31 May 2011

Haiku 2011/151

O treacherous world
relentless impartial waves
rush in and rush out

30 May 2011

the imperfect Wagnerite

On page 18 of the program for San Francisco Opera's Ring Cycle, Francesca Zambello says in her Director's Note:
". . . Wotan gives up an eye to build a mansion he can't afford. . . "

Uh, no, that's not what happens: Wotan has lost his eye in exchange for "gaining wisdom" at the World Ash Tree (I believe he also claims he lost his eye to gain Fricka, or at least that's what he tells her; maybe that counts as "gaining wisdom"). In exchange for building Valhalla, he actually promises to give up to the giants Freia, the goddess of love and eternal youth. This is an important difference because: (1) he doesn't make a sacrifice of his person to build his visionary fortress, he offers something (more precisely, someone) he doesn't really have the right to offer; and (2) he essentially makes the same deal Alberich made to forge the Ring, sacrificing love and youthful happiness for power and authority.

I don't want to be one of those people, but this isn't an abstruse or minor point, since Wotan's need to weasel out of his bargain leads him to steal the gold (and the tarnhelm and the Ring) from Alberich, and is therefore the engine that sets Das Rheingold and the rest of the cycle in motion. It seems like a pretty big misstatement for the director of a Ring cycle. If she had some obscurer meaning in view, I wonder what it was.

third time's the charm

When last we left our Wagnerian hero, he was pondering what step to take, and the fates of gods and men hung in the balance! Then I saw on-line the perfect center-section front-row aisle seat available for yesterday’s Siegfried, and, armed with a mighty discount from the Wagner Society of Northern California, I took the step of buying the ticket (“here’s your beee-yutiful orchestra seat!” said the friendly woman at the box office) and spending five hours in the dark on the one sunny day of this Memorial Day weekend.

It turned out to be time and money well spent. After the relative disappointment of Francesca Zambello’s productions of Rheingold and Walkure, who would have thought she’d do so well with the most problematic opera of the cycle. It’s still very much in line with the traditional Shavian/Chereauvian view of the Ring as an analysis of capitalism, but often striking and even beautiful even as it portrays destruction and greed.

Siegfried and Mime live in a half-trashed trailer amid an industrial wasteland, surrounded by the detritus of consumer capitalism, in sort of a survivalist’s no-man’s-land. Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) strides in with his lumbering bear, to the terror of Mime (David Cangelosi). The bear is uncredited in the program, but he got his own solo bow at the end, which was charming. He reappears at the very end of the first scene, rooting around the trailer and finally running off when he finds a bag of potato chips. This is funny and even adorable, but also nicely illustrates the pervasive theme of nature corrupted.

I’ll admit that one thing that led me to buy a ticket was curiosity to see how they handled the dragon: he’s a large, oil-spewing, chugging machine, with giant sharp tractor-claws; and if he looks a bit silly and old-fashioned as well as threatening and dangerous, that also is suitable. Once Siegfried kills him, Fafner (Daniel Sumegi) emerges in his old giant form. As he lies dying he cradles Siegfried in his arms as he warns him of the treacherous Mime, a nice and ironic touch for a hero who has been looking for the loving guidance of a parent and a giant/dragon who has cut himself off from all living contact until his hour of death.

After killing Mime and tossing him on the pile with Fafner, Siegfried pours gasoline on them and is about to burn them when the Forest Bird (Stacey Tappan) dissuades him. Before he leaves at the end he’s made enough moral progress under her guidance to make sorrowing gestures over their corpses. I thought the gasoline was a bit much until I saw that it was there for the sorrowing, conciliatory moment: the Forest Bird is the first feminine, not to say Eternal Feminine, voice we’ve heard, and Siegfried reacts to his first exposure to this quality, which he's been yearning for without knowing it.

One of the problems with Siegfried is that in the original conception of the Ring he was the star, and then was gradually pushed aside by the more complex and interesting characters of Wotan and Brunnhilde. It's too easy for him to come across as a bully and a lout, so I think the physical violence needs to be kept to a minimum; there was way too much manhandling and shoving and threatening of Mime by Siegfried. He’s an active adolescent but anyone able to sing the role is going to be, and of course look like, a fairly beefy middle-aged man, which gives a different effect. (There was also some odd manhandling of Erda (Ronnita Miller) by Wotan; sometimes it really is better just to have characters stand there and sing – does the rule of the gods really need to put a drowsy woman in a wrestling hold?)

Siegfried's false fathers had appeared earlier in the act: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) brooding destruction, obsessing over his wrongs and his hoped-for revenge, muttering and pushing a shopping cart like the other victims of capitalist society we see daily on the streets around us – his shopping cart filled with Molotov cocktails and other incendiary devices, a shopping cart full of the simmering and dangerous resentments of those who have lost the world. And Wotan (Mark Delavan) strides in and out, proclaiming that he has willed the end and welcomes it yet not able to resist opposing Siegfried. Wotan is just profoundly (an adverb I choose advisedly) confused. (The surtitles should have retained the moment when Wotan refers to himself as "light-Alberich" as opposed to the dark Alberich who rules the Nibelungs.)

The colors of Act 2 were particularly beautiful; after all the flat grays and occasional browns we had the glowing green windows of the shed behind which lurked Fafner, and then the burnt-orange and rust-red of the sauntering Forest Bird, in frock coat and boots like an eighteenth-century forester (though it was potentially confusing I think for first-timers who didn’t come in knowing that this young woman was actually meant to be a bird). And then the whole stage is flooded with green light and forest visions and Siegfried rushes off to find his promised companion.

Another thing that led me to buy a ticket was this: every other time I’ve seen Siegfried, it’s been part of a cycle, and every time, I find the final duet with Brunnhilde (Nina Stemme) to be (I know, let the wrath of the Wagnerites descend!) just too damn long. So I’ve always wondered if that reaction is merely part of the natural cycle of sitting through something like the Ring Cycle (as if there’s anything else like the Ring Cycle!) or if I would have the same reaction seeing the opera on its own.

