31 October 2011

November addendum: music very new and very old

The schedule for Old First Concerts has been updated since I last checked it, and there are a couple of concerts of high interest that I had not included in my November preview:

On Friday, November 11, Sarah Cahill performs "recent works by Ingram Marshall, Meredith Monk, Evan Ziporyn, and Paul Dresher (a San Francisco premiere), and will be joined by pianist Regina Schaffer for several recent four-hand pieces by Terry Riley commissioned by Cahill. Also on the program are selections from Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants."

And on Friday, November 18, EUOUAE, which is unpronounceable like the secret name of G*d, so approach in fear and trembling, returns to perform Obrecht, Josquin, Perotin, and 10th century chant (good thing Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet let me know who Perotin is). I posted about their first concert here, and my thanks to Unknown – the anonymity is a nice medieval touch! – for tipping me off by leaving a comment on that entry.

Haiku 2011/304

crawling through the dark
useless sight, groping hands stretch
out into nothing

Happy Halloween

Halloween rubber duckies, with thanks to V

30 October 2011

Haiku 2011/303

snapping up at night
hungry-mouthed nocturnal things
crawling through the dark

29 October 2011

Haiku 2011/302

pulled gently downward
heavy afternoon eyelid. . .
snapping up at night

28 October 2011

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

It's (almost) November: insert jokes here about Thanksgiving and turkeys. . . .

The Aurora Theater has a fun-looking new adaptation of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, starting 11 November through 18 December.

The Cutting Ball's Hidden Classics series kicks off its Strindberg-centered year with Play Strindberg, Durrenmatt's adaptation of The Dance of Death. Pelleas and Melisande (Maeterlinck's original play) also continues through 27 November, and you should go see it.

The San Francisco Symphony presents Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Brahms's German Requiem with soloists Kyle Ketelsen and Jane Archibald on 17-20 November, along with Schütz's "Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock" from Geistliche Chormusik and Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra (1909 Version); the Schütz and Schoenberg replace the previously announced world premiere from Sofia Gubaidulina.

The San Francisco Opera presents Handel's Xerxes with Susan Graham and David Daniels and Bizet's Carmen with Thiago Arancam and Paulo Szot (check the schedule for your Carmen, since Kate Aldrich is no longer singing all performances).

Cal Performances offers (among other things) Davitt Moroney on harpsichord playing Bach's complete French suites, 13 November; the Gate Theater of Dublin alternating Beckett's Endgame and Watt, 17-20 November; New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast in conversation, 19 November; and Eric Owens in a recital of yet-to-be-announced music, 20 November.

Magnificat presents Jephthe and other works by Carissimi, 11-13 November.

San Francisco Performances presents Marc-Andre Hamelin on 2 November playing the Berg Sonata, Op. 1, the Liszt Sonata in B minor, and several of his own works; and Alexander Melnikov on 12 November (starting at 1:30) playing the complete Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and Menotti's The Telephone on 12-13 November (free but reservations required; call the Box Office at 415/503-6275). The next BluePrint new-music concert is on 19 November and features works by Philippe Hersant. And on 30 October (yes, wrong month, but I found out about this too late for last month's list) there is an evening concert of music by Nicholas Pavkovic, including his chamber opera Sredni Vashtar, based on the short story by Saki.

Sadly for me, I will not be going to New York to experience Satyagraha at the Met.

Haiku 2011/301

drifting back to earth
a leaf, a feather, a thought
pulled gently downward

27 October 2011

Haiku 2011/300

paths through a garden
slowly buried under leaves
drifting back to earth

26 October 2011

Haiku 2011/299

such well-meaning lies
lay pleasantly between us. . .
paths through a garden

25 October 2011

Haiku 2011/298

wishing you were here
and this postcard's bright blue skies:
such well-meaning lies

24 October 2011

North and South out west

Last Saturday I was at the first concert of BluePrint’s season. BluePrint, the new music ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, is headed up by ever-chic and adventurous Nicole Paiement, who also directs Ensemble Parallele; this very enjoyable concert offered (among other things) a preview of their February 2012 chamber-opera version of Harbison’s Great Gatsby. I was given a ticket to this concert, so thanks to whoever thought to include me. The box office was very nice about letting me switch the seat to one I preferred.

