30 April 2011

fun stuff I may or may not get to: May

I don't know how merry the month of May is for those who suffer from allergies (so if I've left out something major here, I already know where I will point the finger of blame) but there's certainly plenty of great stuff to occupy you indoors:

Theater of Yugen presents the final week of Erik Ehn's Cordelia, a Noh-style re-imagining of King Lear from his youngest daughter's point of view. Wednesday and Thursday performances are at 7:00 (thank you!) and Friday and Saturday are at 8:00.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the Magic Theater, as it a pain in the ass for a non-driver from the East Bay to get there, but their current extravaganza, Taylor Mac's The Lily’s Revenge, sounds promising. Unfortunately, given my afore-mentioned status as a non-driver from the east bay, I could only make the Sunday afternoon performances, and I’m booked Sundays through the run, but don’t let that stop you.

San Francisco Ballet closes out its season with a revival of last season’s Little Mermaid, choreographed by John Neumeier based on Hans Christian Andersen, with an original score by Lera Auerbach, April 30 to May 7.

American Bach Soloists presents the Bach Magnificat in D Major and the west coast premiere of the recently discovered Mass for Three Choirs by Antonio Lotti, 6-8 May in various locations.

City Arts & Lectures presents Kay Ryan, local resident, national Poet Laureate, and recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize (for The Best of It: New and Selected Poems) in conversation with Steven Winn on May 9 at Herbst Theater.

Friday, May 13, the Oakland East Bay Symphony presents Kurt Weill’s Street Scene.

Volti closes out its 32nd season with works by Eliott Gyger, Matthew Barnson, Yu-Hui Chang, Ruby Fulton, and Frank Ferko, May 13-15 in various locations.

Cutting Ball Theater presents Risk Is This. . . , its mostly annual festival of new and experimental plays in staged readings, this year featuring plays by Eugenie Chan, Andrew Saito, Rob Melrose and Dave L, and Annie Elias.

The San Francisco Symphony presents lots of Mahler: the Mahler 9 (May 5-6), the Mahler 2, Resurrection (May 7-8), and the Mahler 6 (May 12-14). The fabulous Symphony Chorus has its annual concert on May 22, with works by Nystedt, Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Barber, Mahler, and the Durufle Requiem.

New Century Chamber Orchestra closes its season with works by Elgar, Bridge, Schnittke, and Elevations, a world premiere by Mark O’Connor, 19-22 May in various locations.

SFMOMA presents one of the most eagerly awaited (by me) exhibits of the year, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. Member previews are on May 19-20 and it opens to the public after that – there's plenty of time before then for everyone to re-read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

San Francisco Performances closes out its season with solo recitals by Anthony Dean Griffey on May 4 (postponed from January) and Kate Royal on May 24. In between is Doug Varone and Dancers on May 21 and 22.

And of course there was an exciting late addition to their calendar, composer Magnus Lindberg in person on piano, along with Jennifer Koh on violin and Anssi Karttunen on cello, playing works by Lindberg himself, Schulhoff, and Villa-Lobos, as well as "Mystery Variations on Giuseppe Colombi's Chiacona for solo cello." That is on Sunday May 15.

On Saturday May 28 Chora Nova presents works by Vivaldi, Pergolesi, and Galuppi at First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

Cal Performances offers eclectic fare,with Ian Bostridge and Les Violons du Roy on May 1 and 3, the Druid Theater in Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan May 4-14 in Zellerbach Playhouse, and the Royal Danish Ballet in two programs: traditional (La Sylphide and The Lesson on May 31-June 1) and modern (Nordic Modern Choreography on June 3 and 4).

And just like that we’ve slipped into June.

Haiku 2011/120

and there's another
day dropping down into dust
unpoetic hours

29 April 2011

Cathy and Heathcliff in Minnesota

I’ve been fascinated by Bernard Herrmann’s single opera, Wuthering Heights, ever since I heard of it somewhere years ago: the famous film composer’s only opera! Based on Emily Bronte’s only novel, that strange and demonic book! Add in my constantly thwarted attempts to find a recording, and the rarity of performances, and I figured it was time for a Twin Cities trip when Minnesota Opera put it on their schedule. (The performances will be recorded for DVD release, so future aficionados of Herrmann or Bronte won’t have the problems I had finding a good recording.) I was at the first performance, on April 16.

Herrmann’s music swells up to the great scenes, but is largely brooding and atmospheric, with many of the eerie touches for which his film scores are famous. Yet it doesn’t sound like “movie music” – that is, it stands alongside the action, rather than underlining it in the way of mid-century Hollywood films. The music frequently evokes the ghostly gray atmosphere of the wind-swept moors that play such an important part in the psychology of the story.

Projections were used extensively and instead of seeming, as they often do, like mostly a money-saving device, they stylishly brought both springtime and wintertime Yorkshire on stage. In the opening scene, the lodger Mr Lockwood seeks shelter from a raging snowstorm at Wuthering Heights. He sings about “the snow, the everlasting snow” and there was a big and unintended laugh from the audience – here it was the middle of April, and it had snowed in Minneapolis the day before, so it was a sympathizing laugh. “They’re going to have problems with that during the recording,” I heard one audience member say during intermission.

Minnesota Opera did Herrmann proud, with an excellent production and an outstanding cast of young singers. But . . . the libretto is a problem, at least for me (and probably anyone else who’s read the book). It’s not Wuthering Heights; it’s what people often think Wuthering Heights is: a brooding, fairly conventional romance. It’s not just that the opera cuts the story in half, ending with Catherine Earnshaw’s death (roughly the halfway point of the novel), or that in the transition from novel to stage you inevitably lose certain narrative nuances: the comedy of the urbane Mr Lockwood’s consistent misunderstanding of his landlord, who really is the brooding loner Lockwood considers himself to be; the sensible voice of housekeeper Nelly Dean as she tells the terrifying story; the whole atmosphere of inbred feverishness.

