30 September 2011

Haiku 2011/273

three birds scratch for worms
a twig, snapping suddenly
three birds fly away

29 September 2011

Haiku 2011/272

one bird in the sky
two birds sing in the forest
three birds scratch for worms

28 September 2011

Haiku 2011/271

silence in the trees
a long horizon shimmers
one bird in the sky

27 September 2011

Haiku 2011/270

silence in the trees
leaves rustle -- the breeze? a bird?
silence in the trees

26 September 2011

Haiku 2011/269

old nests lie brittle
empty except for the shade
silence in the trees

25 September 2011

Dutch & Flemish Masterworks & Mourners Redux

I think my intense focus on the Stein collection at SFMOMA was the reason it took me a while to realize there were a couple of fantastic exhibits up at the Legion of Honor: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection and The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Court of Burgundy (I had also seen the Mourners in Minneapolis last spring). It's a lengthy trip by BART and bus from my house to the Legion of Honor, way up on the tip of something on the San Francisco peninsula; and whether you take the 38 Geary or the 1 California your bus ride is pretty much guaranteed to be long and grueling. Stepping off the bus and walking up the usually mist-shrouded hill that leads to the museum is like stepping into another dimension of an alternate world, which is really fortunate if you have much experience of either the 38 Geary or the 1 California.

It had been foggy in the East Bay but I was kind of surprised that the fog was heavy enough around the Legion so that the occasional fat heavy water drop splashed on me as I walked under the trees. I think the wetness and the cool silver-gray tones set the stage quite well for the Dutch paintings, many of which feature olive-silvery seascapes or winter landscapes that might look bleak except for the apricot-pinkish blush in the back of the sky and the little touches of dark red in various scarves and jackets and brick buildings in the front.

The van Otterloos have put together a really stunning collection, with beautiful examples of the major genres (including seascapes, still lifes, flowers, portraits, landscapes, anecdotal, and historical/allegorical pictures) and artists (up to and including Frans Hals and Rembrandt, who are both represented by mesmerizing portraits) of the Dutch seventeenth-century "Golden Age." As in the Frick Collection, it's all of recognizably high quality, even if it's a genre you don't particularly care for: Frick liked the marzipan nudes of the French rococco much more than I do; in this collection, the only thing I didn't really like was the anecdotal painting showing a cheerful chubby girl in a tavern holding her finger to her lips to us, requesting our complicit silence over the centuries, as she picks the pocket of a sleeping traveler.

I always wonder how the sturdy Dutch bourgeoisie reacted to such scenes: did they take them as warnings of what could happen when you fell into the wrong hands through carelessness or drunkenness (just as warnings of death and decay are built into their early still lifes, which can look to us merely like sumptuous display), or did they resist bourgeois propriety by feeling amused and delighted at the trick the servant girl is playing? I always imagine myself as the victim of such mischief, which is why I can admire the composition and line and color and find the subject matter not only a bit kitschy but sort of hypocritical -- anyone who had such a painting would be in the social position of the traveler being robbed, not the servant girl.

Nonetheless I saw a chubby cheerful woman chuckling in front of the picture. She looked as if she might have been the sister of the thieving maidservant, though no doubt she was more respectable. I do wonder if she genuinely found the picture funny enough to make her laugh out loud. Who knows.

Speaking of the income of the likely buyers of these original paintings, one placard did inform us that pictures showing vases of extravagant flowers were popular because they were less expensive and longer-lasting than cut flowers, which reminded me of those foods that are staples for the poor that become scarce and turn into luxury items. I have the impression (maybe I need to revisit that Simon Schama book) that ordinary middle-class people of the time could afford to buy paintings. Too bad our republic isn't more like theirs.

I couldn't take photographs since it was a special exhibit, and as usual most of the postcards available were not of the pictures I wanted, except for the Winter Landscape near a Village by Hendrick Avercamp, which reminded me of some of Pieter Brueghel's winter scenes. There was a particularly beautiful still life featuring oysters and candied fruit, and a delightful scene of animals charmed by the singing of Orpheus, which featured two magnificent leopards in the foreground and the splash of a brilliant red macaw back in the trees; amusingly, the domestic animals -- cats, dogs, chickens -- were closest to Orpheus, and the wilder animals, perhaps through force of wary habit, were dotted through the rest of the landscape.

This is a really wonderful show, and well worth the effort to get to the Legion of Honor. It was very generous of the van Otterloos to share their collection with the rest of us; if I had these beauties hanging on my walls, I don't know if I'd expose them to the jabbing fingers of the public. Seriously, what is wrong with people? Why do they have the need to stick their grubby fingers right up to the paintings? Of course if the guards say anything it would only encourage these clueless and entitled (maybe those are the same thing) people to continue, due to the basic immaturity of people, which maybe answers my earlier question about the appeal of the anecdotal paintings.

Anyway, sadly for us this show closes on October 2. Catch it if you can.

You do, however, have through the end of the year to view the Burgundian statues, the 37 perpetual mourners currently touring the world while their usual home, the tomb of John the Fearless, second Duke of Burgundy, is being restored.

In Minneapolis the statues were displayed in a long double file down the middle of a long hall featuring medieval art; here they are put in two rooms, with some of the mourners clustered together in the center of the room and some individual ones in vitrines in different corners. The rooms are painted a very deep blue, which shows off the alabaster nicely. Both methods of display are effective; one gives you a sense of the whole processional and the other maybe allows for the statues to stand out more as individuals.

The statues are done with such sculptural mastery and display such psychological penetration that it's easy almost to take them for granted, as if such perfection were merely natural and not the result of rare artistry.

Haiku 2011/268

hungry hatchlings feed
then fly away to forage
old nests lie brittle

24 September 2011

Mahler 3 at SFS

I have some churlish and generic complaints* about my experience at the San Francisco Symphony last Thursday, but none about their performance of the Mahler 3, which I found strange and marvelous. It was one of those performances that crystallize a piece; you may have heard it several times before, but there’s that one performance, usually live, where it all suddenly makes sense and you see the contours of a whole country laid out before you.

One particular part that really came together for me was a long horn solo played absolutely flawlessly by principal trumpet Mark Inouye, a long gleaming stretch made wistful and melancholy by its nobility and isolation, creating a sunset valley through the low murmur of the strings. That was one moment among many; I’ve occasionally felt bludgeoned by Tilson Thomas’s Mahler, but not this time. The loud impressive parts were loud and impressive, but also impressive were the diaphanous tootling and the scattered forest sounds and the distant marches and the sublime cry of mezzo Katarina Karneus (accompanied by the women of the SF Symphony Chorus and by the San Francisco Girls Chorus, who lent to my ears a bright and appropriate tinge of gentle mockery to the song of the rejoicing angels from Das Knaben Wunderhorn).

I don’t remember offhand if I have heard the piece live before (it was last performed by the SF Symphony in 2002; that is the version that was recorded and released along with the Kindertotenlieder). I have heard recordings more often that I thought; I would have guessed I had two or three, mostly in Mahler sets. It turns out I have at least eight. I really need to do something about the CD collection. I was pulling out recordings to check the timings. The program said the symphony would last approximately ninety-two minutes, but the performance lasted approximately thirty minutes longer than that. In case you’re wondering, none of the recordings, including the SF Symphony’s 2002 release, was as long as Thursday night’s performance; the only ones that even came close were still ten to fifteen minutes faster. Yet the tempo always felt right; it never felt as if the music was being taffy-pulled to ponderous effect, or stretched too thin for vitality.

As in some of Wagner’s operas where the exhaustion of physical endurance is part of the experience (for better or worse, for different listeners; some find themselves engaging with the music because of the physical pressures of sitting still and attentively for so long, and some despite those pressures, and some of course can just sit longer than others), the nearly two-hour performance did tax my ability to sit in the cramped seats of Davies Hall; the final slow music majestically unfurled its golden length before slowly ascending up and out, and my spirit was going with it but my aching legs and butt were holding me firmly on earth. It’s a small enough price to pay when you realize you’re hearing something astonishing.

When it was over the audience erupted in an enthusiastic ovation, which felt both entirely deserved and like an unneeded intrusion into the vibrant vibrating world that had just been summoned up before us.

* Churlish and generic complaints: It is absurd (from the standpoint of most working people) to begin a weeknight performance at 8:00; if there are only two people playing constantly with their programs for the length of the program in the entire front section (and there were), why do they always have to be right next to me; I don’t understand why the Symphony never uses surtitles for sung text (if they did that and killed the house lights, maybe the program-rustlers would have to find some other way to entertain themselves).