I had the same reaction. Though intellectually I can understand why Brunnhilde has to struggle to accept her new human nature, I always get exasperated when she first throws herself at Siegfried and then backs away from him (though no doubt we also need to see that he is winning her as much as she is winning him). But physically, I’ve pretty much had it by then, and keep shifting my numb lower half in my seat. I can also see that, beautiful and necessary as the duet may be, and as refreshing as it is after all the gloom and brooding to hear two lovers’ voices, it is also a descent into the conventionally operatic, however sublimely done.

Musically as well as visually and dramatically the afternoon had a lot going for it. Donald Runnicles paced the orchestra brilliantly, and when they hit the richer sounds of Act 3 they still had a lot to give. Jay Hunter Morris, with blonde goatee and spiked-up, punk-looking hair, probably looked as much like Siegfried as anyone who can sing the role can look. His voice had a nice youthful timbre, which meant that occasionally he, like Delavan, sounded a bit underpowered, but then I was sitting in the front row right in front of the brass and percussion; perhaps they sounded different from the higher seats (as the man sitting next to me, also a front-row aficionado, said: “If you want perfect sound, buy a CD!”). I also noticed that Siegfried and Wotan sing over the brass I think more than the others.

Delavan is physically imposing (though not, I think, very tall), and he continues to be an interestingly tetchy Wotan. There is a lot to irritate the moody father of the Gods! He sounded strongest in his Act 3 scene with Erda, so perhaps he was pacing himself. Erda was given a magnificent presence by Ronnita Miller, who had a majestic air and a deep, rich voice. She actually sent chills down my spine, not once but several times! Stacey Tappan was a pretty-voiced Forest Bird, cocking her head birdlike; and Stemme, though not the subtlest actress, sang (not shouted) beautifully with the exhausted Siegfried. David Cangelosi had a clear and almost bell-like voice as Mime; his cartwheels and general jumping-around were about as endearing as the whiny Mime is going to get. Hawkins and Sumegi were solid and striking in their appearances. The audience was extremely and understandably enthusiastic by the time Siegfried and Brunnhilde joined in their final clinch.

Haiku 2011/150

we rush to shelter
what we hold most tenderly
O treacherous world

29 May 2011

Haiku 2011/149

under sudden rains --
where are all the umbrellas? --
we rush to shelter

28 May 2011

Haiku 2011/148

massed pink and yellow blooms dance
under sudden rains

27 May 2011

26 May 2011

Haiku 2011/146

flat pigeon pancake
squashed raccoon found art scattered
feathers tell stories

25 May 2011

Haiku 2011/145

birds zip overhead
except when they fly too low. . .
flat pigeon pancake

24 May 2011

Haiku 2011/144

bicyclists zip by
walkers weave between the cars
birds zip overhead

23 May 2011

22 May 2011

fun stuff I may or may not get to: June

The San Francisco Opera is presenting Der Ring des Nibelungen, and frankly I’m still undecided what to do about it. On the plus side: Donald Runnicles is conducting, and SF Opera has assembled a promising-looking cast. Also: It’s Der Ring des Nibelungen! On the minus side, other than the usual problems with time/money: Francesca Zambello’s production has so far been mostly dull, a general retread of every “Ring as critique of capitalism” staging (which is fine, but I've seen it, and I guess that's the inevitable result when you aim for an "American" Ring, given the nature of American history and society) with the occasional kitschy, baffling, or wrongheaded touch (though unfortunately not baffling or wrongheaded enough to be provocative or illuminating, just irritating). Also: the big pile of money I paid for my ticket to Walkure last year bought me an evening full of vocal wrecks, and though I realize that’s one of the hazards of the game, I’m still annoyed. People I trust who attended other nights were thrilled. Maybe I should do everyone who’s bought a ticket a favor and not go, because then it’s sure to be spectacular. I could just go to Siegfried and Gotterdammerung, but I prefer the first two operas. Oh, what to do! My thoughts on Rheingold, which I saw in both DC and SF, are here, and my thoughts on last year’s Walkure are here, though reading it over I see I was kinder in prose than I feel in memory.

The Wagner Society of Northern California has several Ring-related seminars. They always do an excellent job with those. Check them out here.

As noted last month, Cal Performances presents the Royal Danish Ballet in two different programs from May 31 to June 4, and then closes out its rich season with several concerts from Ojai North! (and let me assure you the cheeseball exclamation point is not mine): Maria Schneider and Orchestra on June 13, Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra on June 14, and Upshaw again on June 16 and 18 in George Crumb's The Winds of Destiny, staged by Peter Sellars.

Chorus America is presenting a Community Sing with Chanticleer on Saturday June 11 at 2:15 at the International High School Gymnasium (near the SF Conservatory of Music). This is free but reservations are required and can be made online at http://communitysingwithchanticleer.eventbrite.com/.

The San Francisco Symphony presents a series of “Project San Francisco” performances by the brilliant and poetic young pianist Yuja Wang from June 14 to June 21, and then closes out its season on June 23-26 with Tilson Thomas conducting the fabulous Symphony Chorus and soloists Christine Brewer, Katarina Karneus, Gregory Kunde, and Ain Anger in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, which looks as much like a sure bet as anything on this list.

Ray of Light Theater presents Assassins, by living legend Stephen Sondheim, June 2-25 at the Eureka Theater.

The Aurora Theater presents Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as adapted by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson and directed by Mark Jackson, starting June 10. This looks promising, and the Aurora generally has plenty of ticket deals and plenty of convenient earlier start times during the week.

Joe Goode Performance Group presents the world premiere of The Rambler at Yerba Buena, June 10-18.

Cutting Ball Theater continues its Risk Is This. . . . series of new play readings, with a “trip-hop” musical version of Ozma of Oz, by Rob Melrose and Dave L, on June 10-11 (I’ve been a big fan of the Oz books since childhood and Ozma of Oz is one of my favorites, but I have no idea what "trip-hop" is, and honestly it doesn't sound like something I'd like, so I guess that’s where the risk part comes in) and Tender Loin by Annie Elias on June 24-25. And on Sunday June 12 at 1:00 Cutting Ball presents the last of this season’s Hidden Classics readings, with Josef and Karel Capek’s The Insect Play. These readings are all free, but you may reserve a seat for Risk Is This. . . with a $20 donation (seats are also reserved for season pass holders).