No, it’s that the opera fundamentally alters and softens the characters of Heathcliff and Cathy. In the novel the increasingly drunken and brutal Hindley, up on the staircase, throws his young son off the side and Heathcliff, who happens to be passing below, instinctively catches the falling child and then, equally instinctively, is horrified and regretful that he has saved his enemy Hindley from murdering his own child. In the opera (I’m going by the stage direction in the libretto I bought at the Minnesota Opera, as well as by what I saw on stage), Heathcliff confronts Hindley on the stairs and protectively takes the child out of his arms, to much more heroic effect.

Here are a few of the things Heathcliff does not do in the opera that he does in the novel: hit both women and children; hang Isabella Linton’s puppy as he elopes with her; throw a knife at her later in the marriage, cutting her in the face; terrify his own sickly effeminate son (whom he consistently and contemptuously refers to as "it") into marrying Cathy’s daughter (the second generation, except for a brief appearance by Hindley’s son, doesn’t appear at all). And his tight hold on money, so unsuitable for a romantic hero and frequently mentioned in the novel, makes no appearance in the libretto (except for a passing insinuation that he tried to become rich to be socially equal to the Lintons).

It’s a tribute to Bronte’s genius that she makes this unlikely figure one of the most memorable romantic figures in English literature. The libretto (written by Lucille Fletcher, who was married to Herrmann at the time) plays it safe, making him much more conventional. Lee Poulis as Heathcliff gave probably the most powerful performance in the very strong cast, so I mean no reflection on him when I wonder if a rougher-looking singer might have counteracted the libretto: Poulis’s tall slim build, unruly dark curls, and refined handsomeness made him the very picture of a brooding romantic loner, rather than the devil to which the novel’s Heathcliff is frequently compared.

As in the novel, Isabella writes to Nelly asking if Heathcliff is a man or a demon, but unlike in the novel, we opera-goers have no real reason to consider him evil. The unearthly (for good and ill) quality of their love is replaced by a more standard operatic emotion. There are grotesque touches, as in a quick scene in the beginning of Heathcliff embracing the skeleton of the dead Cathy, but the terrifyingly cruel and gothic obsessiveness of the novel's lovers is tamed.

Cathy (Sara Joubiak), the headstrong and sadistic, is also softened in the opera. She no longer humiliates her sister-in-law Isabella (Adriana Zabala) by forcing her to stay in the room as she tells the newly arrived Heathcliff all about Isabella’s love for him; now, they are all already in the room and Isabella brings the subject up herself. The cruel scene in which Cathy locks the door so that her husband can’t call the servants for help but instead must fight Heathcliff himself is also considerably softened (and so is Edgar Linton – in the novel, he punches Heathcliff with enough force to knock him down; in the opera, Edgar, played by Eric Margiore, simply collapses weakly on the sofa, wondering if his wife doesn’t love him any more, while Heathcliff stalks off contemptuously).

There are other clumsy elements in the libretto: Hindley’s descent into drunken debauchery and madness seems sort of arbitrary and even convenient, despite the efforts of singer Ben Wager, so it should be made clearer that it is due to misery at the death of his wife; Cathy’s violent temper should appear earlier, so that her actions don't seem quite so out of the blue when she cruelly pinches Nelly (Victoria Vargas) and then strikes Edgar when he objects. Until then we had mostly seen her singing about how much she loves the springtime flowers. There is, in my opinion, a little too much singing about the spring flowers anyway, when the time might be better spent on other aspects of the characters.

We also get not one but two “dream ballets” featuring Cathy and Heathcliff , which, though beautifully danced by Jeremy Bensussan and Megan McClellan, and not in itself a bad idea, unfortunately made me think of Curly and Laurie in Oklahoma.

It’s a puzzle to me why Herrmann, who I understand was very well read, considered this libretto an acceptable version of Wuthering Heights – why did he want this milk-and-water version of Bronte’s strange strong brew? It’s one thing to take a relatively obscure medieval legend like Tristan and Iseult (another story of obsessive, destructive love and death) and alter it so that your opera becomes in many ways the definitive version of the story. I don’t really understand why you’d take a story that is already iconic and then weaken it to this extent. Herrmann in many ways wrote a wonderful opera, but it doesn’t come near the strange and wild book. (By the way, I've also seen – once – the famous film with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, and I absolutely hated it.)

Having said all that, I should point out that I was extremely glad I made the trip to see the opera in person, and will no doubt buy the DVD as soon as it becomes available. (Perhaps with repeated viewing I can accept the opera more on its own terms, rather than on Emily Bronte's.) The words of an opera are important to me, but the music and the singing can rescue them. The first night audience seemed to enjoy the work too, judging from the attentiveness, the applause, and remarks afterward (though I did hear one stout and sensible-looking middle-aged woman saying in slightly irritated and disgusted tones, “Well, he’s crazy, she’s crazy . . . they’re both crazy!”).

I salute Minnesota Opera for staging this enticing rarity and for recording it as well. The singers I haven’t mentioned by name yet are Rodolfo Nieto as Joseph, Jesse Blumberg as Lockwood, and Joshua Ross as Hindley’s son; Michael Christie conducted and Eric Simonson directed. Everyone in the cast had amazingly good English diction; there would have been no comprehension problems even without the surtitles, which is very rarely the case. In face everyone involved in general did an outstanding job, except, unfortunately, the librettist.

Haiku 2011/119

overwhelming world
I just absorb one moment
and there's another

28 April 2011

Haiku 2011/118

cumbersome breadcrumbs
long twisting peels, giant rinds
overwhelming world

27 April 2011

Haiku 2011/117

seeking an anthill
swaying under the weight of
cumbersome breadcrumbs

26 April 2011

Haiku 2011/116

to a bird in flight
we scurry like frantic ants
seeking an anthill

25 April 2011

Titian and MacMillan in Minneapolis

Friday before last two long bus rides took me from the St Paul abode of my fabulous Twin Cities host, Jack Curtis Dubowsky, to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, one of those capacious museums that varies the aesthetic overload by offering a different style or period every few galleries.