Haiku 2011/267

flashing bloody beak
silver and pink flesh-gobbets
hungry hatchlings feed

23 September 2011

Haiku 2011/266

a gull cries for fish
mock tears as he tears bellies
flashing bloody beak

22 September 2011

Haiku 2011/265

salt-tang air above
foaming jade-green sea below
a gull cries for fish

21 September 2011

Haiku 2011/264

cradled by waters
tiny dainty tidepool crabs
salt-tang air above

20 September 2011

random previews: San Francisco Performances

San Francisco Performances has a dazzling series of performers coming up, even by their own high standards of dazzlement (these are the people that brought us the Pacifica Quartet in the complete Elliott Carter quartets, twice!; both times are among my favorite concerts ever). It was kind of difficult to decide what to get, since looking at season announcements is like going to a vast and sumptuous buffet while you're starving; no matter how hungry you are, you'll wind up with too much on your plate. So I was trying to avoid overbooking/overspending. For example, usually I get the Young Masters series, but I decided my subscription was getting out of hand, so I held off on that and got the following:

The Vocal Series was for me the clear first choice, as it features Stephanie Blythe (13 October), Simon Keenlyside (27 October), Karita Mattila (6 December – St Nicholas Day!), Dawn Upshaw (28 January 2012), and Matthias Goerne (23 April – Shakespeare’s birthday!), in addition to Christopher Maltman (19 January 2012), rescheduled from last year. I hope he’s doing the Venice-themed program he was supposed to do last spring, as I was really looking forward to it. He lost his voice at the last minute and was unable to perform, and instead of staying for the proffered conversation between SFP President Ruth Felt and Maltman’s accompanist Malcolm Martineau (who’s back with him, as well as with Keenlyside, this season) I decided to head over to Davies to try for a rush ticket to the Bach B Minor Mass, only to find that the line for that was out the door and it was almost 8:00 and I figured I had better just go home through the fog and write off the evening. Actually, my last scheduled event for SFP last season, Kate Royal’s recital, was also cancelled at the last minute due to illness; shortly thereafter I received in the mail a copy of Royal’s latest CD, A Lesson in Love, as an apology gift provided by Kate Royal and EMI. Very nice touch!

The hazards of concert-going! Anyway, yeah, definitely the Vocal Series.

I also got the Chamber Series: the Brentano String Quartet (4 December) with an interesting program in which five contemporary composers (Gubaidulina, Harbison, Iyer, Adolphe, and Hartke) complete (or respond to) unfinished works (by, respectively, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Shostakovich); the Arditti Quartet (12 April 2012), playing Beethoven, Berg, Ades, and Bartok; the Ebene Quartet (8 March 2012) playing Mozart, Borodin, and Ravel; and the Alexander String Quartet (4 February 2012), in a special thirtieth anniversary concert featuring works by Debussy and a new quintet by Jake Heggie (Camille Claudel: Into the Fire), featuring Joyce DiDonato, with Heggie himself on piano.

I also ended up getting the piano series, with Marc-Andre Hamelin playing Berg, Liszt, and some of his own Etudes (2 November); Alexander Melnikov, playing the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues (12 November); Christian Zacharias, playing works by CPE Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert (9 December); Leif Ove Andsnes, playing Chopin and Debussy (9 February 2012); and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, playing Debussy, Schumann, and Kurtag (27 March 2012).

I added in some one-off performances: Ute Lemper and the Vogler Quartet, playing classical/cabaret from 1920s Europe (31 March 2012); and an evening of Lera Auerbach’s music (14 March 2012), featuring Auerbach herself on piano, soprano Lina Tetriani, and cellist Alisa Weilerstein (just announced today as a new MacArthur Fellow; congratulation!).

Tickets and up-to-date information for these and their other offerings can be found here.

Haiku 2011/263

drifting endlessly
rocked gently by ocean waves
cradled by waters

19 September 2011

random previews: symphonic

As you may have heard by now, this is the centennial season of the San Francisco Symphony, and as you have probably also heard, they are unleashing an Avalanche of Awesome this year – every week a highlight! Since the full schedule was announced last spring various friends have been wondering how to keep up, and keep from bankrupting themselves this year. Well, good luck with that, that’s all I can say.

I think I was initially sort of overwhelmed by the announcement – the Symphony has what you might call a baseball season, as opposed to the football season of the Opera, so it takes a longer time for it all to sink in, especially since the most appealing and intriguing items are often tucked away between more popular (or so the marketers hope) pieces. So there’s a huge lot of fragmented information to take in, which might be why my brain seized on the Mahler 3, and I kept thinking, I just have to make sure I get to the Mahler 3. No particular reason, it was simply the drifting log I grabbed on to in the swirling vast ocean.

So: the Mahler 3 (21-25 September) is among the tickets I already have, along with:

James Conlon conducting the Verdi Requiem, with Sondra Radvanovsky, Dolora Zajick, Frank Lopardo, and Ain Anger, 19-22 October;

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting a world premiere by Sofia Gubaidulina and also the Brahms Requiem with Jane Archibald and Kyle Ketelsen, 17-20 November;

Tilson Thomas conducting Janacek’s Sinfonietta and Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastien, with Karina Gauvin, Sasha Cooke, Leah Wool, and Frederica von Stade narrating, 12-14 January 2012;

Charles Dutoit conducting Stravinsky’s Le Chant du rossignol, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Arabella Steinbacher, 1-3 March 2012;

and Tilson Thomas conducting Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and the Beethoven 9th, which closes the season 27-30 June 2012.

Some other especially enticing possibilities (Tilson Thomas conducting unless otherwise noted): the west coast premiere of Thomas Ades’s Polaris, along with Mozart’s Haffner and Stravinsky’s Petrushka (29 September – 1 October); Alan Gilbert leading violin soloist Renaud Capucon in Dutilleux’s L’Arbre des songes, along with the Beethoven 8 and the Haydn 99 (27-29 October); Esa-Pekka Salonen leading violin soloist Leila Josefowicz in his own violin concerto, along with Pohjola’s Daughter by Sibelius and Christine Brewer in excerpts from Wagner’s Ring (8-10 December); Christian Tetzlaff in the Ligeti Violin Concerto, along with Liszt’s Prometheus and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 1, Winter Daydreams (6-8 January); and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, with Michelle DeYoung and Alan Held, along with Jeremy Denk in the Liszt Piano Concerto No 1. (Further information and tickets are available on the Symphony's website here in case you missed it above.)

There’s also an American Mavericks series in March 2012, with some amazing programs, including pianist Jeremy Denk and vocalists Jessye Norman, Meredith Monk, and Joan La Barbara in works by Foss, Cowell, and Cage; and world premieres from Mason Bates and John Adams (details here).

And I haven’t even mentioned the visiting orchestra series, featuring two programs each (many featuring music they have commissioned) from the Los Angeles Philharmonic , the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra (details here).

That’s all kind of overwhelming (as well as all kinds of overwhelming), and I’m not sure how any of us who actually have to go work are going to keep up. But even all that isn’t the only game in town:

Cal Performances is also hosting several orchestras (details here), and the Berkeley Symphony has an appealing line-up (the one that’s jumping out at me features Sarah Cahill in the Lou Harrison Piano Concerto, which I love; that’s on December 8, and the rest of the schedule can be found here); the Oakland East Bay Symphony schedule is here; and last but certainly not least the very fine New Century Chamber Orchestra has an excellent line-up (details here), including a world premiere from this season's featured composer, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

Haiku 2011/262

over frantic seas
a puffy pale cloud, serene
drifting endlessly

18 September 2011

Haiku 2011/261

rest was somewhere else
ride upon shivering winds
over frantic seas

Dido dances

The Cal Performances season opened this week with the annual visit of the Mark Morris Dance Group, in a revival of Morris’s 1989 classic, Dido and Aeneas. Philharmonia Baroque played Purcell’s music. I was at last night's performance.

I have seen Dido several times, but only when Morris was still dancing Dido/the Sorceress; sometimes it is part of a double-bill and sometimes it’s on its own. Both methods work; it certainly is a rich enough hour on its own, but it worked strangely well coupled with the company’s shortened version of 4 Saints in 3 Acts (though I think they did 4 Saints first; I would have reversed the order, so that you had earthly suffering followed by heavenly joy). The first time I saw Dido it was a stand-alone and it must have been shortly after the Belgian premiere.

I think the most recent time was also a season opener for Cal Performances. I saw it twice in that run, and it was fascinating to see how Morris adjusted his performance for the second night – the first night there had been a pre-performance party for donors and maybe people had too much wine, since there was some laughter at what were seen as Morris’s more flamboyant gestures (I liked having a man dancing Dido and the Sorceress because of the link to ancient Greek tragic theater, but I am relentlessly aesthetic and high-minded and there’s always the danger some people are going to assume it’s meant purely as camp, if you can describe camp as "pure"). The next night, all the gestures that evoked laughter were made sharper and more angular and there was no laughter.