If I were traveling this month, it would be to Philadelphia to hear Tamara Mumford and William Burden in the American premiere of Hans Werner Henze’s Phaedra at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, June 3-12 (I see they've added performances!), though there is also the temptation of the Boston Early Music Festival from June 12-19.

Haiku 2011/142

seagulls wheel and cry
stale bread tossed on the plaza
buses lumber past

21 May 2011

Haiku 2011/141

the waves slap and swirl
your toes sink deep in wet sand
seagulls wheel and cry

20 May 2011

Kay Ryan at City Arts & Lectures

The Monday before last I went to Herbst Theater to hear Kay Ryan, recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her latest collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems.

Sydney Goldstein, the founder of City Arts & Lectures, came out and said how thrilled she was to celebrate their 30th anniversary by presenting Kay Ryan, whom she had known back when they were both working at the College of Marin and trying to become other things. Ryan would be interviewed by Steven Winn (who did a good job of creating a conversation and not falling back on dully obvious questions), but before that she came out and read several of her poems, interspersed with comments and background.

She said she did this because her poems are so short, so she had to fill the time a bit, but that was one of her many jokes (she is a droll, deadpan delight, but I also guessed that she might be someone who frequently uses humor as a fence or shield as well as a way to connect) since her comments were consistently illuminating and often hilarious, except when they weren’t hilarious – she read one poem about loss, I think called Never, and her opening sounded like her other openings and there was some laughter and she looked up and said sharply, “That isn’t funny.” I think she felt a bit abashed about that because she joked later about trapping people into thinking she was always funny and then verbally slapping them. But she was right, it wasn't a comic poem and when you read her concentrated poems you need to be alert to nuance.

It is a definite quality of her poems that they seem wry and witty and satirical but then take a sharp turn at the end, ending up at a place that has been implicit all along even if you didn’t realize that’s where you were going, and sometimes the place is darker than others. She mentioned the concentration and effort it takes to weave all the threads of her poems together.

During the Q&A someone asked her if she had to write in longhand or could use a typewriter. Ryan pointed out that there really aren’t typewriters anymore; she used to use one, which she liked because the words were clear and there was plenty of space around them for movement and revision without losing them the way you do when you revise on the computer. So when computers came around she had to go backward technologically and I think now writes with pen and paper so she can keep what she’s written and rejected in case she decides to unreject it. Winn asked her if she read her poems out loud as she wrote them, since sound often guides her. She said that she tended to sound words in her head as she reads anyway, so in effect if not actuality she did that.

She also said she had a short attention span, was a bower-bird when it came to reading (being unable to get through long Russian novels but delighting in mystery stories because they brought her mind to a spacious empty place), and would be unable to write a poem in such traditional forms as the villanelle or the sestina (though she admired those who could write them, they just aren’t something she can do). She mentioned reading "a lot of dead poets." But her poems are actually perhaps even more complex than those using traditional forms, but in a different way – she doesn’t have the traditional structure of a villanelle or sestina to guide her, though she did say rhyme was useful to her in opening up directions she may not have thought of.

She now considers twelve poems a year a good output. She read some poems that might not ultimately make the cut with her, so we were getting what was more or less an exclusive. I like it when writers do that, and add comments to what they read; I don’t find straightforward readings all that interesting, since I already know how to read and if it’s just a matter of being read to there doesn’t seem to be much point, unless maybe you can get your book signed. But Ryan put on quite a show for us and also signed books afterward.

She read a poem that I think she was still working on, about speaking even when you don’t know what you’re going to say, which seemed to strike a chord with the audience, judging from the many mmmm’s of enlightenment in the crowd, but I don’t think it’s always such good advice – of course, I also had the impression that it was good advice for her, since Ryan had found it difficult to find her way to her vocation as a poet: she came from a very non-literary background and initially couldn’t even bring herself to say she wanted to be a poet, which sounded too high-falutin’; instead she thought of it as being a “writer.” She told a fascinating story about bicycling across America in 1976 (on the “bikecentennial” path, which I didn’t even know existed) and going through several states and feeling nothing and then reaching a strange euphoric state in I think the mountains of Colorado. She compared the state to “the peace that passeth understanding,” saying she finally understood the phrase, and she asked the universe if she should be a writer. She received a four-word answer: “Do you like it?”

About those mmmm's of enlightenment: Winn asked her if she liked laughter as a response, and she did, and then he said the little mmmm's of internal revelation were the sound he liked but she said they unnerved her. Since that sound/reaction has always bugged me ("look at me, everyone! I get it!") I found this endearing.

Ryans’ poems are brief and often comic but expand and deepen in the mind once you take them in. In this she reminds me of Wislawa Szymborska. Winn mentioned poets Ryan is frequently compared to; Szymborska was not one of them but inevitably Emily Dickinson was. Winn said he thought this had a lot to do with gender, which is no doubt true. Ryan joked that it was the clothing (she was wearing pants, tailored jacket, and shirt, all in dark shades, and not the Amherst poet’s white dress). Ryan dislikes the comparison because, as she accurately pointed out, there is no way you can win in a comparison with Dickinson, who is one of the two gods of American poetry (the other of course being Whitman).

In talking more about poets, Winn said wittily that “of all the poets since Robert Lowell, she is the least like Robert Lowell” which got a laugh and led to a discussion of confessional poetry. Ryan is not of that school but of course all poetry is confessional poetry; it’s difficult for me at least to read the “confessions” of Lowell, Plath, and Sexton and not be aware that they are actually carefully building aesthetic constructs out of their life-material – and appealing or intriguing as the construct might be, a large portion of its appeal for a large portion of whatever readership poetry has is simply prurient rather than sensuous or intellectual.

Ryan’s poems may seem more or less “objective” but are I find full of deeper emotion than more obvious sob stories about drunkenness, adultery, etc. She read one about hills that was almost shockingly sensual, and there are several profound elegies: the one I mentioned earlier, about realizing you would never see someone again, which I’m guessing was written after the death of her long-time partner, Carol Adair, and After Zeno, which she wrote after her father’s death, which is one of the earliest of her poems that she retains – she said she wrote that one and then it was years before she got back to that level again.