There were some enticing special exhibits, including the 38 alabaster mourners, each a bit over a foot high, except for one shorter altar boy, that normally form part of the tombs of the first Valois dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold and his son John the Fearless, but which were temporarily parading down the middle of a long medieval gallery accompanied by period-appropriate music. They are astonishingly varied and lifelike; so much so that you could almost take them for granted: yes, that is what they should look like, and so that is how they look.

I spent about an hour in the other special exhibit, Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting. As with the Burgundian mourners and most other special exhibits everywhere, photography was not allowed inside the exhibit, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this exhibit was small but intense. The centerpiece was two great canvases by Titian, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, part of an instantly celebrated suite he painted for King Philip II of Spain, based on stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There were six large canvases altogether; one of the others, the Rape of Europa, was very familiar to me from Boston days, since it was always one of my favorite pictures in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Underlying the sumptuous beauty of these pictures is a tragic view of human life; each represents an innocent victim of the angry and lustful whims of the gods. The troubled and shadowed face of Callisto, as her fellows, at the virgin huntress Diana’s order, rip off her robes to reveal the pregnancy resulting from Zeus’s rape, is especially striking.

There were a couple of extremely loud docents but eventually I managed enough semi-quiet time in front of these rich pictures. It’s always a problem for me deciding when to stop looking at something like this: you could look at them forever, yet I may well never see them again, so how much is enough?

Towards closing time I went to the Information Desk and asked if I could walk from the MIA to Orchestra Hall. The kindly gray-haired woman there told me that I could, but she said it in doubtful and slightly surprised tones, and added, “But it’s nearly a mile!” I told her that was OK with me. “Well, you do have a jacket, don’t you? It’s windy out there!” she added in motherly tones. I assured her I had one (though I’d have brought a heavier coat if I’d known we’d get actual snow) and she told me which street to take in what direction and what landmarks to look for.

I managed to walk my mile and find Orchestra Hall without much trouble. It’s attractive enough outside, but inside the hall is honestly and to my surprise even less attractive than Davies Symphony Hall. There are giant whitish cubes of various sizes jutting out at different arbitrary angles all over the stage area. I did take some photos after the concert but I guess I shouldn’t post them since an usher rushed over to tell me photography was not permitted inside the auditorium. I apologized and said I thought that was just when the orchestra was on stage. “No,” she said, “the guy who designed this place owns the patent and the copyright and everything and he’s very strict about it and we can’t even change the horrible 1970s orange seatcovers without his permission.” (He apparently has withheld that permission, since there was a sea of 1970s burnt orange seating.) So I apologized again and added, “But it’s so ugly.” “I know,” she replied.

The sound was really good, though, rich and precise, no doubt in part due to the acoustical effects of the hideously jutting cubes. The orchestra seems to have embraced the protuberances, using a cube as its logo. The ticket they sent me in the mail was bordered with ornate and old-fashioned looking scrollwork, so I was expecting something older than the 1970s.

As noted, we were asked to leave our guns elsewhere. I was kind of startled by these signs. Jack explained to me that it’s legal to carry concealed weapons in Minnesota, but venues can forbid them – but if they’re concealed, how do you know if people are complying or not?

Music Director Osmo Vanska conducted the performance I went to. The opener was Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody in A Major, Opus 11, No. 1, a brief but kaleidoscopic whirl inflected by the folk music of Romania and its near eastern neighbors as brought through the area by the people who ended up being called gypsies. This was followed by the main draw of the concert for me, the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra, The Mysteries of Light. Jean-Yves Thibaudet, wearing a jacket with oddly different shades of black angled together, was the virtuosic soloist.

MacMillan is, of all odd combinations, a Scottish Catholic, and as with Messiaen, his music is often inspired by his religion: in this case, the Five Luminous Mysteries of the rosary that Pope John Paul II added to the traditional Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries. Knowing this adds another dimension to the piece, and might provide an emotional guide to the various movements, but you could also just enjoy the piece as a dazzler without knowing any more about it than what you were hearing. The five movements are played without pause, though each is distinctive enough so that it’s easy to tell where you are. The concerto lasts almost half an hour, with music ranging from the rippling to the ritualistic. The pianist plays throughout, except for the fourth movement.

The audience seemed quite enthusiastic. MacMillan came up to take a bow. He was seated several rows behind me so during the intermission I got up the nerve to ask him to sign my program. He was very amiable and gracious. He speaks softly with a fairly heavy Scottish accent, so I had a bit of trouble hearing him in the noisy hall. I told him I had enjoyed the piece and was glad to hear his music live, since I’d heard quite a bit of it, but only on CD. I mentioned that I was in town to hear Wuthering Heights at the Opera. “That’s Bernard Herrmann, isn’t it?” he said. “I’d like to hear that.” Herrmann is kind of a cult composer, it seems.

After the intermission we had Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Opus 13. I was pretty tired by then and simply luxuriated in the sound, which was sort of like being adrift on a sea of caramel. I have the feeling I’ve heard this Symphony very recently at the San Francisco Symphony, but I’m feeling lazy about looking it up and since what sounded familiar was not so much the music itself as the story of the symphony’s unsuccessful St Petersburg premiere and eventual rediscovery I might have read about it in connection with a different piece. The applause seemed extremely enthusiastic, but afterwards as I waited for my taxi (having decided that a lengthy bus ride with transfers late at night while the snow was falling thickly in a city I didn’t know was something I didn’t need to do) I heard one woman say to another, “Well, I just don’t know about Rachmaninoff. He’s always so loud.”