Morris has transitioned to conductor of the piece, shaping an alert and well-paced performance from Philharmonia Baroque (though for some reason the pauses between scenes struck me as held just a bit too long; as always, though, I can’t rule out that I was just being weird). The piece survives and triumphes with its second generation of dancers. Domingo Estrada Jr was a virile and sensitive Aeneas, expressing both a lover’s suffering at abandoning Dido and a leader’s recognition that he must move on with his troops (it’s quite an achievement, particularly in this short and Dido-centered opera, to make Aeneas this sympathetic; we are empire-dwellers but like to pretend that love is the obvious choice over duty).

Amber Star Merkens was a perfect choice to take over Morris’s role; in fact she somewhat resembles the younger Morris (particularly in her flowing tangle of dark curls, which she ties back for Dido and loosens for the Sorceress, just as Morris did), though I think she’s taller, leaner, and more sinewy. (Maile Okamura was nicely contrasted as a daintier, sympathetic Belinda.) Merkens makes little gestures count for a lot, as in her final confrontation with Aeneas, as the tender slight movement of her hand (to “by all that’s good”) gives way to the injured dignity of “it’s enough that once you thought of leaving me.” Her Dido is regal and moving. Her Sorceress is cynical and nihilistic and amused. She’s dazzling in both roles.

Stephanie Blythe certainly provided the vocal equivalent, with a beautiful, hall-filling voice, so expressively used, particularly in the suicide aria at the end, when Blythe and Merkens together indelibly expressed Dido’s sorrow and dignity and beauty. Philip Cutlip was distinguished as Aeneas, but had a few slight vocal bobbles. The other soloists (Yulia Van Doren as Belinda, and the First Witch Celine Ricci as the Second Woman and the Second Witch, and Brian Thorsett as the Sailor) were all strong. The chorus was very good and actually enunciated more clearly than some of the soloists (of course, I was sitting right in front of them, my view of the stage slightly blocked by the rising curl of the cello; such are the hazards of preferring the front row).

When Dido and Aeneas touch, it is briefly, and often at a distance from each other (arms extended, space between). The Sorceress is isolated, even from her attendants (Noah Vinson and Dallas McMurray), except for one moment, when she reaches the climax of her evil plan to destroy Dido, and they jump up on her, one on either side, and balance for a moment of glee. Usually she disdains even them, and is clearly and amusingly bored by their baroque repetitions and repulsed when they or any of her attendants come too close to her. We see Dido and Aeneas make love, but we see the Sorceress masturbate alone while her attendants scamper behind her; afterwards she wipes her finger with a bored “well, that’s over” expression. It's profoundly moving to see royal Dido's suicide brought about by this solitary hater of human joy, and a rich connection to have one dancer play both parts.

The setting is stripped down, with a vague blue and gray map of the Mediterranean glowing palely as backdrop to the Carthage scenes, reminding us that Aeneas has to go off and found Rome, and with black banners streaming down for the Sorceress. The dancers' movements are frieze-like and angular and often resemble classical Greek vase paintings. Even many of the movements in a line proceed at an angle. But then there are odd jittery moments thrown in, or little crude jokes, reminding us that more is going on here than an attempt to recreate the vanished (and partly unknowable) style of the Greek tragedies.

The gender ambiguity continues, with the corps, both men and women, portraying female attendants, male sailors, and in-between witches. (The Sailor’s solo is jauntily danced by Lauren Grant.) They do this by switching their black skirts to black pantaloons (I don't know if they just hitch them up or whip them off; their tank tops are always black). Some of the men have slightly crimsoned lips and gold hoop earrings. Dido has glittery silver nails and Aeneas’s nails are black.

At the end the stage slowly darkens as the attendants slip off in pairs through the curtain center stage, behind the dead queen prone on the bench facing us, her head bowed down towards us and arms extended out on either side. Belinda remains and takes a seat on the right side of the bench near her dead sister, and bows her head as the stage reaches almost total darkness.

17 September 2011

random previews: Cal Performances

It’s a little difficult to choose highlights from the upcoming season of Cal Performances, especially given the very wide range of what they offer. I should probably just wait until my monthly previews. But, clearly, I’m not waiting. . . . I did keep my subscription to a minimum number of events this year, since I’m in one of my occasional moods of trying to be realistic about time and money. That usually lasts until reality gets too depressing for me, which of course doesn’t take long – if I were really fond of unfiltered reality, I wouldn’t go to the theater as much as I do – and I start overbooking again. One advantage of a subscription (for me, anyway) is that if I have the ticket in advance, I will go. If I wait until the week or day of a performance, I’m usually too busy or too tired for a night out to sound good. I have long acknowledged that I am not exactly Mr Spontaneous Last-Minute Fun. (On the other hand, sometimes I load up on tickets months ahead of time and then wonder what I was thinking when I’m faced with five or six events plus work in a week.)

OK, so I did subscribe to the vocal recital series, which is not its official name, but that’s what it is. (The official name is Koret Recital Series C.) That’s Eric Owens on November 20, Susan Graham on January 14, Wolfgang Holzmair on March 4, and Sandrine Piau on April 29. Holzmair is singing Winterreise. The other programs are still only vaguely suggested in the program book (and of course all programs are always subject to change. . . ). I figure this is a case where most people are going to hear the singer rather than the song, anyway. The website might have more up-to-date information, but my computer is too slow for me to check right now. In fact, I’m just going to link to the general website here (in case you missed it above) rather than link for each individual event. It’s very easy to find tickets by date on their site, and they show you all available seats so it’s easy to buy tickets on-line.

I also bought a ticket for countertenor Phillippe Jaroussky with Apollo’s Fire on October 30.
And there’s the annual visit from the Mark Morris Dance Group, this time with Philharmonia Baroque in a revival of Dido and Aeneas. Usually MMDG has more than one program at Cal; I’m not sure why this year only has Dido, but I’m up for whatever MMDG wants to do, and will be there tonight.

Leafing through the brochure, here’s what else leaps out at me right now:

This year’s resident orchestra is the Mariinsky, with Valery Gergiev conducting all six Tchaikovsky symphonies in three concerts, October 14-16;

The Trey McIntyre Project – that’s dance – is November 18 and the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch is on December 2-3;

Gate Theatre of Dublin presents two works by Samuel Beckett, Endgame and Watt (described as “texts from the novel selected by Barry McGovern”), November 17 for both, November 18, 19, and 20 (matinee) for Endgame and November 19 (matinee) and 20 for Watt;

Peter Serkin performs Schoenberg and Beethoven on May 8;

"The Desdemona Project," put together by Toni Morrison, Peter Sellars, and Rokia Traore, is October 26-29; OK, not sure about this expansion of Desdemona’s passing mention of her African maid (the one who taught her the Willow Song) – I heard “Toni Morrison” and “Shakespeare” and was sold, but then at Cal P’s season announcement last spring, to which they kindly invited me, we heard Sellars talk about the work (via Skype, from Vienna, where he had just finished the first rehearsal of the work), and . . . well, sometimes artists shouldn’t talk about their work. He announced that he hated the play Othello, whose message (according to him) was that interracial marriages don’t work . . . look, no need to belabor it, but even given his role as twinkly provocateur, his discussion of Othello was so simple-minded and condescending that I could feel my interest in “the Desdemona project” draining away with every syllable. So I’m putting this here in honor of my original interest, which might perhaps revive;

Davitt Moroney leads His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts in Polychoral Splendors of Renaissance Florence on February 3 and 4, featuring Striggio’s Missa sopra Ecco si beato giorno, the largest known contrapuntal choral work in the Western tradition;

Dianne Reeves sings jazz on May 4;

The Kronos Quartet presents a Steve Reich evening, including the Bay Area premiere of WTC 9/11, on October 9.

Those are things that jump out at me from the season brochure. There were some concerts added since that went to press, mostly of enticing new music:

The Calder Quartet, joined by Thomas Ades, perform works by Stravinsky, Liszt, and Ades himself;

The Eco Ensemble has three exciting programs of new music, on January 21, February 11, and March 24.

If you want a (crowded but free) sampler of what Cal Performances does, their annual “Free for All” is Sunday September 25 from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm. You can find a schedule here.

Haiku 2011/260

though night had fallen
city lights hid the faint stars
rest was somewhere else

16 September 2011

Haiku 2011/259

off I went to bed
next door children kept playing
though night had fallen

15 September 2011

Haiku 2011/258

seek as you wander
-- so said my fortune cookie
off I went to bed

14 September 2011

heart of darkness

Last night I was at the second performance of San Francisco Opera’s Heart of a Soldier, with music by Christopher Theofanidis and libretto by Donna Di Novelli, directed by Francesca Zambello (all under the auspices of SF Opera General Director David Gockley). This is the “9/11” opera, based on the book Heart of a Soldier by James B. Stewart and the life stories of Susan Rescorla, Daniel J. Hill, and, especially, Rick Rescorla, a former soldier who worked in security at the World Trade Center and died while rescuing many of those inside the South Tower. I had read a shortened version of this story in The New Yorker several years ago and found it quite moving.