It seems that the default pronoun of choice in her poems (where traditionally one would put “he,” allegedly implying all humanity, and where a modern would probably put “he or she”) is always “she,” even in cases where historically the individual is most likely male, as in the poem about the cabalists. She talked about liking them because of their strange numerological way of reading. In general there seems a contrarian streak in Ryan, to such an extent that she felt she had to tell us she wasn’t purely guided by a need to be contrary. I think it’s just not accepting the standard unthinking way of thinking. She mentioned the drab hemp-and-whole-grain crunchy granola oil-separating peanut butter world of the 70s and how she liked instead the artificial and decorative and even the flamboyant. She read her delightful Flamingo poem and talked about how the second line contains the word “furbelows” (which she felt she had to define for us, saying she had probably read it in Clarissa, which made me chuckle internally just on general principle because that’s one of my favorite novels) to rhyme with “flamingo goes,” and the “goes” itself probably came from the last syllable of flamingo. That’s how rhyme and word sounds lead her into a poem.

Part of her contrarian thinking seems to be her distance from the standard “literary establishment,” with which she seems to have sort of a love/hate relationship. I wonder how or if that will change now that she is a Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner; fortunately for her equilibrium, poets are always outsiders in the larger America. It was her partner Carol who helped her organize her attempts to get published, making them more methodical and therefore less personal. There were many rejections, which they expected, hoping only for the occasional acceptance. She once paid I think $60 to attend a writer’s workshop run by Alice Quinn, the former Poetry Editor of the New Yorker, and ended up not going, even though she had spent the money and, as she put it, she’s very cheap.

She did once write Quinn saying that though Quinn didn’t like her work now, she would in several years. Quinn reminded her of this at a party several years ago and said it had been true. Ryan had forgotten it but was relieved it had turned out to be true because, as she said, you always feel like such a fool when you do something like that. And indeed we only hear of these stories when they have happy endings and I always wonder how many people have written such letters but nothing ever changes except that time passes.

Afterwards there was a book signing, which I always love. I had made sure to buy a hardback copy of her new collection several weeks earlier. As I suspected they would, they had only the recently published paperback for sale at the signing. Ryan dazzled me by pronouncing my last name correctly on first seeing it, which almost no one ever does (it rhymes with “jazz”). I was going to look up and possibly link to the poems I mention here, but instead just buy her book and have the pleasure of discovering them for yourself.

Haiku 2011/140

and undulant weeds
wrapping around your ankles
the waves slap and swirl

19 May 2011

the Little Mermaid dances

San Francisco Ballet closed out its season a fortnight ago with a week-long revival of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, based of course on the famous Hans Christian Andersen story. I bought a ticket for the Friday performance, mostly lured by the thought of hearing Lera Auerbach’s score. I had the impression that the show itself would probably be more of a splashy spectacle and fun pantomime than anything else. It turned out to be unsettling, moving, profoundly searching, and in general astonishingly good. I’m sorry I only got to see one of the casts. The forthcoming DVD is sure to be worth a look (before its DVD release I think it’s being shown on Great Performances, but KQED will no doubt bury it at some inconvenient hour so they may continue to deluge us with superannuated baby-boomer rockers and overblown popera schmaltz).

The major change from Andersen’s story is the introduction of an Andersen figure, The Poet (Pascal Molat). In a reflection of Andersen’s own complicated sexuality (I mean, everyone’s sexuality is complicated, but Andersen’s was a bit outside the normal range of complicated), the Poet is mourning the impending loss to marriage of his beloved friend Edvard (Pierre-Francois Vilanoba). Much of what we see, except for Edvard’s love for his Henriette (Vanessa Zahorian), is a projection of the Poet’s wishes and fantasies – though perhaps all of what we see is the Poet’s projection; it’s certainly possible that part of his strange melancholy make-up is an underlying desire to be rejected and misunderstood. And the Little Mermaid, the personification of his feelings for Edvard, is definitely an odd being, far from Disney’s cheerful Ariel but also far from Andersen’s delicate devoted maiden. She’s a strange little creature (I mean, everyone is strange, but she’s a bit outside the normal range of strange).

Even underwater she’s not quite like her sister mermaids. We see her floating, her tail waving in the waters. This is accomplished by a simple but ingenious method: three male dancers, dressed in black like the kuroko (one of several influences from traditional Japanese theater in the staging), lift her and arrange her flowing blue-green dress to form the tail, and then carry her so that she swims. After her deal with the Sea Witch (danced by Garen Scribner, in black trousers and low-cut red shirt, with a small skull as a belt buckle, his dead-white face painted like a kabuki demon’s in black and red streaks) she lets him have her tail in exchange for legs. It’s done very simply – she’s rolled among the Sea Witch’s minions, and as she rolls her long flowing skirt comes off – but the effect is terrifying, like watching a rape, and it leaves her almost unclothed, and exposed.

Her movements on land are oddly froglike. She is never quite comfortable there, and never quite fits in. She mopes after the Prince/Edvard, even at his wedding, and clearly is never going to manage to behave like the normal people. In fact it’s not surprising that the Prince sticks with his sunny lovely Princess, who he thinks saved him from drowning (though it was really the Little Mermaid), rather than switching to the strange suffocating love of this amphibious girl.

Perhaps because I had recently seen Pascal Molat dancing Petrouchka, I was frequently reminded of the lovelorn puppet. Lisa saw the same program and wondered if a woman had ever danced Petrouchka. In a way, that’s what the Little Mermaid is. Like Petrouchka, she’s not a normal human; she moves awkwardly, shoulders hunched, feet pointed out, arms awkwardly crossed in front of her. In one vivid and painful moment, she’s sitting on the ground, grief-stricken, and she radiates the pain of rejection, down to each of her toes, splayed out and held unnaturally.

The movement throughout, not just in individual small moments like that one but in groups (ranging from the difference between the Prince’s strange contorted first pas de deux with the Little Mermaid, as contrasted with his more conventionally ballet-pretty first pas de deux with the Princess, to a psychologically probing pas de quatre for Poet, Prince, Princess, and Mermaid, to such ensemble numbers as the sailors exercising on deck) reveals so much that I can see why the show is sometimes criticized as repetitive – when you see the Poet at the very beginning, hunched under his book, you instantly can tell so much about him that further display might seem redundant.