First up was another Harbison piece, North and South, a setting of six poems by Elizabeth Bishop (some of the poems were ones Bishop did not publish in her lifetime). On Saturday it seemed to me that I had lost whatever vague count of the songs I was keeping, but I see in the program that indeed the last song is not listed and was apparently dropped. I had heard the piece a few times in the recording by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (to whom the first three songs are dedicated; the second three are dedicated to Janice Felty). This was my first time hearing the piece live.

Julienne Walker, a tall, striking mezzo with short dark hair wearing a black ‘20’s style dress, was our soloist. She started off by dedicating her performance to her mother, who was in the audience, which was pretty disarming, not that her very fine performance needed the audience to disarm. Her diction was perfectly clear; I could make out every word of the poems without reference to the program. The first song in each half of the piece is from Bishop’s “Songs for a Colored Singer,” which she wrote thinking of Billie Holiday. These are by no means minstrel pieces, but when they’re sung as opposed to read on the page they do bring up the dicey question of how far a singer should go in imitating a “black” sound. Harbison’s music for those pieces doesn’t sound like a blues song, but the blues are clearly in evidence. On the recording Hunt Lieberson goes farther than Walker did in performance; each choice is defensible. Hunt Lieberson was, to say the least, a naturally soulful singer, and that keeps her performance from caricature; Walker sang them in a way more in line with how she sang the rest of the set, and I thought it worked very well. Her mother must have been proud.

That was followed by Kurt Rohde’s Concertino for Solo Violin and Small Ensemble, which is from last year, about twenty minutes long, and in three movements; Axel Strauss was the violin soloist. The words that occurred to me were charmingly mysterioso – charming not just in the sense of delightful but in the sense of putting us under a spell; in his program note Rohde describes it as “intricate,” which is an apt word, as if it were a very elaborately patterned knot garden, which means it wouldn’t wear out after a few listens but keep growing.

After the intermission we had Erwin Schulhoff’s Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra, Op. 43, which seemed quite glittery and abrupt but honestly though I enjoyed the piece I’m not sure I have anything to say about it since my mind was kind of zapping around as is its occasionally overstimulated sometime wont and I found myself going in and out of the moment – no reflection on the performance by the ensemble or soloist Keisuke Nakagoshi. These things happen, especially right after intermissions. Ah, poor Schulhoff! It was your moment, but I failed to pull myself into the moment.

The final piece was an excerpt from The Great Gatsby, in the new chamber orchestration by Jacques Desjardins: the quarrel between Myrtle (Erin Neff) and Wilson (Bojan Knezevic) that leads up to her death. (Interestingly, Myrtle was the role sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the original production, so both vocal pieces on the program were ones written for the late mezzo.) It was very dramatic and exciting (and well sung), and the orchestration sounded rich and vivid and you don’t really need me to tell you to buy a ticket to this, do you?

The next BluePrint concert is November 19 and features the work of Parisian composer Philippe Hersant, who will be there in person. I am planning on being there in person as well.

Haiku 2011/297

tonight the moon hides
silver heart behind gray clouds
wishing you were here

23 October 2011

Haiku 2011/296

last night the earth shook
today the angry sky burned
tonight the moon hides

22 October 2011

if this is how the world ends, I hope the Mayans were right about 2012

I was at last night's magnificent and thrilling San Francisco Symphony performance of the Verdi Requiem, the mightiest of all requiem masses. Sure, I could quibble about a thing or two, but don't want to; this was as good as it gets. Thanks to conductor James Conlon, soloists Sondra Radvanovksy, Dolora Zajick, Frank Lopardo, and Ain Anger, and most definitely to the SF Symphony Chorus and the Symphony itself, for a rendition that was awesome in both the slang and the strict senses of the word.

(The jaunty joints of this tall fellow were suspended above the staircase last night, but I suspect the Requiem was a coincidence and he is actually waiting for Halloween/the Day of the Dead.)