Eventually my taxi driver showed up and he not only did not appear to know how to get to St Paul, he seemed unable to work his own GPS. If it hadn’t been snowing great wet flakes I probably would have gotten out and searched for another taxi, but I was already far enough from Orchestra Hall so that I decided to hope for the best. Soon enough he figured out what he was doing and I returned to St Paul.

Haiku 2011/115

back to former shores:
but former and future blur
to a bird in flight

24 April 2011

Haiku 2011/114

then on to new worlds
though the foaming wake returns
back to former shores

23 April 2011

Haiku 2011/113

of a stranger's eyes
a glimpse for just a second
then on to new worlds

22 April 2011

21 April 2011

critically disarming

Your rapier-like wit, however, is more than welcome!

A sign like this was prominently displayed on each door of Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. "Hey, M*****F*****! You call that 'andante'?" BANG!

Haiku 2011/111

how the stars glitter
is their mystery, not mine:
enjoy the glitter

20 April 2011

Haiku 2011/110

of angry lovers
let us peaceful never speak
how the stars glitter

19 April 2011

April in Minnesota

Yes, that's snow on the ground. Seriously!

Haiku 2011/104-109

There is no silence
as silent as the silence
of angry lovers

and quiet returns
and you stand there listening:
there is no silence

a twig's sudden snap
a dash to new camouflage
and quiet returns

through the dark country
quiet night-time creatures roam:
a twig's sudden snap

take off together
and fly quickly together
through the dark country

from the setting sun
a plane and a flock of birds
take off together

13 April 2011

Haiku 2011/103

I stand still waiting
light travels across the floor
from the setting sun

(I may or may not have computer access the next several days. Back in a few!)

12 April 2011

Haiku 2011/102

passing like shadows
waves of people flowing through
I stand still waiting

beauty and sadness

I hadn’t heard Dubravka Tomsic in several years, possibly not since I left Boston, so I was glad to attend her San Francisco Performances recital last Saturday at Herbst Theater. They present her fairly often, according to the program, so I guess I just wasn’t paying attention. The first half of the program was all Beethoven (piano sonata in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest” and piano sonata in E-flat Major, Op. 81a, “Les Adieux”) and the second half was the Four Chopin Ballades. There were three encores, two by Liszt (Valse Oubliée, S215/No. 1 and Concert Étude S145/No. 2, Dance of the Gnomes) with Chopin’s Minute Waltz in between.

Tomsic seemed to have a cold or allergies, since she coughed a bit and wiped her nose between numbers, as did the audience, but it made no difference in her attitude or her performance. She is a stolid player, one of the most unhistrionic pianists I’ve ever seen, but when she sits down and plays, pure glorious streams of precise and poetic sound flow into the hall. The evening needs no impertinent commentary from me. Sometimes the concerts you enjoy the most are the ones that leave you with the least to say.

Like many opera lovers yesterday, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Daniel Catán. I discovered his music at the old Tower records on Bay and Columbus, when I saw a cut-out of his opera Rappaccini’s Daughter, which interested me because I assumed (correctly) it was based on Hawthorne’s short story. The music was so rich and immediately attractive. Later I went up to Seattle and enjoyed Florencia en el Amazonas very much. The older I get, the younger seem the ages at which people die. He was only 62. He should have had many more years of composition.

Program 7

I made my first trip this season to the San Francisco Ballet last Friday, for the opening night of Program 7. First up was Petrouchka, to Stravinsky’s music, staged by Isabelle Fokine with the choreography by her grandfather, Michael Fokine, and scenes and costumes after Alexandre Benois. Since I’d recently finished reading Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans’s history of ballet, I was eager to see this landmark. It’s much more of a pantomimed play than the other more abstract pieces on the program. There’s a very specific story (it helps to read the synopsis beforehand) about the sad clown Petrouchka (the Nijinsky role, danced by Pascal Molat) and his hopeless love for the Ballerina (a peerlessly doll-like Clara Blanco), who is in love with the more vigorous Moor (Daniel Deivison, his face painted blue).

Petrouchka in love is a bit of a sadsack, with his shoulders drooping and his big mittened hands often held in front of his crotch, suggesting the physical frustration behind his unhappiness. Though he is unhappy in love and subjugated by the Charlatan (Ricardo Bustamente), he is ultimately triumphant: a sadsack, but also a trickster. This was a treat to see, with colorful and elaborate sets and costumes in a folk Russian style; it’s interesting to get a glimpse of what it might have been like to attend the Ballets Russes.

Emil deCou conducted and the music was excellent, though what I remember most vividly is the sustained drumming between scenes. The second piece, Underskin, was set to Schoenberg’s elegant and mysterious Transfigured Night, choreographed by Renato Zanella in an elegant and mysterious way. I thought this was the most powerful segment. The setting is just some large shafts set leaning in the middle of the back of the stage. The lighting (designed by David Finn) is low throughout. A woman (Sofiane Sylve) enters, dressed in a tight black outfit that glitters like snakeskin. Her movements (she enters again past the halfway mark and then again at the end) are bold and outward in a way the movements of the others are not; even when there are six or seven couples on stage their movements are more intimate than hers, as they shift and struggle. There are suggestions of stories, but no specific plot. At the end, the dancers turn their backs to the audience and form a fist in their right hands, which are bent upwards at a 90 degree angle. They start moving towards the back, except for one woman, isolated in a spotlight to the left, who stands there, while the woman in black moves towards her. Large red petals fall on the woman in the circle of light. It’s very striking and enigmatic and powerful.

The third and final piece was the world premiere of Number Nine, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to Michael Torke’s Ash. This was the first time it had been danced in public, and even though I thought the piece wasn’t living in the dancers the way it would after further performances, it was still vivid and joyful and ended the evening on a high note. It’s fairly brief but packed full of moves that sometimes seem balanced between classic ballet poses and gymnastics. It’s vigorous and athletic as well as graceful. The backdrop is a series of bright jewel-like colors, and there are four main couples, each wearing matching bright colors, along with the corps de ballet. “I just love all the colors!” I heard one man exclaim, as the audience let out.