As in The Story of a Real Man, Prokofiev’s desperate last operatic effort to win Stalin’s approval, this opera uses the story of an actual person whose inspiring and heroic life is meant as both an exemplar for and perhaps a subtle rebuke to his compatriots. I might as well point out here that anything I say about this story applies not to the actual people but to their theatrical representations and the choices made around those representations; choosing a good and brave man as your subject unfortunately does not mean your work will also be good and brave.

I have not read the book. I have also avoided reading or hearing any reactions to the world premiere last Saturday, so I don’t know if my reaction is widely shared or not. I should point out that last night’s audience seemed fairly enthusiastic, though given the automatic emotions connected with this subject matter and the tie-in with the tenth anniversary of the attacks, I suspect most of the opera’s emotional work was already done for it.

Before the opera started Gockley’s disembodied voice issued from overhead telling us to stand and sing along with the national anthem. A cheesy video of a rippling American flag played across the curtain as we of course obliged. I like the national anthem quite a bit, but wondered what exactly was the purpose of this cornball touch. It did seem to suggest that what we were about to see would be void of the complications of a work like The Death of Klinghoffer, with its clashing tragic histories. The woman next to me said, “Is this something new, or is it just for this opera?” I told her I thought it was just for the opera, though for all I know they are now planning to make us sing along next time they stage Madama Butterfly or Nixon in China.

The audience took a while to settle down, as they always do after a sing-along. The opera opens at the World Trade Center, with office workers going about their office worker business, because we know what is about to happen but they don’t. Different times and places are layered on top of one another, as Susan Rescorla (Melody Moore), at her home in New Jersey, sees a piece of paper fall from the sky and notices it is singed (the business with Susan noticing the paper comes from the program-book synopsis, which I read after the show; though I pretty much got the drift, the exact action wasn’t really clear; it’s difficult to notice that a piece of paper has singed edges, even when you’re in the front row, as I was).

We see the adult Rick Rescorla (Thomas Hampson) standing outside the WTC, smiling and looking nostalgic as the scene dissolves to Cornwall in June 1944; a young Cyril Rescorla (Henry Phipps), soon to give himself the more Yankee-sounding name of Rick, has gone to visit the American soldiers he adores only to learn they are being shipped out to an undisclosed location. We know, though they do not, that they are on their way to the D-Day invasion of Normandy and the eventual overthrow of Hitler (so our first view of American military intervention is firmly linked to a war as good as a war can be; the world-saving glow of the good war is allowed to linger over all the subsequent American military actions we are shown).

It’s no wonder a romantic-minded boy like Cyril admires these soldiers, with their undoubted but understated courage, their good-humor, their dedication to duty along with an amused and slightly cynical awareness that sometimes your duty as defined by your higher-ups is a crock though you do it nonetheless, and their camaraderie, which is all the more remarkable in that Cyril appears to have stumbled across the only racially integrated US Army unit around in 1944. In fact he is particularly close to a friendly black man, one of several in the troop.

The United States Army was segregated until 1948, when President Truman, realizing that America’s long-standing and legal racial segregation was a valuable asset for Communist propaganda, and assuming no doubt correctly that such an act would never pass Congress, issued an executive order desegregating the troops. (And of course American apartheid in other areas lasted decades longer.) There is no problem in general with color-blind casting, but by showing us an integrated troop during World War II the opera is erasing the vicious history of American racism in a work that claims to be an accurate representation of historical events involving America’s relations with the world (often the non-white world), and that is indeed a problem.

The next scene takes place in Northern Rhodesia in 1962, where Rick is leading a group of British mercenaries. It is only in the synopsis that they are described as “mercenaries”; the impression you get from what is on stage is that they are regular British troops. You may still wonder what British troops are doing in Northern Rhodesia. The answer is simple: they are helping out the villagers by killing a lion that is killing their goats.

An American, Dan Hill (William Burden), enters a makeshift bar, where he is told by the friendly black bartender of a wonderful man who fights fiercely yet also reads Karl Marx (the mention of Marx is almost startling, as it is one of the few times in this work that you even receive a hint of larger political issues and theories, though no explanation is given as to why Rick reads Marx or what he gets out of him, and when Rick does quote an author, he quotes Kipling).

Rick enters, carried on the shoulders of his cheering men. He is smeared with the blood of the slain lion, since he has taken part in an African ritual to honor and take courage from the dead lion. A tribal chieftan had earlier given him a lion’s tooth to wear as a talisman around his neck, which is supposed to make him invincible in battle. The tooth and the lion’s courage will become leitmotifs in this work. The subtler implication is that Rick is (and, by extension, his troops are) not an interloper in Africa but rather in harmony with its traditional beliefs, and welcomed and admired by the native black population.

In case you’re wondering why you can’t find Northern Rhodesia on a contemporary map, it’s because only a couple of years after the events depicted in Heart of a Soldier the British, having presumably killed all the goat-devouring lions in the country, were expelled, and those who thought the land was theirs because their ancestors had been there long before the British, deciding that the country should no longer be named as if it were the property of English imperialist Cecil Rhodes, renamed it Zambia. You will not learn any of this from Heart of a Soldier; as you may have gathered already, you could get a more insightful view of British imperialism by watching HMS Pinafore.

Rick and Dan bond during a wrestling match. The black bartender demands that they first remove all weapons. He is obeyed without question, and there is laughter as Hill (it is hinted that he is with the CIA, though there is no hint as to why they would send an agent to Northern Rhodesia) pulls out three or four knives to Rick’s one. Hampson and Burden are both in good shape but are clearly middle-aged men and their low-key grappling leaves them a bit winded (I say this sympathetically, as one who is himself a short-of-breath middle-aged man). Most of Zambello’s staging is fluid and effective, but this is not one of the better moments, no matter how many excited shirtless young men she uses to obscure and heighten the action. Apparently the British soldier of 1962 spent any time left over from killing marauding lions in rigorous gym workouts.

(I think that phrases like “fascist aesthetics” should be used very carefully, and I wouldn’t push the comparison too far, but some of the themes in Heart of a Soldier clearly draw from the same well: there is the cult of the warrior’s body, which is homoerotic while cleanly demarcating itself from the homosexual; there is the emphasis on the communal over the individual, particularly in the form of soldierly comradeship, but there is also an emphasis on the necessity of a hero’s strength to save and protect lesser types; there is the importance of discipline and the glorification of heroic death.)

Dan and Rick head off in the mid-1960s, at Dan's suggestion, to the new battle ground of Vietnam, which Dan asserts might be “a just war.” Large placards in the opera-house lobby warn us that this work “contains adult language and deals with adult themes.” There is indeed a lot of military-style swearing, which is daintily excluded from the surtitles (though of course the opera is in English, so I’m not sure why it’s OK to hear “fuck” or "shit" sung but not to read them). But I kept waiting for the opera to deal with adult themes.

One of my many complaints about the libretto for Dr Atomic was that among its multitude of voices it failed to include that of the ordinary soldier (and indeed all its military personnel were portrayed as buffoons), but Heart of a Soldier fails to move beyond a boy’s-book understanding of military life, which is mostly presented as heroic and even glamorous; Dan and Rick frequently list the names of famous battles of the past, from Antietam back to Agincourt and Marathon, joining themselves to an illustrious heritage of soldiership, but there is no suggestion as to which side Rick and Dan would have been on in these battles, or even that the side might be important, and there is no indication that war might have tragic or even unexpected consequences.

Rick behaves heroically in Vietnam – setting an example for his men of defiant bravery, and ignoring orders from his higher-ups so that he and his men can rescue Dan from the VC (though like the other enemies in this work, they are invisible and silent except for their gunfire; we’re not told who exactly they are, or why they’re fighting, or even how they rank in size and organization against the Americans). One of his men takes a lot of speed, but he seems more like a goofball than anything else. When we see these men at Rick’s 1972 wedding in the final scene of the first act, one is in a wheelchair but there is little indication that they are otherwise suffering or damaged because of what they have seen or what they have done.

No one even gets a “dear John” letter from his girl back home (whenever the male bonding starts getting a little too intense, we get references to the girls back home). We see one of the sweethearts, the lovely Juliet (Nadine Sierra), who sprays her letters to her beloved Tom (Michael Sumuel) with her perfume so that he will think of her when he opens them. (Tom is very dark-skinned and Juliet very much lighter, as if that was a matter of no consequence in mid-1960s America.)