Haiku 2011/295

clouds in a clear sky
I garden in autumn heat
last night the earth shook

(3 palpable earthquakes in 2 days, here in earthquake country)

21 October 2011

Haiku 2011/294

memorable mood
spring breeze passing in summer
clouds in a clear sky

20 October 2011

Richard Serra Drawings at SFMoMA

The fourth floor of SFMoMA, which was my happy summertime haunt while it housed the reunited Stein collection, now holds a new special exhibit, Richard Serra Drawing: A Retrospective. It was a good idea to put in such a different show. I’ve wandered through the new exhibit twice so far, and I can't help remembering when that wall held Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein or Matisse’s Forest of Fontainebleau was around that corner. Those pictures are now gone, and soon their ghosts will be gone as well. The Serra drawings create their own mood and space. I tend to be indifferent to Serra's sculpture, those giant steel slabs that dominate and defy their environments; the environments I pass through are already so full of massive obnoxious forms and sounds and smells that I can't get too excited or outraged about one more. I think they might be good sculptures to live with on a daily basis, say in your backyard, if you have one, where you can note the slowly changing color of the oxidizing metal, the rain and the rust, the morning and afternoon light glowing and shining on it in their turn, the birds alighting or shitting on it, the squirrels running over the top. Seen in a museum, they’re more like: hey, look, a big slab of metal! What’s in the next gallery?

The first time I went through the exhibit I was accompanied by SFMike. We had gone into the museum during my lunch hour and stumbled onto a member preview, which I could bring him into, since I am a member. I felt like Virgil guiding Dante, except the galleries were very much less crowded than hell. They were also much less crowded than the member preview for the Steins, so that was actually pretty nice, since space is very important to the effect of these drawings, many of which are large enough to cover almost an entire gallery wall. They are black with sometimes some gray (as in a wash or a roller running out of black ink). Mike wanted to know why they are called drawings instead of paintings, since most of them are done with paint stick and what looks like black paint put on thickly enough to create subtle textures. I couldn’t answer him then, and still can’t now even though I’ve since read the Exhibition Guide available in the galleries (a pamphlet which is printed in tiny gray type on white, with Serra’s direct quotations in black – I know I need new glasses, but the guide really does seem designed more for appearance than legibility).

So you can walk into a room and see a wall-sized sheet of hand-made paper, covered with black paint, stapled (with black staples, so they’re barely visible) to the wall. Otherwise the gallery holds nothing but the blonde wood floors, the white walls, and the natural light filtering through the louvers in the ceiling. As you walk through several rooms each containing a similar large black drawing (I will use their nomenclature, but feel free to call them paintings), perhaps differing from the last one in being rectangular rather than square, or on a back rather than a side wall, you can see how the differences change how the space comes through to you. The spareness, the ambiguous black shapes (both graceful and massive), the sense of space, and of space being emptied out and carefully but subtly arranged, and of high-minded if obscure philosophical purposes, all reminded me of the ink drawings of Zen monks. Given the reputation for brutality and sheer mass that Serra’s sculptures have, it’s sort of surprising to find in the drawing exhibit the peace-inducing atmosphere of a Japanese garden. And if, as you and your mind wander through the rooms, your thoughts stray occasionally towards the unseen owners of these works, people who can afford to spend probably the equivalent of my annual salary on a large sheet of hand-made paper entirely covered with black paint, and the murmur of mental streams gives way temporarily to the gentle lapping sound of the Art World sucking up to the Very Rich, well, that too has its purpose, and it's easy enough to move on until the light falls differently.

Haiku 2011/293

birds sing, the sun shines
messengers from another
memorable mood

19 October 2011

such notes as, warbled to the string, drew iron tears down Pluto's cheek and made Hell grant what Love did seek

Last Sunday I went to Magnificat’s twentieth season opener, which was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphee aux Enfers. I had not previously been to St Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco, which is a lovely small late-nineteenth-century building right off Van Ness Avenue, across one street from a Unitarian Church and across another street from St Mary’s Cathedral, forming a kind of triangle of presumptive holiness right near City Hall. The unseasonable and unpleasant heat continued and it was sweltering inside the church. I sat drenched in a pew before the concert, feeling we must already be approaching the infernal flames.

I could have sat up in the reserved seat for subscribers (Magnificat has a very exciting-looking season coming up, hence the subscription) but there was a talk going on when I entered and it was difficult to find a place after that was over, so I ended up on the center aisle about half-way back. The audience was a little odd – I mean, not in the “early music odd” way, which is kind of endearing and delightful, though those people were there too; I mean, some idiots actually brought a toddler, and there was an unusual amount of whispering for a small audience at a concert of specialized repertory. The woman behind me started whispering very loudly as soon as the music started. I turned around to glare and she promptly moved to the other end of the pew, followed by her husband. She did stop whispering, though; I know because I still could have heard her from where I was. Why would anyone talk during such rare and entrancing music?

