertz Hall looked almost full.

I had plenty of time to stroll down the campus to Zellerbach for Kaufmann’s recital; actually, I went off campus a taqueria, killed some time there, and ended up seeking refuge from the rain in Zellerbach about an hour before the scheduled 7:00 start time. I wonder how much time I’ve wasted in my life hanging out in theaters, waiting for a performance to start.

Kaufmann’s first local appearance had been eagerly awaited, so the vast barn that is Zellerbach looked full, and judging from the enthusiastic ovation that greeted the tenor as he first walked out on stage, he already has a big fan base in this area. The concert was deeply enjoyable, and I felt I really would have missed something special if I hadn’t been there. (Of course, if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have really known I was missing something special.) That doesn’t mean there weren’t odd things about it, like the program, for instance: German lieder just seems to belong to a more intimate setting. It also seemed a little odd – though in a risk-taking and therefore endearing way – to build an entire program for an American audience, many of whom were there because they're opera fans, around German lieder. I didn’t feel the oddity so much during the first half, which was all Schumann (four selections from Kerner Liedern, followed by Dichterliebe, whose extended piano passages really highlighted the wonderful accompanist, Helmut Deutsch), mostly because I’m always happy to listen to Schumann, but I did think it during the all-Richard Strauss second half, which struck me as more uneven in quality. Although the quiet, slow numbers Ruhe, meine Seele and Morgen were highlights in an evening full of strengths, a song like Die Frauen sind oft fromm und still, about devout women seeing heaven and being filled with strength and hope, just struck me as hopeless kitsch, though Kaufmann sure was selling it, complete with concluding glances upward to heaven.

In fact he sold all the songs – he’s a powerful stage presence, and not just because he’s so handsome (or, as the old ladies behind me kept saying, “adorable”). He has an interesting nineteenth-century air, with his mass of dark curls, that made him look at times like an actual German romantic poet, and not just someone singing their words. (His appearance made me want to see his Werther.) He can declaim with authority, elegantly controlling his muscular sound. Oddly for a tenor, the lower parts of his voice seemed the most powerful; when he moved into the upper part of his voice, there was a strange hollow quality – not unpleasant, but not the ringing tones for which tenors are supposedly favored. Not that I have much expertise in these matters, but I wondered why he wasn’t a baritone.

The audience gave him a really enthusiastic and heart-felt ovation at the end, and eventually earned five encores. First came more Strauss – Breit über mein haupt, Nichts, and Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten. Then came the one aria of the evening; rumors have been flying for months about a possible local operatic debut, and Kaufmann is mostly known as an opera singer, so I thought it was interesting that he delayed the operatic repertoire until the fourth encore, even though by then the audience was shouting requests (“Werther! Werther!”). Kaufmann never spoke to the audience, even to announce the encores. I guessed correctly when I heard the number that it was Lehar; so good for me for guessing, since I generally avoid Viennese operetta. It was an appealing and slightly kitschy piece (Dein ist mein ganzes Herz), its appealing quality inseparable from and caused by its kitschyness. I have no idea why the sole exception to the Schumann/Strauss program was Lehar. That seemed bizarre. For the last encores it looked as if they brought the music out on an iPad – I look forward to the day when technological innovations at recitals include projecting translations, as is regularly done in opera houses. After a final return to Schumann (Mondnacht) the audience finally let the smiling Kaufmann leave, and left itself.

Haiku 2011/78

turn, and they vanish;
sit and stare without blinking
and they still vanish

18 March 2011

Haiku 2011/77

they look so solid
like objects in a mirror
turn, and they vanish

17 March 2011

Haiku 2011/76

points in endless space
shimmer in the distant blue
they look so solid

14 March 2011

Haiku 2011/73

instead of the ground
the far-reaching waters or
the limitless sky

13 March 2011

Haiku 2011/72

trapped until the fall
why not decompose mid-air
instead of the ground

12 March 2011

vanitas vanitatum: addendum

After re-reading Vanity Fair, I had a yen to see some of the films based on the novel. The Masterpiece Theater version starring Susan Hampshire that first led me to read the book, when I was 12 or so, is not currently available, which is too bad, because I have fond memories of it. (Though maybe then it’s just as well I can’t see it again.) There’s a later BBC adaptation that I didn’t see and decided was too many episodes for now. There’s apparently a Myrna Loy vehicle from the 1930s that also isn’t currently available. So I ended up with Becky Sharp, a Miriam Hopkins film from 1935, and the 2004 Reese Witherspoon Vanity Fair, directed by Mira Nair.