I wanted magic

I had been undecided about going to Aurora Theater’s production of Tennessee Williams's Eccentricities of a Nightingale, but then they combined a 7:00 start time with a bargain price, so off I went last Tuesday. The hook was that live theater is “the ultimate 3-D viewing experience” so the ticket prices were $12, which is apparently what a movie costs these days, which is yet another reason to stay home with a big-screen TV and a pile of DVDs. Actually, I think 3-D movies might cost more, making the Aurora’s price a real bargain, even with the $5 service charge for calling the box office, which you have to do because their website uses the idiotic “best seat available” method instead of letting you see every seat available and deciding which one you think is best. In fact it was buying a ticket for an Aurora show a few years ago that made me determine never to buy tickets on-line unless I could see every seat. That time I clicked about three or four of the “best seats available” until I finally found one that really was the best, waiting there all along. The woman I spoke to at the box office was very nice. And when I arrived (with plenty of time to spare before the curtain rose – the Aurora is a small theater with four rows of seats on three sides of the stage, so that’s very much a metaphorical curtain) they had free bags of popcorn in the lobby, to keep with the movie theme, which was very charming.

On to the show. I realized with some surprise that I had not actually seen many Tennessee Williams plays. In fact, except for the Glass Menagerie on Broadway with Jessica Tandy as the mother, this might be the only one. I’ve seen the film of Streetcar Named Desire many times, but I’ve never seen it on stage (I’m excluding the operatic version, which I did see). In the pre-VCR days I used to go to the Harvard Square Cinema every time they showed Streetcar, but I haven’t even seen that many of the other movies. Sometimes I wonder what it is I do with my time.

And yet, I already knew all the characters we saw in Williamsworld, as surely as if they were a commedia troupe: the domineering mother; the young man who is somehow . . . sensitive, and therefore slightly weak; the rejected eccentrics and the unimaginative conventional people who rejected them; and above all, the slightly frantic yearning virginal woman whose desperate efforts, as her youth passes under the lengthening and lingering shadow of death, to find a moment, however brief and transitory, of the fleeting poetry, the only true and living poetry in this harsh and unforgiving world, that is a soulful union with a kindred and understanding spirit, a quest which leads her, like moth to flame, into rash and self-destructive acts, whose burning fire at least convinces her that there is some vivacity possible amid the ashes. (Please, I’m not just dashing this stuff off – go back and read that last part again, and this time do it with a lilting southern accent.)

The woman in this case is Alma Winemiller, daughter of the Episcopal priest in the small Mississippi town of Glorious Hill, shortly before the First World War. She sings (hence the Nightingale), but with an excess of emotion that is considered strange by her neighbors (hence, among other causes, the Eccentricities). She loves, hopelessly, the handsome young son of their neighbors. He is a doctor like his father and though he is clearly interested by Alma’s unusual character he is also dominated by his dainty snake of a mother, who objects to Alma’s oddity even though her own grotesquely obvious and psychologically incestuous interest in controlling her son is clearly the oddest and most perverse thing we see. The story is told through a series of holiday scenes, starting and ending with Independence Day, with Christmas and New Year’s Day in between. In the epilogue (look, I’ll issue a spoiler alert, but really you can see this coming) we find that Alma is now, if not actually a prostitute, pretty much the equivalent, picking up traveling salesmen, Blanche duBois-like, with a smooth line of patter. In this scene Alma seems subtly stronger and more centered than before, finding some measure of peace in rebelling against the restrictive conventions of the town.

According to the program book, Williams used to proclaim in interviews that he was Alma. Yeah, no kidding. I think that’s the problem – he didn’t quite manage to separate her from himself enough to get a convincing perspective on what her life would be like outside of his wishful view of what it should be like. He’s too indulgent with her; take the concept of her “eccentricities” – that’s such a charming and endearing way of putting it. Try “the annoying and endless affectations of a nightingale” or “the relentless speechifying of a nightingale” – not quite so charming and endearing, is it. It’s all a matter of phrasing things a certain way, and then maintaining that perspective so that we see things in a certain light. Williams convinces you with his sinuous purple rhetoric, but once the swirling poetic clouds start to clear away, it’s difficult to remain convinced. (Sometimes Williams’s poetic effects themselves are piled on too thickly; there’s one scene in which a remarkably cooperative fire burns, dies, and revives in perfect harmony with the sexual emotions in the room, just as in a 1940s film.)

Despite the immense skill of Beth Wilmurt as Alma, I found it a little hard to accept that a life of impoverished promiscuity/prostitution was really what you might call empowering or even satisfyingly rebellious for an aging solitary woman in that particular time and place. But if we take that point of view, we’re clearly siding with the awful and unimaginative inhabitants who reject Alma’s essentially harmless ways. When she's criticized by her father for such alleged eccentricities as feeding the birds in the public park, you of course are going to sympathize with her, even as you can't help feeling that the deck is being stacked. As with the recent production of Albert Herring, I felt that we’re encouraged to take an overly simple view: we’re looking back, and down, at restrictions that seem obviously ridiculous to us. The program book assures us that this is a timeless, universal story, but that’s always an attempt to distract us from the specific situation of a particular story. Given the period costumes, the period attitudes, the southern accents, the Williams mode . . . the story starts to feel nostalgic,and even a bit campy, and Alma doesn’t feel dangerous or rebellious in any seriously threatening way. So we end up not taking her too seriously. There's a scene in which she starts drinking a little too freely, to keep her courage up, and there was lots of chucking in the audience. I don't really understand why: it's pretty clear this is not a woman who's going to have the occasional sip from the wise and Rabelaisan glass; this is a woman who's going to have major problems with alcohol. It shouldn't be cute or endearing when she starts drinking.