I had only heard Magnificat once before, at their puppet opera presentation of Caccini’s La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina, and, dumb-ass audience members aside, this was a beautiful concert and a wonderful way to spend a late October afternoon, with the sun descending through the stained-glass windows as Orphee descended to Hell.

Charpentier’s work is (possibly) unfinished, stopping after Pluto allows Orpheus to take Eurydice back to earth but before he loses her again by breaking Pluto’s one injunction, that he not turn to look at her. This version therefore concludes with a chorus of spirits begging Orphee to stay in Hell, delighting them and forever enchanting them out of their suffering. So it’s sort of a pagan equivalent to the odes to St Cecilia celebrating the powers of music that were popular during the baroque. The surprisingly large cast was solidly excellent, with the standout being, appropriately enough, tenor Aaron Sheehan’s plangent and virile Orphee.

death dreams at Davies

Last Friday, thanks to the very kind offices of Mr G/S Y, I had a front-row center ticket at the SF Symphony to hear James Conlon conducting Shostakovich’s Symphony 14 (with soloists Olga Guryakova and Sergei Leiferkus), followed by the Mussorgsky/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition.

The evening got off to a rocky start when Conlon suddenly wheeled around and blathered for ten minutes before starting the music. I have no idea why he thought this filler was necessary, since the Shostakovich 14 is nearly an hour long, and wasting ten additional minutes just ends up making me aware of how uncomfortable the seats are in Davies Hall. Luckily for me there was no one on my right so I wasn’t as crammed in as usual. Just to show I’m not completely doctrinaire about the conductor-blathering thing, I’ll say that a few years ago I did like the little speech before the Ligeti Requiem, comparing it to a poem by Rilke, given by Michael Tilson Thomas, who is usually one of the worst offenders, so go figure.

But he probably figured the music was a bit of a stretch for most of the Symphony audience (which is one of the reasons I hate the little talks – anything even slightly out of the norm is condescendingly assumed to be beyond our grasp without a babying little pep talk beforehand, as if there weren’t already a program book full of notes and a pre-concert lecture; the result is that the little chat signals that we’re about to get the musical equivalent of fiber and vegetables, instead of something wonderful and new that we should be excited to hear), and quoting Rilke offers us an equivalent way of approaching the work. Conlon unfortunately went for the usual glibness conductors generally use in these talklets, as if they were all pre-fabricated in some condescension factory, and as usual this approach set exactly the wrong tone for the sarcastic, bleakly harrowing and beautiful death-haunted music that followed.

And since I’m complaining – the Symphony inexplicably still does not use surtitles for vocal works. You know, I don’t care if they’re tweeting and on Facebook or whatever – here is an already well-established technological innovation that (let me emphasize this) actually serves the music rather than some bogus sense of trendoid social-fake-networking. So why aren’t they using surtitles? I’ve seen them used for staged operas in Davies, so why not for something that is essentially an hour-long song cycle? The words – Russian versions of poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Rilke, and Kuchelbecker – are important here. And it might help reduce the constant program-shuffling and -folding, which went on throughout the performance, even though there seemed to be a fair number of Russian-speakers in attendance.

Despite these off-putting and unnecessary Symphony-inflicted drawbacks, this was a pretty wonderful concert. These were the first performances of this work by the San Francisco Symphony, which isn’t as surprising as it might seem since the barn that is Davies is not really suitable for this intimate, almost chamber-music-like work. I have absolutely no idea what the effect was in the back rows of the balconies. I just know that it was very powerful up close. I was practically at the feet of Guryakova, a young blonde soprano who has an appealingly icy beauty of person and voice. She looks like a young Meryl Streep. Hitchcock would have loved her. As she sang her eyes stared over our heads and glittered strangely and fiercely like the blue-green jewels hanging from her ears.

She and Leiferkus were superlative throughout, as was the reduced orchestra. The full band was on stage after intermission for the Mussorgsky/Ravel, which was grand and majestic, though I’m not sure grandeur and majesty are necessarily what best suits this piece. It was quite enjoyable, but almost in an overeating-chocolates way. The Shostakovich certainly was more than enough to stand satisfyingly on its own.

the undeniable sexiness of Stephanie Blythe

The San Francisco Performances season opened last Thursday with an all-American recital by Stephanie Blythe. I think everyone there had an outstanding time, including Blythe and her accompanist, Warren Jones.