The 1935 film is often mentioned in film histories as the first feature-length use of the three-strip Technicolor process. Though that will always be its major claim to fame, it’s not a bad movie: not exactly faithful to the book, but faithful to the spirit of the book, it moves along at a rapid clip (coming in at under 90 minutes). It is bright and loud, though it’s difficult to say what it would look and sound like in a decent print, which doesn’t seem to be available. The loudness may be due to its origin as a stage play; the actors are clearly speaking to the back of the balcony. Given director Rouben Mamoulian’s background, I was expecting something more daringly stylish, or at least more "cinematic," but there's a certain charm to seeing what is essentially a filmed play of another era. What we have here is raucous and entertaining enough, like a Thomas Rowlandson caricature of the book.

It may have looked comparatively good because I saw it after the Mira Nair film, which is an hour longer, has some visually pretty moments, and is almost deliriously bad, except that makes it sound more entertaining than it is. I suspect in this case the filmmakers were simply not sophisticated enough to understand the original material, though they also appear to think they’re smarter than Thackeray. They’re not. I offer the following remarks as a warning to any student who thinks he or she can get out of the assigned reading by watching the movie.

Things are botched right from the start, when Becky herself requests the copy of Johnson’s Dictionary which she heaves out the carriage window. In the novel, the headmistress’s mousy sister, out of kindness and courtesy, compels her sister to honor Becky with the usual parting gift. So it's a complex and shocking moment when Becky throws the book back, and here it's reduced to simple and vindictive rudeness – it should be obvious that the comedy doesn't work if the gesture is planned instead of spontaneous, and eliminating the sister means eliminating some of the complexity in how the world perceives Becky. . . . actually, the movie goes wrong even before then. They’ve added a little prologue in which Lord Steyne has dropped by the atelier of Becky’s father (who has been upgraded to a talented painter of the sort collected by discerning aristocrats), where he purchases a portrait of Becky’s late mother. The portrait is called Innocence Betrayed but they may just as well have called it Rosebud, since it's offered as the key to "understanding" Becky.

Not that there's much to understand, since Movie Becky is stripped of the complexity of Novel Becky; she loses her seductiveness, her manipulativeness, and also her appealing good-humor and sense of reality (in short, everything that made Becky Sharp an instant and permanently memorable sensation). We get a self-pitying, humorless, and rather dull woman, who is also considered notorious, for reasons not made entirely clear but which seem to have something to do with her low birth (though that doesn't stop Movie Becky from making snide remarks to George Osborne about his grandfather in trade). In scene after scene, she is shown as hard-working and conscientious (she makes an admirable governess!), though constantly kept down by the snobbery of the shallow monsters who make up the society she is, inexplicably, intent on joining.

In this version, Jos Sedley isn’t kept from proposing by his drunkenness at Vauxhall Gardens; it is purely because of George Osborne’s snide remarks about the possibility of a future sister-in-law who is merely a governess. (Osborne is Jonathan Rhys-Myers, whose career seems based on his ability to look pretty while sneering.) I’ll just say right now that the whole cast, including Reese Witherspoon, who was brilliant as a spiritual descendant of Becky in Election, deserves better, though I wonder if actors are evolving into a species that is too good-looking to represent us: Dobbin (Rhys Ifans) is handsomer than he should be, Jos (Tony Maudsley) is not nearly fat and vain enough, and Lord Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) is too young and darkly handsome.

We get lots of prettiness, but not much in the way of a coherent and plausible picture of society; the same women who discuss how strictly controlled their lives are by etiquette also feel free to hike their skirts above their ankles and wade through a pond in a public garden, and an aristocrat who has just dressed and performed for her husband’s guests as a nautch girl (the movie’s term) not only then insists on the importance of proper social precedence, she does so by contradicting the King himself. Nothing here makes a whole lot of sense.

During the Waterloo scenes, while Novel Becky drove a very hard bargain for her horses, gleefully shafting the nobs who had snubbed her and securing her immediate financial future with some deft extortion, Movie Becky gives the horses to one of the aristocratic families in exchange for nothing more than a seat in their carriage as they flee the city. The wife objects to having her and the husband points out that that’s the price they pay for the horses. “Does no one care for me for myself?” Becky cries out. Seriously, they have her say that. Out loud! For grimly narcissistic Movie Becky, even the Battle of Waterloo is but another occasion for self-pity.