That’s why I felt that the play was sentimental rather than compassionate. Compassion is like a religious discipline; it’s a long-lasting way of accepting others (and ourselves) while acknowledging their (and our) awfulness. Sentimentality is more of a short-term mood, a way of overlooking anything that would keep you from seeing Alma and her circle of fellow artistic rejects in a certain noble light. You sit there admiring their brave efforts to find some beauty and dignity in life, and you walk out, start thinking of people you know like them, and have to confess you couldn’t stand living with them for very long. I felt that my judgment of them was temporarily suspended rather than deepened or changed.

These are after-thoughts. I enjoyed the play quite a lot while watching it. But despite the excellent performances, the elaborate costumes and furnishings, the smooth and effective staging, I couldn’t help feeling that it was all too safe and nostalgic. If they can reboot Spiderman and Batman, why not Williams? Strip away the period dresses, rethink the staging in a more stark and abstract way, and, above all, get rid of all the southern accents. I know they’re fun to do, but they place the speakers in a certain time and place which is automatically distant from our time and place. Yes, I’m asking for regie theater – thoughtful, provocative regie theater.

(This has been more about the play than individual performances, so I’m just going to list all the actors here, since they were all very good: Beth Wilmurt as Alma, Charles Dean as her father and Vernon, Amy Crumpacker as her mother, Marcia Pizzo as Mrs Buchanan from next door, Thomas Gorrebeeck as her son the doctor, Ryan Tasker as Roger and a Salesman, Leanne Borghesi as Mrs Bassett, and Beth Deitchman as Rosemary. Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross directed.)

11 April 2011

Haiku 2011/101

wherever clouds pass
let my thoughts follow them there
passing like shadows

10 April 2011

Haiku 2011/100

walks an empty man
might take: wherever winds blow,
wherever clouds pass

09 April 2011

Haiku 2011/99

down the empty streets
rushing through a hollow world
walks an empty man

08 April 2011

Haiku 2011/98

outside, a cold wind
sends trash dancing gracefully
down the empty streets

07 April 2011

06 April 2011

Haiku 2011/96

pillows of soft grass
sleeping night stretched out above
dreamy restless earth

05 April 2011

Haiku 2011/95

it looked so easy
tender breezes in clear skies
pillows of soft grass

04 April 2011

the awesomeness of the Pavel Haas Quartet

How awesome was Sunday night’s local premiere of the Pavel Haas String Quartet? Dude: so fucking awesome!

Sorry, it must be the WonderCon in the air. But seriously: totally fucking awesome!

The young players are Veronika Jarůšková and Eva Karová on violin, Pavel Nikl on viola, and Peter Jarůšek on cello. This Czech quartet has received heady praise in its short existence, and to me its appearance jumped out as a highlight in the always-solid San Francisco Performances schedule. I was a little surprised that Herbst Theater wasn’t packed, but the audience’s enthusiasm made up for any empty seats. (I shouldn’t make the hall sound too empty; it was a respectable showing for the first pleasant day of spring, though I did expect this to be a big draw – I mean, this is the California Bay Area, and we get lots of pleasant days, but fewer concerts this thrilling.)

The quartet plays vigorously but without vulgarity, tempering its energy with finesse. And the program was intriguingly off the beaten path: Schulhoff's Quartet No. 1, Debussy's Quartet in G minor, Op. 10, and the eponymous Pavel Haas’s Quartet No. 2, Op. 7, "From the Monkey Mountains." Schulhoff, like Haas, was of the generation of composers killed by the Nazis. The program was, without being a morbid memorial, a reminder of how much vital music we lost.

The Schulhoff piece is wild and strong, sort of like taking central European folk music, a hoedown, and the wistful soundtrack of an arty black-and-white film showing the sun low on empty streets washed by rain and blending them all together with surprising harmony at high speed. And though I love the passing-clouds-reflected-on-the-still-surface-of-the-lake sound of most Debussy playing, it was refreshing and unusual to hear PHQ’s muscular account. The cellist rocked back and forth in one passage, his eyes frequently on the first violin.

After the intermission came the Pavel Haas. The third movement in particular, The Moon and I (largo e misterioso), reached for a deeper poignancy. You can hear the quartet playing the piece on one of their CDs, along with Janacek's "Intimate Letters" (and more Janacek is always a plus). But that’s not the same thing as hearing them live, and my description is inadequate: you just should have been there.

The encore was Britten’s Waltz (from Three Divertimenti for String Quartet), a short piece of heart-breaking charm.

Haiku 2011/94

blotting out the sun
when those birds flew overhead
it looked so easy

03 April 2011

Paul Taylor at San Francisco Performances

Last night I saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company, presented as usual under San Francisco Performances, in Program C: Brief Encounters, Three Dubious Memories, and Brandenburgs.

Brief Encounters, first performed in 2009, is set to music by Debussy (all of the music was pre-recorded). Though it’s about (insofar as it’s about something besides movement) fleeting romance, it avoids the tragic and is fairly light-hearted, as indicated by the punning title: briefs are all the dancers wear. The men are in black briefs and the women are in black bikini briefs with a black bra-top. The costumes are by Santo Loquasto, who also did the set, which is a large sepia-toned drawing streaked with darker brown of a receding arched corridor, which looks both like a Renaissance architectural drawing and a modern drawing, which adds to the overall timeless dreaminess of the piece, as does the mostly dim and twilight lighting by James Ingalls as well as the shimmering music of Debussy.

There isn’t really a storyline to the dance but anytime you have beautiful almost-naked people in movement together emotional tanglements are going to suggest themselves. Dancers chase and are chased and switch partners. There are male-male couples as well as male-female ones. There are struggles and unhappy partings, but such moments are poignant rather than tragic, given how fleet and fluid the movements are. The dancers appear curiously light and weightless, even when they are slumped downward in a lumpy line. There is the occasional use of props – a woman with a mirror, and man with a knife that is quickly knocked out of his hand – but the props felt a bit gimmicky to me and the piece seemed stronger when it was just movement.