Juliet sings about how she used to pray for world peace, but now she “selfishly” just wants her one man to come home. Of course he never will; since we’ve met his girl and heard that he’s a medic who only wants to heal people, it is no surprise when he is killed in action. She does not express anger over the senselessness of his death, as if being killed in Vietnam was equivalent to dying in the invasion of Normandy.

If Rick and Dan grow weary in Vietnam or wary of the army, it’s only because of the pain of seeing their comrades die – not because of any troubling questions as to why the American army is pouring millions of dollars and thousands of young American lives (not to mention the cost in Vietnamese lives) into an invasion of a small Asian country few Americans knew anything about, or because of any concerns over what that endless war was doing to Vietnam or to America. (You’d get a better sense of the cultural ferment and anxiety over the Vietnam War by watching Hair.) Back in civilian life they find they miss their army days.

The only pain of these veterans is caused by the callousness of the civilian population, which ignores them or spits on them (weren’t there articles a few years ago pointing out that the much-cited spitting never in fact happened?). Consistent with this opera’s glorification of a certain sanitized view of military life, we see good men bound by their soldier’s honor being ignored or mistreated by the callous, ignorant civilian population. Civilians generally come off poorly in this work, smugly ignorant of the danger around them, and even of the world around them (there's a running joke about no one knowing where or what Cornwall is, and asking Rick if he's Scottish or Welsh).

During Rick’s wedding reception we learn that Dan feels a growing attraction to the Muslim life he witnessed in Beirut (no explanation is given as to why this American was parachuting into Beirut). He feels drawn to the sense of order and discipline in Muslim life and he converts, heading off (in what seems, but of course is not really, a related action) to Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen in fighting the Russians; apparently nothing Dan has experienced has made him cynical about war or the role superpowers play in the world, and once again this is presented as an individual soldier's search for a good war.

Presumably Dan’s conversion is emphasized in the opera to avoid depicting Islam itself as evil and destructive, but since we are never given any details on the ethnicity, religion, politics, or life experiences of any of the various vague “enemies” throughout the work, what the conversion really does is emphasize (and connect) the superiority of order, discipline, and meaning as found in military or fundamentalist life over the confusion and banality of civilian life.

The second act is shorter and even less effective. Rick is now head of security for a brokerage firm at the WTC. He runs evacuation drills, to the annoyance of his coworkers, who do not understand the purpose, even though this must already be after the first terrorist attack on the WTC. The office drones are reluctant to walk down stairs; they are motivated only when Rick tells them to imagine that there are glazed donuts with jimmies ("red white and blue jimmies") at the bottom of the stairs. They are befuddled and upset when they realize there are no donuts there. They demand to know why they can't just take the elevators; Rick does not give reasons for taking the stairs, even the obvious one that the elevator might get stuck; he merely says it’s the rule. He points out that the WTC is a symbol, though of what he doesn’t say (the Statue of Liberty is also a symbol, and it was not a target), nor does anyone mention that the twin towers are not only a symbol but a place where actual things are done that affect the rest of the world, not always happily.

Susan takes her dog for a walk. The audience reacts as if she were walking a quagga. I don’t know what happens to people when they enter a theater, but for some reason that unavoidable banality of the suburbs, the sight of a woman walking a dog, inevitably causes a sensation. Audience members around me had been quiet and attentive until that moment. The elderly couple to my left started whispering excitedly. A dog! Death in the jungles of Vietnam hadn’t caused such visceral engagement.

Susan meets Rick, who is out jogging barefoot. She wishes to herself that she were the sort of woman who would approach a man. Much emphasis in the early publicity was placed on the love story here, which involves two people in their 50s, but it is completely conventional and not very interesting: they meet cute, they dance together, they fall in love at first sight, they speak excitedly about each other as soulmates. Dan even points out to Rick that he's behaving like a high school kid. Rick and Susan sing at length to themselves (in rhymes; there’s a surprising amount of rhyming in the libretto) about wishing they were someone else, which is a sentiment maybe even more common to adolescents in love than to adults, but frankly it’s not clear who, in romantic terms, they are.

We’ve heard a lot about Rick and the military, but nothing about his marriage, including the reasons for its failure. (Dan does say he had doubts about it starting with the reception, but he doesn’t say why.) We are told that Susan is divorced, but we have no idea what happened, and we are told she has children, though presumably they are adults and out of the picture since no further mention is made of them. Melody Moore gives a committed performance (as, for that matter, do Hampson, Burden, and the rest of the cast) but she is clearly a young woman, with a fresh and vibrant air. Just as the battles we see are stripped of any political, economic, racial or religious context, so, in a subtler way, this relationship is stripped of any of the difficulties and complexities that would differentiate it from a relationship among people in their 20s.

Rick continues to be vigilant, to much comment, most of it negative, from others in his firm, though at least one woman sings voluptuously that she feels safer and better knowing he always has everything under surveillance. (There is no danger seen in a state of constant surveillance.) Dan, still a Muslim, and still working for the US government, continues to warn his superiors (“superiors that aren’t” as the libretto phrases it elsewhere) about the dangers of a possible terrorist attack, especially one caused by the dangerously charismatic Osama bin Laden (referred to only as “Osama”). Once again, the civilian population and the civilian government are shown as hapless and clueless, blithely ignoring dangers that only the honorable military men are clear-sighted enough to be aware of.

I haven’t said much about the music so far, mostly because despite the primacy of music in this art form this libretto is so determinedly blinkered and so relentlessly superficial in its engagement with larger issues that what the music expresses is inevitably limited as well. The music (conducted expertly by Patrick Summers) is mostly strong and appealing, though perhaps lacking in anything too striking or memorable, with a sound that is clearly contemporary but not so contemporary that it will startle the opera patrons. Mostly the music is quite engaging. It only really fails in the final scene, which is of course the 9/11 attacks; neither the music nor the libretto nor the direction rise to any heights here, and mostly suggest what is going on somewhat sketchily, though that does work under the circumstances, as the audience can supply a lot of the detail (and a lot of the emotion) from memories of the event.

We are back at the two towers we saw in the first scene, which are basically two large grids with stairs inside at the back of the stage; first the lights go off in the one on the right, and then there is confusion in the one on the left, and reassuring announcements from the clueless Port Authority before Rick realizes he needs to evacuate his people; then, when the second plane hits, the lights go out there as well. Papers start raining down from the destroyed building. At the end Dan and Susan recreate the lion’s blood ritual by rubbing ash from the towers on their arms.

When I first heard about this proposed work, it was merely a vaguely referred to “opera on 9/11” to be performed on the tenth anniversary. This did not strike me as a good idea. After the first few days (or was it only hours?) after the massacre, the United States sank to the challenge by unleashing an ugly, short-sighted, and dangerous period (still going on) of aggressive war, hysterical bullying, and xenophobia, and a curtailment of the civil liberties of its own citizens. I never thought I would hear anyone conscious of American ideals defend torture (always of “bad people” of course, who are always other people, again of course).

Given the anniversary timing of the opera, I figured we’d be seeing the heroes of 9/11, and not its subsequent manipulation and abuse in American society. So my first reaction was that the idea for the opera was either cynical box-office calculation or a misguided wallow in feel-good uplift (though of course those are not mutually exclusive motives). After seeing it, I have no doubt of the complete sincerity of the many talented people involved, which is probably why I was so saddened rather than angered by the work's insistence on a narrow and superficial view of a complicated and profound event.

The storyline calls for a deeper examination of the strengths and limitations of a military code of honor in a world that often has other aims and means, but the work is so cleansed of any complicating context that what we are left with is largely propaganda for a militarized society. I walked in suspecting (correctly) that no mention would be made of the estimated 100,000 plus Iraqis killed by the USA since the post-9/11 invasion of that country (and what a sorrowful history is in that “estimated”!). What I did not suspect was that, as presented in Heart of a Soldier, even the deaths of the other American victims would fail to evoke pity or even sympathy; the emphasis on one extraordinary man, far from putting a personal face on the thousands of victims, throws them even further into the shadows; they mill about in selfish confusion, having ignored Rick's attempts to drill them and save them, and all you feel is that it was a shame a hero died for these anonymous, ineffectual weaklings. The communal tragedy of 9/11 is missing.

I suspect that most of us who seek out live music found ourselves turning to music when we first heard about the attacks; I know that for me the Brahms Requiem will always carry overtones of the original 9/11, because after we were all sent home from work (I was in California, but no one knew what was going to happen, and no one could work anyway) I spent most of the day listening to it over and over, not knowing quite what else to do. An actor friend of mine told me that what he did felt so futile to him. I handed him my DVD of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and said that he was one of the few people I knew who shouldn’t say his work felt futile; I don’t agree with Adorno's famous remark that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric because it seems to me poetry – creation – is really the only human answer to human tragedies such as Auschwitz. So the idea of a 9/11 opera is not in itself a bad one, but this one fails to grapple in any serious way with either the causes or the effects of 9/11; such a work would need a whole lot more honesty about American history and society and America’s role in the world than we get in Heart of a Soldier.