But she then gives up even her seat in the carriage to stay with the pregnant and hysterical Amelia, whom she lectures in a stern but kindly way about the pluck necessary for both of them, as soldiers’ wives and future mothers. So she’s received nothing for her horses, except the consolation of helping her dear friend in need. She’s like Mother Teresa in an Empire-waist gown. Note to the film-makers: the original version is about the conflict between inherited privilege and the rising commercial power of the middle class, especially as exacerbated by war. Also, it is dramatic and very funny, unlike your flabby substitute.

Not only is this Becky devoted to the memory of her mother, there is no indication that there’s any hostility or even tension between her and her own child, which is a major theme in the novel. I guess the prospect of a woman who dislikes her own child is too shocking for 21st century eyes. How the Victorians could mock our sentimentality! And though we get to see Becky and Rawdon (James Purefoy) naked in bed together, the Victorians could also mock our naive view of sexual politics, since worldly-wise Becky seems remarkably unaware that Lord Steyne might try to take advantage of her in that way. He does so as she hears that Rawdon has been arrested for debt. She desperately struggles to go save her beloved Rawdon, while also fighting off the wicked unwanted advances of Steyne – seriously, they play it this way. I guess if you have a massive sense of entitlement you think cynical aristocrats will pay off your enormous debts merely for the pleasure of pleasing you. Rawdon, released by his sister-in-law, walks in on them at that point, and, just as in the novel, Becky proclaims her innocence: only this time, damned if she isn’t actually innocent!

And as in the novel, Rawdon breaks open her box and finds the thousand pound note, but there’s no indication how it got there, or who gave it to her, and no hint that she wouldn’t have been willing to give it up to redeem him. In fact, given the film’s portrayal of Rawdon as a feckless gambler, it might simply have been tucked away as a prudent woman’s attempt to keep her family from starvation. Movie Becky has already been rather snappish and sullen about the creditors. She may be living on nothing a year, but with a very modern sense of entitlement, she feels she doesn't have to like it.

Movie Becky is so consistently portrayed as a well-meaning and sincere victim that for a moment, hoping that the film-makers had at some point read the actual novel, I thought maybe they were doing some sort of clever meta-story thing, in which we find out that what we’ve been seeing is Becky telling us her own story, manipulating and seducing us into believing and helping her. No, manipulation and seduction are beyond this Becky, and cynicism and irony are beyond the film-makers, who manage to turn Becky’s marriage to Jos into a happy ending. After a few scenes perfunctorily wrapping up the Dobbin/Amelia story, Becky is left alone in Baden-Baden, clearly wistful that true love continues to elude her. Who should reappear but Jos Sedley, who still loves her, and whisks her off to India (much as the Micawbers all take off for Australia at the end of David Copperfield – how handy the colonies are!).

I realized when re-reading the novel that there is in fact quite a lot of India in it, but mostly as a source of income. There’s also quite a lot of Evangelical religion, which makes no appearance at all in the movie, unless that is what they’re trying to signify by having Pitt Crawley chanting grace a couple of times before his father hushes him. But low-church pieties are less decorative than saffron robes, and director Nair throughout has grabbed eagerly at any excuse to feature India; clearly it was a relief to her to find material she could figure out how to handle, at least in a decorative way. Our happy pair ride off contentedly on an elephant, surrounded by a jubilant crowd of Indians, who seem surprisingly enthusiastic about the marriage of this minor functionary of the British East India Office and the memsahib. "How beautiful it all is!" murmurs little Becky, happy at last. How fortunate that none of the dancing natives realize that the British presence in India might be exploitative! How strange that a movie from 2004 has to substitute candy-colored make-believe for the sophistication and political awareness of a novel from 1848!

northern lights at the Symphony

Thanks once again to the kind office of Mr G/S Y, I had a comp ticket to the symphony last week. I was up in the loge, for the first time. I was off to the far left, and Lisa quotes me correctly as saying the sound up there is like watching a parade pass by. It’s a very rich, full sound – just clearly going down the center of the hall, where I was not. During the intermission I moved to a more central seat, but by then the vocalist, the lovely Anne Sofie von Otter, had already come and gone. I was feeling worse and worse and in fact had almost bailed on going. I was putting a lot of energy into not coughing, which was nice of me since many of my fellow loge-dwellers felt free to talk during the music. One particularly obnoxious young woman even checked her bright shiny phone repeatedly in the second half, and then walked out with her companion halfway through the Brahms.