The dance seemed a distanced, wistful yet ironic look back on love. A piece like this always makes me think of Troilus at the end of Chaucer’s poem, looking down on earth in spirit and laughing at how much he suffered there.

The dancers are listed in the program and their bios are given, but since there are no pictures to go with the names I’m really not sure who is who. Some of them I can guess based on how they’re listed in the program – the guy listed first on his own line was probably the soloist, and the second piece has a few characters with names, so by process of elimination. . . . that’s a lot of unnecessary guesswork. I wonder why they didn’t just run their pictures.

After the intermission came Three Dubious Memories. I love that as a title for a dance, but felt a little mixed about the piece itself. This is its premiere season. There are four movements: As Remembered by the Man in Blue, As Remembered by the Man in Green, As Remembered by the Woman in Red, and Threnody, each set to contrasting music (all from Peter Elyakim Taussig’s Five Enigmas; Taylor uses movements 1, 3, 4, and 5). The first movement had a driving rock-like beat of the sort I dislike with the occasional country-western inflection, I don’t remember what the second piece sounded like, the third had a sort of boppy 1950s-style jazz inflection, and the fourth was elegiac strings. A love triangle among the woman in red and the men in blue and green is enacted from a different perspective in the first three movements, which sounds a little more interesting than it is since the three stories are fairly similar.

In one, Woman in Red is with Man in Blue; Man in Green enters, clearly feels betrayed, and there is a struggle. Then the Woman in Red is with the Man in Green; Man in Blue enters, clearly feels betrayed, etc. The fights between the men are broad and cartoony, with wide swings that clearly don’t make contact and kicks to the crotch, which makes it difficult to take seriously whatever affectionate but standard emotions the initial couple has evoked. The woman looks very unhappy in both scenarios, as well as in her own, in which she comes upon the two men, who after an initial brotherly struggle are now holding hands and walking together (a movement also used in Brief Encounters to indicate two men were a couple). This time she's the one feeling betrayed. There was quite a bit of knowing laughter from the audience at this scenario, though I don’t see why it’s inherently funnier than the other two: her pain and humiliation are just as real, or unreal, and the interrupted couple is just as connected as the earlier ones. But the audience, which was filled with male-male couples, seemed to find this particular episode naughty in some titillating way.

There is a brief pause after the first two sections but the fourth, Threnody, flows right into the third. This piece belongs to the Choirmaster, a man clad in light gray and accompanied by seven choristers, also in light gray. As the section title indicates, this was a more somber follow-up to the caricatures we had just seen, and the final tableau, with the Blue, Green, and Red characters piled up and entangled and the Chorister standing over them, evoked some real emotion for the first time in the dance. The idea of different perspectives of the same event is always fascinating, and so is an exploration of the dubious nature of memory (why can’t I remember what the second piece sounded like? It was just last night! Perhaps I will remember later, sitting somewhere else, thinking of something else, when I can’t correct what I wrote), but for me the piece by and large felt a little slick.

The triumph of the evening was the third piece, 1988’s Brandenburgs (set to movements 1 and 2 of the Brandenburg #6 as well as Brandenburg #3). It opens with one man surrounded by three women on the right side of the stage, and five other men arrayed on the left (and it closes in the same tableau). The costumes are both stripped-down and modern and rich-looking and evocative of the past: the five men to the left are in deep forest green sleeveless unitards that stop at their knees, with the shoulder straps elaborately embroidered in gold; the three women are in flowing moss-green sleeveless dresses that also extend to their knees, with the gold embroidery as a thin belt (and I think also as trim in the bodice); and the solo male was bare-chested, with his lower half covered by lighter pea-green tights and a wide belt of the gold embroidery. The dancers are barefoot, which adds to the spring-like atmosphere evoked by all the green and by the elegant, burbling music.

There are virtuosic spins, and cheerfully flowing patterns; here the quick contacts between dancers are joyful rather than poignant. There are many exuberant leaps, and at the end of some movements the exiting dancer gets in a few more quick tiny leaps before disappearing behind the curtain, as if the sheer joy of leaping compelled him to cram in as many as possible while he can. Several times after a dazzling spin one of the women, a dark-haired beauty, would extend her arms to us as if asking us to join her in wondering at and delighting in what she had just done, and she would grin endearingly at us, and it was impossible not to smile back at what we had all come to see: all the beautiful young dancers fleeting by in joyful precision.

Haiku 2011/93

traffic noises swell
exploding behind my eyes
blotting out the sun

02 April 2011

Will Eno plays at the Cutting Ball

My earlier plans to see the Will Eno trilogy at The Cutting Ball had been derailed by sickness, so I finally got there last night. I had seen their earlier production of Thom Pain (based on nothing) and enjoyed it, though looking back at what I wrote about it I was apparently less convinced at the time. I think it was the comparison to Beckett that I found a bit off, though oddly I was reminded of Beckett last night, particularly during Lady Grey (in ever lower light) the first of the evening’s three short plays. I was also reminded of Thom Pain, and thought maybe the pieces were a bit too similar in mode, mood, and method, but apparently that was the author’s intention (see here for Marissabidilla’s reaction to an earlier performance and for her report of the talk-back with Eno in which he mentions this). In any case the other two plays (Intermission and Mr Theatre Comes Home Different) were different enough so that I could see he had more than one way of playing.

These plays are all about theater (or performance) in various ways, so the whole evening takes on a meta-theatrical cast that makes it difficult to tell sometimes if something is just happening or scripted to happen: when actor David Sinaiko introduced himself right before the show to audience members on the left, and then started introducing them to each other, was that part of the performance or not? It was pretty funny – “Hey, Chris! Look, here’s another Chris!” I was on the right so he did not speak to me. I did not feel excluded by this.