As with Blythe’s last appearance at SFP, texts for the songs were not available until after they were performed, with the added twist that SFP staffers simply could not find the printed brochures, which led to some frantic last-minute photocopying before intermission. You’d think this would make it simple to follow Blythe’s expressed wish that, since she cares about the words and works hard to make them clear, and since all these songs are in English, we let her see our attentive eyes rather than the tops of our heads as we follow along in the program. Nonetheless there were several audience members who apparently printed the notes beforehand and accordingly were able to rustle them loudly while Blythe was singing, which is kind of a triumph of the human spirit, I guess.

The first set was 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson, set by the late James Legg. Blythe and Jones first took turns reading the poems aloud to us, since Dickinson can be elusive and of course we had no texts to consult. Blythe, not surprisingly, was more effective at this recitation than Jones, who had a tendency to bang on odd words and sometimes slip into a “poetry” voice. Then they performed the set. I like it very much (and I also liked the idea of reciting the poems first), and usually I’m not crazy about Dickinson set to music – her strong and eccentric rhythm tends to swamp all else, including sometimes her meaning – often I find that I’ve swept through pages of Dickinson, led compulsively onward by her beat, until I suddenly come to and realize that I have only the vaguest idea of what she’s been saying. Reading her is like eating salted nuts; you start by savoring one or two and then before you know it you’ve eaten the whole bowl and you wonder when that happened.

Anyway Legg’s set is very attractive (I like it more than Copland’s more famous set, I think), ranging from the somber to the comic, not always as expected, and if any musical accompaniment by its nature limits the implications of Dickinson’s poems, at least Legg’s implications are always thoughtful and appropriate and if they’re sometimes surprising to me that is a plus.

After a few days of unexpectedly heavy rains it was quite hot last Thursday, and it was uncomfortably warm in Herbst Theater. Blythe completed the Dickinson set and introduced Samuel Barber’s Three Songs, explaining that the texts are all from James Joyce’s early collection Chamber Music, the punning title of which refers to an incident during an early recitation when Joyce’s hostess excused herself mid-poem to use the chamber pot. Then Blythe dabbed with her handkerchief at her face and asked, “Is anyone else hot? I’m sweating my bazooms off up here. [Pinteresque/vaudevillian pause] ‘Bazooms’ are what you call a mezzo-soprano’s breasts.” This made us all laugh, of course. “Recitals with Stephanie are always an adventure,” announced Jones. Indeed!

Jones had his chance to shine solo after intermission, when he played several Joplin rags for us (the Peacherine Rag and the Magnetic Rag). The second-half songs were all Tin Pan Alley numbers. In the past few years I’ve noticed a happy trend of including songs from what is now usually referred to as the “American Songbook,” meaning the more sophisticated later works by Gershwin, Porter, Arlen, and suchlike composers. Blythe gave us earlier songs, which I’ve never heard in recital outside of Bolcom and Morris performances that were specifically dedicated to this repertory, genuine Tin Pan Alley numbers that are comparatively less sophisticated but are also delightful and funny and sly and moving and whose charmingly jingley-jangley moon-June-spoon rhymes are part of their appeal.

Blythe’s beautiful Wagnerian voice suited the songs perfectly, which should be surprising but isn’t really; the concert made me think of a German-American beer hall culture where Wagner excerpts would mingle with popular tunes. Blythe is an ample woman, a good-humored generous performer of broad appeal. Her tone was perfect in these songs,* neither overly operatic nor condescendingly campy. Her vamping was perfectly judged, and how often can you say that?

She and Jones brought out everything there was to bring out in these songs, which was quite a lot; highlights included a magnificently enraged After You’ve Gone and a hilariously dirty If You Don’t Want My Peaches. She definitely has a last of the red-hot mezzos thing going on, and would have given Sophie Tucker and Mae West a run for their money if she’d been around then. When I think back on this concert I will probably imagine Blythe in one of those broad-brimmed hats with a fancy walking stick that those ladies favored.

The encore was Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer, so exquisitely and movingly sung that our giddy mood was turned on a dime to reflective tears.