Haiku 2011/257

just travel for them
if they will not come to you;
seek as you wander

13 September 2011

Haiku 2011/256

I watch ducks fly off:
poignant reminders for me,
just travel for them

12 September 2011

Haiku 2011/255

there is no reply
I watch the river darken
I watch ducks fly off

11 September 2011

Haiku 2011/254


clouds cover the moon
and darkness covers the earth
there is no reply

10 September 2011

Haiku 2011/253

restless starlit hours
racing winds whip through the trees
clouds cover the moon

A Delicate Balance at the Aurora

I’m not a big Edward Albee fan, but I was tempted by Aurora Theater’s preview sale ($25 tickets) and 7:00 start time last Tuesday and I went to A Delicate Balance. I had a very good time. I’m still not quite won over to him, but I liked this play the best of the ones I’ve seen or read, and the ensemble was really strong.

My problem with him basically is that he doesn’t go far enough into Theater of the Absurd territory for me to find his plays convincing: I keep wondering why people don’t just leave, tell their hosts/guests to shut up, get out, whatever. Samuel Beckett’s people, while entirely plausible as actual humans, are so far on the social edge that you can accept what happens to them as real, no matter how arbitrary or cruel it is. They’re in a way purified of social conventions and expectations. Albee’s people are firmly situated in the middle class yet when arbitrary and cruel things happen to them – when their hosts turn on them in a game of “get the guest,” when their spouses have affairs with goats, when their best friends (as in this play) show up and move in with little explanation other than “we’re frightened” – they often react in ways that do not seem those of middle-class people of their time and place – if they did, there goes the play. They look like people in a living room, but they talk like people on a stage.

The time and place are evoked very precisely by the comfortable and stylish but somewhat formal furniture in Aurora’s realistic production (they even have New Yorker magazines from the right month and year – I think it’s March/April 1966 – on the coffeetable; the Aurora is such an intimate theater-in-the-round that you can see the dates of the magazines). As you might have gathered, I had mixed feelings about this: on the one hand, Agnes and Tobias, our long-married protagonists, seem unduly reticent about quite a lot of what goes on around them. On the other hand, that pre-feminist-movement setting explains to some extent why their 38-year-old daughter Julia, about to initiate her fourth divorce, moves back in with them to no one's surprise, rather than get an apartment on her own, and the pre-AIDS setting explains why sensitive middle-class people refer occasionally to "fags," and the pre-"tough love" setting explains why they don’t take stronger measures with Agnes’s alcoholic sister Claire (though by contemporary standards they all drink so much and so constantly that it seems a bit arbitrary to label Claire as the alcoholic).

I thought the play went on too long (it’s roughly two and a half hours, but I’m talking about the material, not just its duration, and maybe I should point out I was fairly heavily drugged on OTC allergy medications); the third act especially bogs down with overly simplistic revelations of cause and effect (“because you did X when Y happened . . . therefore Z – and now our lives are explained!”). Some things (like Claire showing up with an accordion) seem like sort of fun but arbitrary ways of upping the action; would anyone in the middle of a serious quarrel realistically just let her provide ironic incidental music? Moments like that might be more convincing in a more stylized stripped-down staging, but then such staging would unbalance other moments.

As I’ve noted before, the problem with plays about addiction and other compulsive behaviors is that such behaviors by their nature are repetitious and cyclical – therefore, when something happens (drunken outbursts, revelations of the shocking truth, etc) that clearly must have happened many times before, it seems stagey to me when characters react as if they’ve never dealt with these things before, as if some strong wall has been breached – these are middle-aged people, edging into elderly; surely they’ve figured out how to deal with this sort of thing, and if they haven't, then they're playing along. (That applies mostly to Claire's and Julia's behavior; it really is brilliantly shocking yet inevitable when the stolid best friends, Harry and Edna, not only move in because of sudden existential terror, but start making themselves too much at home.)

So I had some mixed feelings about the play, though I mostly enjoyed it, but what really carries the evening is the superb ensemble cast: Kimberly King as Agnes, Ken Grantham as Tobias, Jamie Jones as Claire, Anne Darragh as Edna, Charles Dean as Harry, and Carrie Paff as Julia, and there's not a weak link in the bunch (directed by Tom Ross, Aurora Artistic Director). At various points they all made me laugh or surprised me with something unexpected. The play runs until October 9; call the box office at 510-843-4822 for tickets (they also have on-line sales, but use the stupid “best seat available” system rather than letting you see all available seats and choosing your own, so I always buy their tickets over the phone – the staff is very helpful).

09 September 2011

Haiku 2011/252

birds sing in darkness
sleepless sleepers turn their heads
restless starlit hours

08 September 2011

random previews: operatic

I’ll start off with what is sure to be a highlight: Ensemble Parallele is premiering a new chamber-opera reduction (prepared by Jacques Desjardin) of Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, 10-12 February 2012. I saw this opera at the Met and generally liked it quite a bit, though there was some major miscasting of the leads. So even without Ensemble Parallele’s dazzling track record, I’d be eager to see a different production.

San Francisco Opera made things easy for me this year by having a comparatively large number of operas I’ve never seen before, plus several I’ve seen too often, which made the choosing easy:

Heart of a Soldier, by Christopher Theofanidis (world premiere, so of course I haven’t seen it) – honestly I’m a bit dubious about the concept of a “9/11” opera, but we (meaning I) shall see.

Lucrezia Borgia by Donizetti, starring Renee Fleming.

Xerxes (Serse) by Handel: a lifetime of loving baroque opera, and I’ve never seen this one live! I missed last year’s production at West Edge Opera (formerly known as Berkeley Opera). I was busy with too many other performances, and then I lost the Internet and phone service for several days, making it difficult to buy tickets. Anyway the cast here is very good so I’d probably go again anyway: Susan Graham, Lisette Oropesa, David Daniels, Sonia Prina, Heidi Stober, Michael Sumuel.

Nixon in China by John Adams: I love this opera, and have never seen it live.

Attila, by Verdi.

As for SF Opera’s other offerings: the clear light of economic necessity restrained me, as it occasionally does, but of course I might get tickets if I hear a particular production is the greatest thing since sliced bread, or whatever the last great thing was.

Turandot is probably my favorite Puccini opera, but I’m tired of the Hockney production and I've seen too many weak casts in it; this Don Giovanni just doesn't spark me; Carmen has an intriguing cast (Kate Aldrich, Thiago Arancam, Sara Gartland, Paulo Szot) but, as with Turandot and Don Giovanni, I don’t know if I need to see another Carmen at this point.

I’m not sure what to do about The Magic Flute; as with the three operas I’ve just mentioned, I really have experienced it enough to last me for quite a while. Also, for some reason it will be sung in English; frankly it might be better to obscure some of this particular opera’s libretto. On the other hand, it does have Nathan Gunn as Papageno, one of his great roles, and I’ve never seen him in it live.

There’s also a Carmen for Families. The concept of a “family” Carmen has been making local opera fans (well, the ones I know) chuckle – personally, I’m holding out for the “family” Moses und Aron – and the squeaky-clean plot summary provided by the opera doesn’t help (“featuring the alluring Gypsy girl Carmen, the Spanish soldier who loves her and the brave bullfighter who wins her heart” – uh, I guess that all is, in some sense, accurate, but it does make it sound like a wholesome Danish ballet), but I think what’s really going on here – the dirty little secret at the heart of Carmen for Families – is that most nineteenth-century operas are simply too long for – I won’t say for modern taste, but for the exigencies of modern life.

The Unfamily Carmen runs about three and a half hours, which might be daunting for someone who isn’t already a devoted fan of the form, or even someone who just has to work for a living. (I mean, I love Carmen, and am particularly fond of the dawn music that opens the fourth act, but when considering whether to see it again I have to admit its length gave me pause; there are plenty of other new and unseen things going on to which I could give that chunk of time.) But in these days of restored cuts and scholarly revised editions, it really isn’t artistically respectable to say, “Look, we’re going to cut this because it drags and half of you have already seen it a dozen times anyway and you need to get to work tomorrow morning.” Carmen is done often enough so that it's safe to experiment with it, but the bulk of the San Francisco opera audience is clearly too dull and conservative for a radical re-imagining in the style of Peter Brooks’s Tragedie de Carmen. Hence we have Carmen for Families. That’s my take on it, anyway.