I didn’t find the show unnecessarily repetitive, for the ironic reason that I had been sick enough to skip the play I was supposed to attend the night before and to stay home all day Friday (I’m better now, thanks, but it took a while). So instead of feeling emptied after working all day and irritated at having to kill three hours after work before the show started, I was comparatively rested and less likely to feel that they just really needed to keep the story chugging along: instead, I felt, it’s a dance, so let them all go ahead and dance.

So I enjoyed the scenes that were, strictly speaking, perhaps a bit extraneous, and mostly just to show dance, like the raucous exercises of the sailors on deck (though there were several things going on there as well: the sailors were following the movements initiated by the Poet, so we could see that the unfolding story was under his direction; the angular athletic moves on land contrasted with the undulant movements in the underwater scenes; and the score wittily undercut with gentle satire the land-world the Mermaid longs to join, quoting the Brecht/Weill Army Song from the Threepenny Opera and even in passing the famous fate theme that opens Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).

Since I had first decided to go based on the score, I should mention that it was wonderful and wide-ranging. There was a large and interesting orchestra. Beforehand (I was in the front row, very far over to the right, though only once or twice could I briefly not see the action) I watched one of the percussionists carefully fill glasses with enough water to create the right glass-harmonica-like ethereal wailing when he rubbed their edges. He would test them, hit the tuning fork, and then adjust the amount of water. I was right in front of the percussion section. A couple of times a sudden blow on a big drum or a cymbal crush would make me jump a little.

At the end there is an apotheosis, one that reminded me of Swan Lake and Mark Morris’s Romeo and Juliet: the Poet has been in frockcoat and formal wear throughout, but now we see him half-naked, wearing loose white pants. (We've seen the bodies of the other male dancers before, but not the Poet's until this moment.) The Mermaid is also in a flowing white garment, as when she was first transformed. They are alone, dancing together in the white box that had earlier held them individually, but now their movements are no longer frenzied but gentle and harmonious and in rhythm with each other. The violins fade to a whisper as the lights dim and they keep dancing together as darkness falls and stars come out around them.

Afterwards an audience member, who had been several times, said to me that she felt very privileged to have seen the performance, and I knew exactly what she meant, and felt the same way. It was one of those lucky nights when the audience is perfection – you only noticed them when you occasionally realized you weren’t noticing them. After a couple of days of unpleasant heat the weather had cooled down with a pleasant breeze and when I reached the BART station I only had to wait three minutes for a train, and instead of the usual jampacked four-car train they run at that hour, there were nine cars and plenty of space and quiet. These things all contribute to the experience of the evening, though the main thing is seeing an absolute knockout of a show. And to top it all off, my hair, which is longer than usual, was – though I should not be the one to say this, but no one else is going to – swirling perfectly.

These are the magic nights that keep drawing us back to the theater.

Haiku 2011/139

future ocean floors
wait under waving grasses
and undulant weeds

18 May 2011

Haiku 2011/138

to the open sea
our crumbling shores lie waiting
future ocean floors

17 May 2011

Haiku 2011/137

and the clouds weeping
over the wet hills passing
to the open sea

16 May 2011

Haiku 2011/136

and the wind sighing
and the grasses bending low
and the clouds weeping

15 May 2011

Lindberg/Koh/Karttunen play Lindberg/Villa-Lobos/Schulhoff

I’ve had the new four-CD set of Magnus Lindberg’s orchestral music in heavy rotation recently, not only because I was going to hear Lindberg today but because I’ve just been loving his sound – when you hear Lindberg’s music, you know you’ve heard something.

I’d been looking forward to this concert ever since San Francisco Performances added it to their schedule. There's something particularly exciting and enticing about hearing composers play their own music. Lindberg on piano, joined by Jennifer Koh on violin and Anssi Karttunen on cello, playing in the San Francisco Conservatory’s small and comfortable concert hall, underneath a fabulously neoclassical ceiling: how could it get better than that?

Yeah, I’m just going to rave like that the rest of this entry. That may have been the fastest two hours I’ve spent this year – the time just flew by, and as I left I wished I had a recording so I could listen to it all over again, especially all the first-time music, of which there was plenty, starting with the first piece, Lindberg’s Sonatas for Violin and Piano, which is muscular but lyrical in the Lindberg way.

When Koh and Lindberg finished that piece, Karttunen came out to play the Mystery Variations on Giuseppe Colombi’s Chiacona, for solo cello. He explained that Colombi’s chaconne was one of the earliest pieces for solo cello, and for his birthday last September (he didn’t specify which birthday it was, but said it was one “some people found significant”) 32 of his composer friends (I’m pretty sure I have the number right – it was definitely over 30) had written variations inspired by the Colombi. He played the original piece and then five of the variations, by Edmund Campion (Birthday Greeting), Martin Matalon (Para Anssi), Roger Reynolds (Colombi Daydream), Pablo Ortiz (Paloma), and Magnus Lindberg (Duello). All of those were US premieres except for the Lindberg, which was a West Coast premiere. The trio had performed a similar concert in New York recently and I guess Karttunen chose a mostly different set of variations. The Campion and Matalon used eerie and almost ghostly sounds. The others were more flowing. I'd love to hear all the variations in one performance.

Before the Mystery Variations there was an entertaining little interlude: Karttunen announced that, just five minute before, a major event had occurred for himself and his fellow Finns. My first thought (“is there a war? a natural disaster? or maybe the Eurovision Song Contest?”) fortunately turned out to be incorrect: the Finnish team had just won an international hockey title. So Lindberg rushed out and the two Finns gave us a piano and cello version of what must have been the Finnish national anthem, because a large number of audience members stood. By the time I figured out that’s what was going on I thought it would be disruptive for me to stand, so – I didn’t. No disrespect was intended to either Finland or hockey. I give all Finns permission to sit out a performance of their choice of The Star-Spangled Banner.