The first play starts with an empty chair in a bright pool of light, situated off-center, to the right (from the audience’s perspective). Lady Grey is the only character. She enters in darkness and when the lights go up she is off to the left; the chair remains empty until towards the end of the piece. Her monologue, like Thom Pain’s, jumps back and forth in time, returning to a traumatic childhood incident, to periods of severe but strange illness, to nature, and always to the awareness of being observed, to the nature of observation, and to the slippery nature of the words we use to define the things we try to say. Her story involves a school show-and-tell from her childhood, during which she stripped naked.

I’m assuming this is how she felt – naked, exposed, sort of baffled and humiliated. Perhaps I’m being too literal here but I can’t imagine a girl stripping for show-and-tell and not being stopped by the teacher well before she exposes her genitals (about which the boys ask her questions), even in the 1970s. It’s always interested me how people need to retain certain elements of reality in order to sustain a fantasy, and this particular incident (for me; others might feel differently) crossed over into the territory of the unreal, so I had to read it as emotional.

There is a hint that the girl had been sexually abused, but I find child sexual abuse as a plot device sort of hacky (overused and oversimplified), so I was glad it was only a hint. Danielle O’Hare was Lady Grey. It was an interesting performance; I often felt she was reciting (rather than embodying the character and saying things because that’s what Lady Grey would say) but that may have been a deliberate choice, heightening one’s awareness Brecht-style of the performance as a performance, which would fit with the play’s own refracted perspectives on performance.

Then there was a fairly useless intermission. The intermission was followed by Intermission, in which two couples during the intermission of a play called The Mayor, about a mayor dying in a hospital, end up in conversation. Danielle O’Hare returned as Jill, the younger woman, with her partner Jack (Galen Murphy-Hoffman). David Sinaiko and Gwyneth Richards play Mr and Mrs Smith, the older couple. It was a quartet of fine performances.

Sinaiko has been with the Cutting Ball from the early days (as have I, on the other side of the non-existent proscenium) and for a long time I felt his performances relied too much on sheer manic energy. But around the time they did Endgame (which was, honestly, one of the few times I have ever left a theater thinking, “that was perfect”) he started giving much more modulated, subtler performances. So it’s not meant as a criticism of him when I say I thought there was too much of Mr Smith.

Mr Smith is a somewhat cranky and condescending man, who lectures the younger couple on the moments that make up life and so forth. “How many intermissions will you sit through” was a line that struck home with me. His lengthy story about having his dog put to sleep did not. Friends and family members of mine have had this experience recently, and I know it’s very painful, and I am very sympathetic, but I am sympathizing with a friend’s pain rather than connecting with the particular situation, if you see what I mean. This might be clearer if I discussed my general feeling about dogs, but I think I’ll avoid that digression and just return to the play by saying I wanted more of the other characters, particularly the young couple.

I was very amused that Jack took his cell phone out several times, because of course that had just happened in our actual intermission – it had only been about thirty minutes since the cell phone reminder, people are sitting there with friends and partners, and yet they immediately pull out their phones to check messages. Is everyone waiting for a kidney or something?

But maybe I was just having a weird connection with the cell phone thing, the way I did with the dog thing. I couldn’t quite tell if we were meant to find Jack callow, and it was perhaps Murphy-Hoffman’s charm that made him otherwise – the amount of time given to Mr Smith lecturing him makes me think maybe we were meant to find Jack unsympathetic, but honestly I would have been rolling my eyes long before he did. I would have liked more about Jack, and also would have liked more from Jill, who clearly had powerful emotional reactions to the theater that she couldn’t or wouldn’t quite articulate.

There are poignant indications that the older couple has settled into the sort of semi-bickery comfortable familiarity in which they stop thinking about what the other one feels. The lines we hear from the play are hilarious parodies of an earnest drama about “issues.” I wanted more of all that and less of Mr Smith’s patronizing speeches about life and its representation, speeches which are true and beautiful (and therefore worth saying) but, frankly, not all that original or striking (and therefore not worth saying at such length).

Mr Theatre Comes Home Different, the final piece, was a scene for Mr Theater (David Sinaiko) who, in the space of about ten minutes, both conjures up and parodies the magic of theater – the creation of a whole outdoor setting just by speaking a few words about a forest, the attempted recreation of the outdoors by having stagehands toss fake snow from the rafters, the real creation of a Lear-like storm just by speech, the concentrated emotional intensity spun out of nothing but speech and belief. We go from farce to tragedy to love story to death scene in no time. It was a dazzling tour de force for Eno and Sinaiko.

The show runs for a couple more weeks and I’d recommend catching it if you can (check the Cutting Ball website for information). I do have to say that if the three plays were done without an intermission (which I would prefer) the performance would be slightly over an hour. It’s not that I felt I didn’t get my money’s worth (and besides, with their season membership I could go several times and get a reserved seat, so it’s a bargain). It’s that I get off work at 5:00 and the show doesn’t start until a bit after 8:00, so I had to kill slightly over three hours for a show that lasted only a third of that time. I find the Union Square area, a visitor-packed shopping district, fairly unpleasant to walk around in. And my one sure-fire refuge there is going; I realized last night that it’s not only the Borders in the Westfield Mall that’s closing, it’s the big store right off Union Square as well. It was, at least, a fairly congenial place to waste time before the theater opens. Oh, I bought some heavily discounted books (some plays by Aristophanes in a translation I didn’t have and Berryman’s Dream Songs, because I really need more books to read) but increasingly I wonder whether it’s really a good idea for me to squander that much time. Maybe if they’re not going to start earlier I will switch to Saturday shows; even getting to the theater insanely early will waste less time than wandering unproductively. I would do that for Cutting Ball shows, but I’m just less inclined these days to fit my schedule and preferences around theaters that don’t have their track record. This is all part of the meta-theatrical theme perhaps.

Haiku 2011/92

light rims the curtain
night-singing birds fall silent
traffic noises swell

01 April 2011

Haiku 2011/91

waking me from sleep
industrious birds warble
light rims the curtain