Speaking of radical operatic revisions and the clash between old art forms and modern needs, the afore-mentioned West Edge Opera has scheduled three productions centering on those tensions: Ariadne auf Naxos in late October-early November, a manga-style Magic Flute in March 2012, and in late July-early August 2012, the west coast premiere of Ezra Laderman’s Marilyn, which is about Ms Monroe, not Ms Horne.

I did have some thoughts about another trip to the mighty Met, but they’ve spaced out the things I’d like to see – basically, Satyagraha, Khovanshchina, The Enchanted Island (which sounds delightful), and Ernani – in a really inconvenient way. There’s also Nathan Gunn in Billy Budd, for only three performances, and Karita Mattila in The Makropolus Case, which she sang in San Francisco last year (blowing the rest of the season out of the water; my post is here).

Though I’ve seen both performers in these roles (Gunn sang Billy here in I think 2004; I tried to see him in Pittsburgh but he was sick for the performances I attended), they’d be worth seeing again – and can I just say I’m stunned that the Met hasn’t scheduled both these operas for livecasts? Both performers are approaching legendary in these roles, both are incredibly photogenic, both are fine actors, both operas are widely considered twentieth-century masterpieces and neither is well-represented on DVD, and . . . no plans to film either, apparently. I really don’t know who makes these decisions, and why. But then there are so many things veiled from me.

Haiku 2011/251

frost glitters at night
the sun disappears so soon
birds sing in darkness

07 September 2011

Haiku 2011/250

a flash, and it's gone
autumn blush on dying leaves
frost glitters at night

06 September 2011

fun stuff I may or may not get to: September 2011

It’s September and off we go. . . .

Both the Opera and Symphony have official Opening Nights which are capital-S-Society occasions, and though I have to admit I’m too much of a musical snob to consider them of much interest, they do signal to a lot of people that it’s showtime again.

The San Francisco Opera presents Puccini’s Turandot with Irene Theorin, Marco Berti, and Leah Crocetto; the company premiere of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia with Renee Fleming; and the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, music by Christopher Theofanidis and libretto by Donna DiNovelli, with Thomas Hampson, William Burden, and Melody Moore.

The San Francisco Symphony launches its centennial season; this month we have (among other things) the Mahler 3 and a premiere from Thomas Ades.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra has a concert billed as Carmen Revisited, but Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite actually seems like the least interesting part of the program, which also features Stuart Canin in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and (the most appealing to me) Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. September 22-25, in various locations.

The Aurora Theater opens its seasons with Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (downtown Berkeley, September 2 through October 9). Check the start times: Aurora Theater starts at 7:00 on some days and 8:00 on others, for which I salute them – as you might know, I am increasingly annoyed and put off by the area-standard 8:00 start times.

Shotgun Players (right by the Ashby BART station) is now starting its Thursday shows at 7:00, so let me salute them too. They have Adam Bock’s adaptation of Phaedre running from September 21 to October 23.

Other Minds offers Something Else: A Fluxus Semicentenary 15-17 September.

Terry Riley performs a solo recital at the Berkeley Art Museum at 7:30 on Friday September 9.

The Stein collection has closed, but the Picasso show from the Musee National Picasso in Paris is at the DeYoung through October 10, and the Legion of Honor offers Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Erik van Otterloo Collection through October 2 and the Mourners from the medieval Burgundian tomb of John the Fearless through the end of the year.

Cal Performances starts off with the Mark Morris Dance Group in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, accompanied by Philharmonia Baroque, featuring soloists Stephanie Blythe and Philip Cutlip. Herbie Hancock is on September 21. And their annual Free for All, which is exactly what it sounds like, is Sunday September 25.

Haiku 2011/249

white gull on white foam
steel-blue wing on steel-blue wave
a flash, and it's gone

05 September 2011

farewell, my lovelies

Above are postcards of Matisse's Femme au Chapeau and Picasso's Portrait of Gertrude Stein, just two among the many riches of The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, which closes tomorrow (Tuesday September 6) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before traveling on to New York and Paris. Tomorrow is also "free first Tuesday" at the museum, which is always a horrible mob scene, so consider yourself warned.

Forget Labor Day: the closing of this exhibit marks the end of my summer. (Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, the excellent exhibit down the street from SFMOMA at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, also closes September 6.) I've framed the cards with some of the admission tickets from my 21 visits. That membership sure paid for itself this year, and for a few more years besides. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with my lunch hours now. Just eat lunch, I guess.

My post about the exhibit is here, my background post on the Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson opera 4 Saints in 3 Acts is here, and my post on Ensemble Parallele's performance of a shortened version of 4 Saints, held in conjunction with this exhibit, is here.

Thus ends the summer of Stein. @Gertrude: We'll always have Paris.

Haiku 2011/248

wind on the waters
a bird skims along the sea
white gull on white foam

04 September 2011

Gertrude Stein is cooler than you will ever be

Her very close friend Marion Walker pleaded with her [to complete her medical degree at Johns Hopkins], she said, but Gertrude Gertrude remember the cause of women, and Gertrude Stein said, you don’t know what it is to be bored.
– Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Consider the creation of Gertrude Stein, that insouciant and magnificent monument of Modernism, that icon of lesbian swank (back when Paris was the dream capital of the Amazons: Natalie Barney’s salon! The Princess de Polignac and her musical evenings!), back when Paris was the shining scene for advanced American artists, Stein the permanent poet composing and composing and always so much being what she was, sitting at her desk among the famous paintings she had bought when no one had heard of her friends Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

That collection has been reunited this summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and will shortly travel on to New York and Paris. I’ve been making lunch-hour visits to the show, once (or twice) a week since it opened. I’ve always had a Gertrude Stein thing.

I started reading her (3 Lives, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, Everybody’s Autobiography, other things then available in random paperbacks) when I was probably 12 or so. My favorite painting at SFMOMA has always been the Matisse Femme au Chapeau from the Stein collection. I was thrilled when I managed to find an unabridged copy of The Making of Americans (back before there was an Internet to provide these things more easily) and I even read the entire thing during a gray January in Boston, propped in bed recovering from eye surgery.

On my one trip to Paris many years ago I made a point of seeking out 27 rue de Fleurus (as if I were one of the American doughboys and then later GIs who dropped in on Gertrude and Alice), even though it is not open to the public. There was a plaque on the wall, which was enough for me. I spent a sunny autumn afternoon at Pere Lachaise cemetery, about an hour of which was devoted to looking for the grave shared by Gertrude and Alice. A caretaker in a beat-up shed in a corner near the entrance (his dim shed contrasting oddly with the elaborate tombs and monuments of the celebrated dead for which the cemetery is renowned) sold poorly mimeographed guides, but I was not interested in finding Jim Morrison like the other Americans there that afternoon, I wanted Stein and Toklas, and their touching joint headstone – Gertrude on the front, Alice on the back – was incorrectly marked on the map.)

Earlier this summer, prompted by this exhibit, I re-read The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which is delightfully entertaining and disproves her own quip to Hemingway, quoted therein: “Hemingway, remarks are not literature.” Even her score-settling seems good-natured, particularly when she talks about Hemingway, who by contrast tried to trash her with smarmy, nasty gossip in his own Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast. Well, what else is someone like him going to do after borrowing liberally from her style but turn around and trash her? Gertrude at least knew how to do it without making herself look like the one you'd prefer to avoid.

(the Gertrude Stein, with Alice perched on the handle, from the 1970s)

Then I re-read Everybody’s Autobiography, which is written much more in the usual Stein style, and thereby demonstrates how cleverly Stein captured Toklas’s tone (or, at least, created a tone very different from her own, which has become for us the tone of Alice B Toklas). It’s a bit more disjointed and general than the earlier book, but I guess that’s suitable when you’re writing about Everybody rather than one person, and I think Gertrude knew that the glory days were in the first book.

After the Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was published, various writers and painters objected to Gertrude’s version of events (including Matisse, who among other things disliked the characterization of his wife as having a horsey face, and who pointedly said that he thought Mme Sarah Stein was the truly artistically sensitive member of the family – but by then Gertrude was all about Picasso anyway). People get hurt and tossed aside and reality for what it’s worth obscured. The flip side of Gertrude’s persistence and triumph is that lots of nuance and complexity, especially other people’s nuance and complexity, gets smoothed over. It all inevitably gets smoothed over anyway as time passes and memories fade. Gertrude remains imperturbable in our memory of her salon, because she's the one who wrote the most memorably, but there’s sometimes a certain cruel indifference in her attitude (none the less cruel for being comic and probably justified).

Mrs. Van Vechten came. She too was a very tall woman, it would appear that a great many tall ones go to Wellesley, and she too was good-looking. Mrs. Van Vechten told the story of the tragedy of her married life but Gertrude Stein was not particularly interested.
– Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

As in Aesop’s fable of the painter and the lion, it’s useful as always to remember who is telling the story, and to consider why. So I followed up The Autobiography of Alice B with Brenda Wineapple’s joint biography, Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, which is absorbing and fair-minded and helps remind you that one of Gertrude Stein’s greatest creations was Gertrude Stein. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive of her: what about her wasn’t subject to ridicule and discouragement? Her Jewishness, her sexuality, her intellectual interests, her cultural tastes, her style, even her weight, all were sneered at, in various ways and at various times. Yet she persisted and even triumphed. Good for her.