After the Mystery Variations Koh came back out and joined Karttunen for Schulhoff’s tangy Duo for Violin and Cello. Schulhoff seems to be having a moment, since I had heard another piece by him recently, when SF Performances presented the Pavel Haas Quartet. The program book had notes on the Schulhoff and also on the first piece in the second half, 2 Choros for violin and cello by Villa-Lobos, but there was no particular reason given for choosing those pieces, except the implied one that the artists wanted to play them. Koh did explain that the Villa-Lobos was not, as the program had it, Choros No 2, but rather a two-part piece for violin and cello that the composer, “for some reason,” thought would be the perfect encore after his massive and varied Choros pieces.

After that Lindberg rejoined them for the final piece, his Trio for violin, cello, and piano. This was actually the first time all three were on stage at the same time. Lindberg was all in black, Koh was in a long sleeveless red dress, and Karttunen split the difference by wearing black pants and a red Chinese-style shirt. The trio was billed as a west coast premiere but was actually a world premiere, since Lindberg had revised the third movement after Tuesday’s performance in New York – in fact, he told us that what we were about to hear was “wet ink” since he had just finished the revision that morning. (I don’t know how heavily it was revised; I didn’t sense any particular uncertainty on the part of any of the players, but then I'm sure they could handle just about anything.)

He then went on to tell us that he had been occupied lately with big orchestral pieces, but there was also a separate current of chamber pieces, particularly for ones with piano. He felt adding a piano changed the available dramatic texture of chamber music. Such music had not been written much, he went on, in the second half of the twentieth century, but if you went back a hundred or a hundred and fifty years, it was more common, and he tried not to think of the “scary beauty” of piano and chamber ensemble pieces by Brahms and Schumann.

Lindberg is not only a fantastic performer, but he can actually talk about his own music in an interesting and illuminating way. He described his trio by saying that the first movement was like a whirlpool, with much going on and being pulled into it (the movement ends with swoony lyricism from the strings alongside the more strongly rhythmic piano – that part is my description, not his); the second was trying to be a slow movement, but kept breaking away; and the third was more toccata-like, more direct, without the meandering of the other two movements (though all three used the same materials). Then they played it, and that’s exactly how it sounded. Fantastic. Great afternoon.

Haiku 2011/135

lean against a tree
let the birds do the singing
and the wind sighing

14 May 2011

13 May 2011

Haiku 2011/132-133

(Blogger was down last night and this morning, so I'm posting yesterday's haiku along with today's.)

we walk through the sky
ahead of us always blue
horizons stretching


so far above us
all the way down to our feet
we walk through the sky

11 May 2011

10 May 2011

Haiku 2011/130

does the night agree
do the planets acquiesce
will the stars pitch in

09 May 2011

Haiku 2011/129

you think you're doing
what you need to be doing
does the night agree

08 May 2011

Haiku 2011/128

sprawling on a bench
sunning fat cat wonders what
you think you're doing

resurrection of the dead

I just got back from the San Francisco Symphony, where I heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct a vibrant and heartening performance of Mahler's Symphony No 2 in C minor (often known as the "Resurrection"). The clueless bitch two seats down from me spent, as far as I could tell, the entire performance playing with various electronic devices.

O Gustav: a giant weeping for pygmies.

07 May 2011

Haiku 2011/127

sweetly nodding off
scruffy junkie in the park
sprawling on a bench

06 May 2011

Anthony Dean Griffey sings the American south

Last Wednesday I went to Anthony Dean Griffey’s Herbst Theater recital, featuring songs related to the American South, which had been rescheduled from January. Perhaps due to the rescheduling there were a number of empty seats in the theater. I sat in the front row and had no one around me, which is frankly my ideal though it is no doubt disappointing to both the artists and the presenters, though I’m not sure what they really expect when they start shows in the middle of the week at 8:00 – you get the addicts like me, but I know a number of potential attendees who had to get up and work the next morning and therefore had just gone home after work. I mean, I too had to be at work early the next morning, and was suffering from a nasty cold besides, but as I said, I’m an addict, and addicts are hopeless.

The evening got off to a good start, with the sound of a fiddle offstage. Paul Brown entered playing, dressed all in black, followed by Griffey, also in formal concert attire, which was sometimes a bit incongruous during the folk songs. Nonetheless these songs are a great fit for Griffey; it would be easy to imagine that in a different time and place his sweet but strong tenor would become a mainstay of some small southern town’s social and religious life. The four songs in this set – Wayfaring Stranger, Little Birdie, Jack of Diamonds, and Cumberland Gap – seemed like the fountain of old-style country music, with their hope for a better life hereafter, their ache over lost love, their ironic celebration of destructive vices such as drinking and gambling, and their good-humored, brave approach to lives of relentless hardship.

Brown played the banjo as well as the fiddle for these songs, and then he left never to return, which was odd and disappointing, since I had enjoyed his contribution so much. The rest of the program was accompanied by Warren Jones on piano. Griffey announced that there was a change in the program; instead of the set of Griffes songs, he would sing a song by Leonard Bernstein (I don’t remember which one, other than that it had “simple” in the title; it’s not listed on the San Francisco Performances site) and some of Copland’s Traditional Songs – the Boatman’s Dance, the Dodger, and Simple Gifts. I was disappointed by this unexplained switch because I had never heard the Griffes’s songs and I’m not a particular fan of Bernstein and, at this point, would happily go a decade or two without having to hear those Copland songs again. I’m finding his Americana period less and less engaging. Griffey did a fine job with them. He’s a fairly bulky man but he moves easily and acted out the Boatman’s dance. Jones seemed at times overemphatic and at others (as at the end of Simple Gifts) to fade out in an odd way.

Griffey then left the stage and Jones spoke a bit about how much he enjoyed coming back to San Francisco, where he used to live. He sketched the life of Griffes, an American composer whose short life straddled the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as did his music, which Jones described as “both impressionistic and expressionistic,” which was an apt description of the attractive piece he played, the Barcarolle, Op 6 No 1.

The houselights came up after that, the backdoors were opened, and the audience started getting up for the intermission, but then the houselights went out again and after an odd few moments Griffey and Jones came back on stage, where they had to wait for everyone to reassemble and quiet down. Then they performed the two Barber songs that ended the first half, Sleep now and I hear an army.