So there I was, separated from the sound and getting sick. I enjoyed the music, though it seemed to be happening at a distance from me. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted and once again, inexplicably, he felt it necessary to pick up the microphone to tell us how to feel about the first piece, Hindemith’s Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass, Opus 50. I didn’t really pay attention but I think he wound up by saying that Leonard Bernstein had really enjoyed the piece, which is nice but not really relevant. Does the symphony audience really need to be talked into giving this lively and attractive music a chance?

Von Otter was in lovely voice but I agree with Lisa that the Scandinavian songs she sang didn’t have as much impact as they would have in a more congenial venue – I’ve always heard of Davies as a killer for vocalists, and here was proof. When you’re sitting in the front row of the orchestra, these problems aren’t as noticeable. It seemed very different, as if I were in another room. The Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D major seemed surprisingly ebullient for Brahms, but then I was feeling surprisingly low, even for me. The next day I woke up with a migraine and felt for two days as if my skull was being crushed. It's an experience which is sort of like sitting there and feeling that the music is very bright and very distant.

drink to me only with thine eyes

Friday before last I had my first exposure to Nico Muhly’s music and Stephen Petronio’s dance group at I Drink the Air Before Me. Music and dance were enjoyable but I felt a bit disappointed with the hour-long work (though I should also say it didn’t help that I had seen the Merce Cunningham troupe the night before, and that I was starting to get sick with the flu and a migraine). But the piece just seemed too mild.

The title is from The Tempest, though I soon realized when the dance started that there was no attempt to tell that particular story. Instead, according to Petronio’s statement in the program, the work “was inspired by storms, both environmental and internal, and the whirling, unpredictable, threatening and thrilling forces of nature that overwhelm us.” The ad for the performance featured several mostly-naked dancers splayed against a splashing stream of water. Nothing on stage was as dramatic or as fun as that image (I kept waiting for the water to make its entrance. . . .). Very little seemed unpredictable, threatening, or thrilling, either. I had the impression of lots of swirling. Towards the end there were two brief pas-de-deux, the first between two men and the second a man and a woman, that stood out for their emotional engagement, but soon melted back into the swirling. (I think the dancer in common to both those interludes was Joshua Tuason. Sorry, I don’t remember the others for sure – as I said, I was coming down with something and putting a lot of energy into not coughing). There was a brief moment at the end where there seemed some sort of moment of peace. But to my eye nothing really built or was developed. The score started with the sort of thumping rock-like bass line that I hate, but then more interesting music was added on top. I started liking Muhly’s music more as it went on, but as with the choreography I felt mildly entertained rather than converted or persuaded.

Afterwards, at the far front end of the BART platform at Montgomery Street, waiting for the train, I saw a rat running in circles. It started circling closer and closer and I started to worry that it had rabies or something since it wasn’t scuttling off at the presence of humans, though admittedly there were only one or two of us down that far. Its swirling echoed the hour of swirling I had just seen. The train arrived before the rat did anything vicious.

final Merce

The taqueria where I usually eat before events in Berkeley has taken rather charmingly taken to handing out fortunes with their burritos. Thursday before last mine said “An interesting musical opportunity is in your near future.” That’s always good to know. Then I headed to Moe’s, my favorite bookstore, to kill some time. Of course I ended up buying more books, which is something I really don’t need to do. But I had intended to buy some plays by Wallace Shawn after hearing him read several weeks ago, and I found some, and since you never know what you’ll find at a used book store I also picked up an attractive hardbound edition of The Golden Bowl, which I’ve been meaning to re-read since I haven’t read it since I was thirteen, which was so long ago it’s as if I haven’t read it at all. So I was feeling elegiac and subject to chance when I finally was in my seat for the opening stand of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour.

MCDC had a long association with Cal Performances and I know I’ve seen them before, though I couldn’t tell you offhand how many times. I don’t recognize the dancers from year to year, the way I do with Mark Morris. This is MCDC’s final tour before they disband (Cunningham died in 2009, aged 90). I thought this meant that Cunningham, in a final and full embrace of the concepts of chance and impermanence, was simply dissolving his life’s work, which I found very moving – many of us talk a lot about the transitory nature of existence and the mutability of life and so forth, but secretly we all hope that future generations will pore over any scrap we leave behind, the way classics scholars pore over any little fragment left by centuries-dead poets celebrating their brief moment on earth. It was almost unsettling to me that Cunningham would renounce that common human wish to retain power over the future, as if he were the Cincinnatus of dance.