You could have had a real-life equivalent of reading a disinterested biography by walking from SFMOMA across the street to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which had a fascinating exhibit about Stein and her circle and her times. There are even (appropriately for the librettist of 4 Saints in 3 Acts) relics, including one of Gertrude’s embroidered vests, which was given to Virgil Thomson by Alice (given when Gertrude was gone and Virgil was no longer a threat to Alice but instead a helpful friend and a living link to the glory days long gone with Gertrude). The vest is surprisingly small. Gertrude’s weight was almost always mentioned in descriptions of her, and the CJM exhibit shows how her heft was used to create imperial (yet also motherly) images of her, so the vest size was almost a physical shock. (The exhibit closes September 6, just like the SFMOMA exhibit, but there’s a book available, which I haven’t seen yet.)

I read an interesting biography of Natalie Barney several years ago (Wild Heart by Suzanne Rodriguez). As artistic entertainment for one of her famous gatherings, Barney invited a young American dancer, then unknown, named Isadora Duncan, who brought along an accompanist: a shy young French pianist, then unknown, named Maurice Ravel. This is the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes in historical novels (“Why, ‘tis my old friend Master Shakespeare! Come, Will, and quaff a flagon of ale with us!”) but in reality the celebrated and accomplished must start somewhere in obscurity and service, so of course it was Isadora Duncan accompanied by Maurice Ravel. Paris was like that, we like to think, and it stays that way in American dreams even though now most of it is like any big city in the world, packed with too many people and overpriced bad art and insistent advertising and the same stores and the stench of cars and cigarettes and the noise of sludgy American pop songs.

The lifestyle porn component of the exhibit is discreet but unmissable; scattered throughout there are old black-and-white photos, blown up so that they occupy entire walls, of the various Steins in their various living and dining rooms, sitting casually amid their Matisses and Picassos – things they bought because they liked them and were friends with the artists and could afford this strange and unpopular new work. (And we like to think that we would have bought what Gertrude and Leo bought, or Sarah and Michael, or that at least we would have been welcome guests at their Saturday nights.) There are quite a few paintings of the young Allan Stein, Sarah and Michael’s son, and you grow familiar with his furrowed eyebrows. There are casual friendly notes from Matisse, Picasso, and others, decorated with witty little sketches. On any visit you can hear visitors sighing in envy or wishing for just one of those paintings to hang on their own walls, or just one painter friend (let alone two) who would turn out to be the cataclysmic artistic force of the century.

(Sadly for my imaginary visit to early modern Paris, I have to admit that Gertrude tended to dominate people and to demand fealty, and though it seems she had the character and intelligence to justify her claims, and I think I would have liked her in person, people like that tend to be suspicious or dismissive of me; I think maybe there’s something too withheld about me, and I suspect Gertrude would not have asked me back. But she is gone and I have her books.)

Leo and Gertrude initially lived together at the address they made famous, 27 rue de Fleurus. He helped interest her in art, though later after they grew apart she eliminated his role in her version of the story. They were so very close, intellectually and emotionally, that the refined aesthetes in their circle, pausing in their connoisseur’s appreciation of the newly stylish Italian primitives, could titter nastily over the occasional rumor of incest. He kept on talking and she started writing. She became known for her heft and he went on long fasts, seeking relief from his delicate stomach. She found Alice B Toklas and cubism (in Picasso’s painting and in her writing) and he found Nina of Montparnasse, a street-singer/street-walker who seemed deeply and genuinely attached to him.

You can see the influence of Japanese prints throughout the exhibit, in the flat arrangement of space and the profusion of patterns that clash harmoniously and even in the popularity of scenes of intimate and domestic life. There’s a beautiful Picasso from his blue period, Soup, in which the young mother’s dark chignon and stooped posture as she offers a steaming bowl to her skipping daughter look very Japanese, and indeed Sarah and Michael displayed it with Asian instead of other modern art.

Then the way you showed your interest in advanced art changed from having a taste for Japanese prints to having a taste for African masks. These changes happen subtly and we all have our stopping points. Leo found he could not tolerate cubism, or Gertrude’s writing, both of which he considered childish nonsense. Gertrude and Leo were probably too close to survive together no matter what other paths they took.

There are things that were once considered daringly, even shockingly, modern but are now seen as romantic reminders of a lovely bygone day: La Traviata and Impressionist paintings of train stations are examples of those things. Cubism, setting aside its reputation as important art one should like, still looks intractably modern, determinedly “difficult” in design and almost perversely restricted in palette to drab shades of rust brown, gray, white, and black. This was around the time that Pound pointed out that literature is news that stays news.

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
– Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude is in the exhibit, as it needs to be. The two became friends as she sat for sitting after sitting (I think she said over eighty of them). He was unhappy with the face and painted it out and then she and Leo left to spend the summer in Italy (because people could do things like that then – not have a steady job and buy paintings and live in Paris and then spend the summer in Spain or Italy – was everything just cheaper then?). While she was gone he painted the face from memory. When he was told that Gertrude didn’t look like that he replied, “She will.”

And if Gertrude had not created a Gertrude for us then Picasso’s famous portrait would become our Gertrude (like all those blurred society women of the time who now exist for us only as brushstrokes by John Singer Sargent). In the exhibit there is a small self-portrait by Picasso, done around the same time, hanging right next to the larger portrait of Stein. When I saw them together I realized for the first time that the face he painted for Stein is basically his face.

I thought it was sly of the curators to hang the pictures this way, but in a later room there’s a picture of Stein at her desk, with her portrait behind her, and the same Picasso self-portrait hanging right by it – so perhaps the curators were sly, and perhaps Picasso was sly, and perhaps Gertrude, who in her will mentioned specifically only one painting from the famous collection, this portrait, bequeathing it to the most prestigious American museum, the Metropolitan in New York – perhaps Gertrude was the slyest of all.

A possibly more touching painting is Picasso’s tiny Hommage a Gertrude, probably a gift for her name day (the feast of St Gertrude seems to have shifted to and from several dates in mid-November, so I don't know when exactly he paid this particular homage), with angels trumpeting and holding baskets of rich fruits, done in his distinctive style. It's both baroque and modern, grand and intimate. Gertrude hung it over her bed.

It’s the Matisses that have really dazzled me in this show. I’ve always liked color, so I think I probably would have responded to Matisse before he became beloved. His greens astonish me. Even paintings that I think, at first glance, are dominated by other colors turn out to have greens threaded through them in surprising, vivid ways.

Making weekly lunchtime trips to the exhibit enables me to handle the crowds by darting in and out of convenient openings. There are Cezanne bathers scattered through the show (one of them surprisingly tucked into the gallery devoted otherwise to paintings by Matisse’s pupils). There’s one small one that is almost always free for viewing, hanging right between one big room (with the Femme au chapeau and the portrait of Stein and Picasso's mysterious and authoritative Boy with a Horse and his lovely rose period portrait of a naked Fernande, his mistress at the time) and another big room (with mostly Matisses from Sarah and Michael’s collection, including the vibrant Young Sailor and the sheer mysteriously balanced perfection of Pink Onions).

I found myself tending to linger in front of the same canvases over and over – for instance, the lush and poetic Blue Nude, now in Baltimore and a long-time favorite of mine (previously seen here a few years ago in an exhibit of Matisse’s sculpture; and indeed next to it in this show there is a small Matisse sculpture of a naked woman in the same pose as the Blue Nude, and next to that sculpture is a still life that includes a painted representation of the sculpture).

But the painting that really knocked me out was Matisse's Fontainebleau Forest (Autumn Landscape). I found myself staring at it longer and longer each visit, surprised more and more deeply at how the vivid colors shaped and shaded the view, colors harmoniously contrasting and rhyming and flickering into a sense of unseen but rustling life in the clearing and the trees and the sky over a forest in fall. This painting is currently in a private collection, so I will probably never get to see it again. My memory will have to come to the aid of the small picture in the hefty catalogue.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to visit this exhibit as often as I did. The collection was dispersed even during the lifetime of its collectors, and by then they knew they had been lucky enough to be in the right time and at the right place and in the right circumstances and that their earlier days would become legend. The colors and shapes on these canvases forced the world to see differently. We take that way of seeing for granted now. So much gets lost and forgotten along the way. The canvases remain, to be looked at, and the books, to be read.

Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know.
My long life, my long life.
– Gertrude Stein

The Mother of Us All