Then we had the real intermission, during which I saw the Opera Tattler, resplendent in appropriate red, white, and blue. The second half was a new song cycle by Kenneth Frazelle, Songs in the Rear View Mirror. Frazelle, a native of North Carolina, was inspired by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the famous James Agee and Walker Evans collaboration, and by the photographs of William Christenberry, an Alabama native who would return year after year to photograph the same sites – an old green warehouse, evangelical signs – under their varying conditions. His photographs never include people, according to Frazelle, who spoke briefly as the second half opened. Frazelle was quite engaging and modest, but I found the ten-song cycle, despite some strong points, a bit unsatisfying.

Some of Christenberry’s memorable pictures (he was apparently one of the first to photograph the south in color, and he used it to striking effect) were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, but then for some songs we had nothing. The opening songs are mostly nostalgic and pastoral in feel. Frazelle, who took the precaution during his talk of making sure we knew what kudzu was, had already told us that song number 4 (called Kudzu), compared the voracious and invasive vine to a certain type of person. It was a funny song, which provided a nice variant in the cycle’s texture and feel, but I thought it went on a bit too long after its point was clear.

This was followed by the song I found most deeply touching, Unmarked Grave. I’ll just quote Frazelle's lyrics here in their entirety because they get to the point faster than my description would:

She made flowers out of egg cartons
Yellow, pink, and lavender Styrofoam she saved.
“Makes no difference who’s buried there,
Everybody deserves something on their graves.”

First we saw the photograph, a close-up of the flowers, bright and ingeniously made though a bit tacky, and then we were brought up short by their down-to-earth memorial purpose, which seemed to encompass both an almost primitive need to placate the dead and the most profoundly sophisticated honoring of all forgotten and dishonored human life.

I also liked Song 7, Road Signs, quite a bit, which alternated between the cries of a southern preacher, possibly on the car radio (“Oh, I believe in Jesus, do you?” – Griffey was completely convincing as the preacher as he fervently sang those repeated lines) and signs offering various foods (pickled pig’s feet, boiled peanuts, peaches) for sale at roadside stands. At the end of the song the accompanist is the one who demandingly turns to us and breaks his usual silence, with the final repetition of “I believe in Jesus – do you?” Any mention of southern religion is going to get a laugh from a certain type of audience, but I thought the song, which certainly had its comic side, was also powerful and unsettling in the manner of Flannery O'Connor.

OK, here’s where it all went off the rails for me. Song 8, In the night, is about child abuse. It seemed completely out of the blue (though reading the lyrics on the train ride home, I saw that there had been earlier mentions of an irresponsible father). Nabokov’s novel Lolita is usually considered the ultimate example of this sort of story, but Nabokov bravely explored the subject with a subtlety and irony not usually found in what have come to seem ritualistic tales of cruel fathers and their innocent victims.

I have no idea if this material is autobiographical, and the very fact that the audience inevitably wonders if the artist really is the victim of sexual abuse is one of my major objections to its use: its interest is basically prurient. It also is, as usually presented, and as presented here, completely undramatic yet coercive, since there’s really only one possible reaction – sympathy with the victims and loathing of those who abuse them. In fact it feels heartless even to discuss such a possibly autobiographical element in aesthetic terms (“yes, I’m sure your suffering is terrible, but honestly . . . it’s a bit hacky as well”), but the undoubted sincerity of all the artists involved doesn’t mean they’re exempt from being judged as artists (that is, in aesthetic terms, in the widest possible sense).

I don’t know why child abuse has become such a popular plot device in the past few years – hysterical compensation by a society that otherwise heedlessly sexualizes and exploits children? a pervasive fear and resentment of male sexuality? pace Freud, perhaps it really is something that happens frequently, only we can finally mention it out loud? the increasing substitution of melodramatic "human interest" for artistic values? maybe it’s just one of the memes of our time? – but my heart sinks whenever it appears. Yeah, I feel callous even describing it that way, but there it is. I’m sure this song was for some the emotional highpoint of the cycle, but I found it generic, despite the commitment of the performers and the attractions of the fluttery, mysterious music.

As an encore, Griffey sang This Little Light of Mine, which would have been the perfect end to what I thought the evening was going to be, an exploration of the music of the American south. If the evening wasn’t quite what I expected, well, neither is America.

Haiku 2011/126

afternoon beauty
sit apres le dejeuner
sweetly nodding off

05 May 2011

04 May 2011

03 May 2011

Haiku 2011/123

spiders spin their webs
enveloping soft gray silk
I envy the flies

02 May 2011

01 May 2011

Haiku 2011/121

unpoetic hours
unremarkable minutes
unnoticed seconds


Luckily for concert-goers looking to kill time, some museums have late hours Thursday, so I went back to SFMOMA for another look at the Eadward Muybridge exhibit before heading across the street to Yerba Buena for Lucinda Childs’s Dance.

I had been to the exhibit once before, a relatively quick lunchtime visit. Even more than in most photography exhibits there are lots of fairly small pictures (the famous motion studies), so repeated visits are helpful. There are plenty of other photos from earlier in his career, though, including some vast and remarkably crystalline panoramas of early San Francisco, which are of obvious historic and nostalgic interest to locals.

I was interested to see that Muybridge was one of those artists whose technological and aesthetic advances were linked to a fairly conservative, status quo outlook. Maybe that outlook is just an attempt on the part of a deeply weird man to stay connected to what he sees as normal society. Much of his earlier work was commercial, including some beautiful shots of Central America that were actually meant to entice investors. The labels by some of the motion studies point out that those of men tend to concentrate on manly activities (uh, OK, acts of normative masculinity) such as boxing and other aggressively athletic acts, though honestly I’m not sure what they expect given the aim of showing sequentially how certain actions take place: it would be pretty funny to do a motion study of a portly guy sitting at a desk with his office paperwork, but that’s only funny if you’ve already done the more obvious athletic activities.