It turns out that I hadn’t quite understood correctly: although the MCDC is being disbanded (which is perhaps the final lesson Cunningham learned from Martha Graham), there is a legacy plan in place to continue his work (you may read about it and support it here). And presumably some of this final generation of dancers trained by Cunningham will continue the apostolic succession in their own creative life.

The first piece was Pond Way from 1998, set to Brian Eno’s New Ikebukuro (for three CD players – I wonder if the CD player as musical instrument is on its way to becoming like the ondes martenot), with a backdrop of Lichtenstein’s Landscape with Boat (so large it looked almost abstract, with the tiny boat in the lower left-hand corner, which gave it a very Japanese woodblock-print sort of look). My memory of this is of a very quiet, flowing dance, that was almost hypnotic – I was very surprised when it ended to find that half an hour had gone by; I would have guessed we’d only been watching for ten or, max, fifteen minutes.

During the intermission the woman on my right and I ran down the list of collaborators (Eno, Lichtenstein, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham himself) and tried to remember which were still living. She said, “I have the feeling tonight that I’m communing with the dead,” and I think that spirit of appreciation and farewell was common in the audience. It does seem as if a major chapter in the history of American avant-garde creativity is now closed, though of course these things just metamorphose and never really end. Incidentally New World Records has issued a fascinating ten-disc set of music composed for Cunningham’s dances. I’ve just started listening to it, but the sounds really evoke a certain era – I put a disc on and am in a darkened, quiet theater, watching people in leotards move in a way that is unexpected and yet completely right. I haven’t even looked at all the contents yet; but there’s of course lots of Cage, and Feldman, and some Christian Wolff (who was there Thursday night, performing Cage).

After the first intermission came Antic Meet from 1958, set to Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with décor by Robert Rauschenberg. The décor must be the props used: a chair strapped to a dancer’s back, a sweater with four arms and no neckhole. There were lots of witty references to traditional dance steps. The epigraph to the work, quoted in the program, was Ivan Karamazov’s “let me tell you that the absurd is only too necessary on earth.” Indeed the dance did evoke a spirit-lifting attitude of absurdity.

After the second intermission we had the third and final piece of the evening, Sounddance from 1975. The title is from Finnegans Wake, so there was the feeling that the program had been designed to reference many of Cunningham’s touchstones: Joyce, Cage, Rauschenberg. . . . This was a more vigorous piece than the other two. But after about half an hour (all the dances were about half an hour) it too ended. The audience gave the performers an enthusiastic and affectionate ovation. And then the lights came back up and it was all over, so we all had to go home.

Haiku 2011/71

a leaf, drifting down
caught in embrace by new growth
trapped until the fall

11 March 2011

Haiku 2011/70 (plus a random dream)

just touching the door –
fingertips on the doorframe –
a leaf, drifting down

So here’s part of last night’s dream: I was talking to my friend Arby, and we seemed to be in San Francisco, even though he hasn’t lived there in years, but there were very steep hills and Victorian architecture, including an extremely beautiful mosque that was half Victorian gingerbread and half Islamic arabesques. It was made out of wood and brightly colored. (It was not a building that really exists in the world.) I told him that the book I had contained a poem by Horace I wanted to show him. I kept flipping through the pages, seeing many different photographs (usually spare and sort of abstract, with an occasional cat the only living thing in them), and I kept looking for the poem because I knew the version I remembered was incorrect. I remembered it as:

– Horace

which sounded wrong to me.

Finally I found it. It read:

– Horace

And I told Arby that the sentiment if not the style seemed like Horace. Then I woke up, trying to figure out where I was.

10 March 2011

Haiku 2011/69

from another room
morning light stretches forward
just touching the door

09 March 2011

08 March 2011

Haiku 2011/67

empty night-time streets
ghostly gliding headlights gleam
echoing footsteps

07 March 2011

Haiku 2011/66

soft rain patters through
puddle-reflected street lights
empty night-time streets

06 March 2011

Haiku 2011/65

petals on puddles
green murmurs of tender leaves
soft rain patters through

05 March 2011

Haiku 2011/64

flowers in the wind
green stalks of spring, stripped too soon
petals on puddles

04 March 2011

02 March 2011

Haiku 2011/61

passed by bird and breeze,
skirted by water: bare rock

01 March 2011

Haiku 2011/60

move onward, pilgrim,
wander through unknown places
passed by bird and breeze