At the end of the exhibit we see how Muybridge himself was one of those moving towards the invention of motion pictures, which are probably the central art form of the twentieth century. The show included a short film strip recently put together from some of the motion studies, mostly of animals. I think it was while once again watching Intolerance several years ago that a passing close-up of some chickens moved me deeply with the thought that those chickens were long dead. I mean, all the people involved were also long dead (with the possible exception at that time of Lillian Gish), but this feeling always strikes me more strongly when I see old films of animals, perhaps because the animals are just filmed by fugitive chance and people are more usually intentionally filmed.

I had been thinking a lot about repetition and routine anyway, partly because I was re-reading some Gertrude Stein and partly because I was feeling particularly trapped in my own exhausting routines, when even things that are supposed to be fun seem compulsive and joyless. So much of life is just maintenance. It’s day after day, and your repetitions make a personality and that makes a life.

Muybridge always reminds me of Philip Glass, though for a much more mundane reason than a similarity in their work (the repetition with slight variations of a small unit so that it seems the same but ends up very different): Glass wrote a stagework about Muybridge, The Photographer, which I had seen long ago in Boston, and that CD was one of the first two I bought (the other was Handel’s Solomon, in a then-new recording by John Eliot Gardiner). Muybridge had shot and killed his wife’s lover and was acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide, right around the time he did his motion studies, and that is the subject of The Photographer. I can still hear the high chorus singing “a gentleman’s honor.”

On to a more recent show. I headed over to Yerba Buena for Dance, a collaboration among Glass (music), Lucinda Childs (choreography), and Sol LeWitt (film). Dance is a revival of a 1979 piece, which is repeatedly described as a groundbreaking and seminal masterpiece of minimalism; I can’t say I know enough about the dance scene in late 1970s New York to judge that, but it’s a stunning work still.

Gertrude Stein in Paris in the 1920s is one of those fervent, febrile, magical scenes that a certain type of aesthetically inclined person daydreams of. Yet I always wonder what I would have noticed or felt if I had been there – among day-to-day survival efforts, would I have appreciated or even noticed that I happened to be in the place to be? New York in the 1970s seems to be turning into one of those scenes. At the time (I was in my native California and in college) New York mostly had the reputation of a dirty, dangerous, and very expensive place to live. And now I see more and more memoirs about what was going on there then that make it all seem so exciting and glamorous and youthful.

Dance is made up of three sections, each about twenty minutes long. The music is instantly recognizable as Philip Glass. The second piece, which features a solo for a woman dancer (originally Childs herself), had a more solemn tone and the third had kind of a honky-tonk undercurrent. LeWitt’s film is of the dance itself, and is coordinated with the live performers. Sometimes we get a different angle (say, looking downward) on the dance, sometimes we get close-ups of the dancers, sometimes we get split screens. None of it seems overly busy or distracted, however: generally we see the ghost dancers moving in rhythm with the live performers. Since this production uses the original film, there is the added poignancy of seeing the past recaptured and brought back to life, imposed like the memory of a previous performance on what we’re seeing.

The movement, like the music, tends to be deceptively simple, and you have to pay attention and notice the small variations, though it's easy to fall into an almost otherworldly trancelike state, as the dancers often whirl like the dervishes who induce meditative ecstasy with their twirling. Dancers move across the stage by themselves in a straight line. They twirl. They extend both arms sideways from their shoulders, usually with one slightly higher than the other, the way children would if you told them to dance. The costumes are very basic white pants and leotard tops for both men and women, so that depending on how far back you are you can’t always tell immediately which is which.

Having been around in the 1970s, I think I was surprised that something so elegant came from that era. Movie, music, and movement all have a clarity that reminded me of Mozart. As the almost generic title suggests, Dance is stripped down. You can sit there bored that you’re watching what seems to be the same thing over and over or you can pay close attention and start noticing how different it all is.

Afterwards there was a talk with Lucinda Childs, who came out to take a bow. She must be around 70 now but is still recognizably the elegant dancer we saw in the film. It was getting late enough so that I reluctantly decided I should skip the talk, since I had to get up and go to work the next day.

Since he was here in association with this revival, yesterday afternoon Philip Glass gave a solo recital, presented like Dance at Yerba Buena by San Francisco Performances. Before each piece he went to the microphone and introduced it briefly, in a low-key and often humorous way. He was dressed entirely in black, except for a thin cloth bracelet of bright red around his left wrist. Once I noticed the bracelet, I also noted that the piano stool had two thin bands of the same shade of red around the seat cushion. And then I noticed that the microphone he used when he spoke had a band of a similar shade of red around it. This was probably just a coincidence but was visually striking in a minimalist way.

He sat at the Steinway, slightly hunched over and completely absorbed. He is not a histrionic player. His sound is clear, liquid and sparkling. There was only the briefest of pauses between pieces in a group, but you could always tell when he was starting a new piece (in other words, contrary to what some believe, all music by Philip Glass does not sound alike). The pieces ranged over several decades: Six Etudes (1994-1999), Mad Rush (1980), Metamorphoses Nos. 2, 3, 4 (1989), Dreaming Awake (2006), and the Wichita Vortex Sutra (1990).

He mentioned that several of the pieces “had been blessed” by being used for dances by Lucinda Childs and Molissa Fenley. He was very generous in his remarks about all his collaborators. He told us that he used to perform Wichita Vortex Sutra with Allen Ginsberg, but after Ginsberg’s death in 1997, he didn’t play the piece for about ten years. Then he realized that Ginsberg, who couldn’t always perform in person, had made a recording for him to use, and that he could still use that, so he started performing the piece again. He does sometimes perform the piece with other speakers (“Patti Smith or my cousin Ira”), but, just as LeWitt’s film brought back the Dance of the 1970s, we had the recorded voice of Ginsberg reciting his great anti-war poem, Wichita Vortex Sutra, to Glass's beautifully hymnlike, meditative music. It's always special to hear a composer perform his own music.

The encore was actually two pieces (I didn't catch their names and SFP hasn't listed them on its site yet) which were written about ten years apart but which, he eventually realized, coincided in key and mood, so that he performs them together since they are coincident even though there was ten years between composition . He self-deprecatingly noted that some people say they can’t tell when one piece ends and the other begins, but he “thinks they’re just drifting off.”