*the songs: Coax Me (Sterling and Von Tilzer), Ask Her While the Band Is Playing (Herbert and MacDonough), If I Had a Talking Picture of You (Henderson, Brown, and DeSylva), After You’ve Gone (Creamer and Tlayton), and If You Don’t Want My Peaches, You’d Be Surprised, What’ll I Do?, and I Love a Piano (Irving Berlin)

Haiku 2011/292

crowds scurrying past
an old man, lying helpless
birds sing, the sun shines

18 October 2011

Haiku 2011/291

down mouse-colored streets
through a dim skyscraper maze
crowds scurrying past

17 October 2011

Haiku 2011/290

gray with passing night
pale silent cats stalk proudly
down mouse-colored streets

16 October 2011

Haiku 2011/289

still old, slightly new
I roll over into dawn
gray with passing night

14 October 2011

Haiku 2011/287

patient on a shelf
last year's finds await next year's

13 October 2011

12 October 2011

Haiku 2011/285

bright moon, washed silver
stars twinkle in purple skies:
a child's storybook

11 October 2011

Haiku 2011/284

rain slaps the window
wrung-out rain-clouds drifting off
bright moon, washed silver

10 October 2011

Kronos plays Reich at Cal

Last night I went over to Berkeley for the Cal Performances presentation of a Kronos Quartet Steve Reich program. I have heard less of Reich's music than that of other minimalists (a label I'm sure they all reject) like Glass or Adams. I'm not sure why, since I always am interested in it when I hear it. Maybe it was just that Glass made regular trips to Boston when I lived there and was starting to listen to music, and Reich maybe did not. Hertz Hall was packed and the audience was attentive and enthusiastic. (A cell phone did go off, loudly, during one of the pieces, but there was so much recorded ambient noise that at first I wasn't sure if it was intentional or a delightfully Cagean accident.)

Kronos played the Triple Quartet, selections from The Cave, WTC 9/11 (the Bay Area premiere), and then, after the intermission, Different Trains, followed as an encore by an arrangement for string quartet of Perotin’s Viderunt Omnes. All of the Reich pieces except for The Cave were Kronos commissions. All of the pieces except for the Perotin made heavy use of pre-recorded material.

I go to the trouble and expense of live performances because the music sounds different from a recording, more vivid and immediate and subject to chance and fate and the happenstance of how one feels and where one sits; they’re, you know, live. Here’s my basic reaction to sitting in a concert hall and listening to a piece that depends on pre-recorded material, even if I enjoy the piece: I always wonder, “Why did I have to trek out to a concert hall, wait around for the performance to start (usually at an inconvenient time), and pay (usually two to five times the cost of a CD) just to listen to a recording (only one I can’t listen to repeatedly)?”

The Triple Quartet provided an exciting opening. It can be played by three quartets, or by one quartet to a recording of the other two parts, which is how it was done here. I loved the piece and so have little to say about it, except that I would love to hear it again.

The second piece, The Cave, refers (according to the program notes) to The Cave of the Patriarch, the traditional burial place of Abraham, Sarah, and their offspring, as well as of Adam and Eve. It is also a place sacred to Muslims, who venerate Abraham. I liked the piece (yes, we’ve gone from love to like), but the whole Jewish/Islam aspect is only clear if you’ve read what I’ll call the liner notes. The musical material is generated from the taped remarks, which is a very interesting way to generate music, but the remarks themselves don’t reveal much, except that the setting is somewhere in the Middle East.

There’s what I think is a muezzin’s call to prayer, though it could just as easily be a chanted psalm; it sounds vaguely religious and definitely middle eastern – the point is, without annotation you don’t really know where you are. I can see how working on this material would be fascinating for the musicians involved, but for an audience member (this one, anyway) it worked more as absolute music, which made me wonder why there was so clearly a program imposed on it. It was fine on a purely aesthetic level – sounds are sounds, which are interesting – but if you deliberately write a piece about “the only place in the world where both Jews and Muslims worship,” then I’m thinking you have more on your mind than purely formal issues, though it was a little difficult to say what that might be. Perhaps the string quartet is as unsuited as lyric poetry to dealing effectively with political issues.

But the Cave did provide an excellent political and cultural context for the last piece on the first half of the program, WTC 9/11, which of course commemorates the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. I had listened to the new recording of the brief (about 15 minute) piece on Saturday. My immediate reaction was disappointment. I thought hearing it live might change my mind. It didn’t. It seemed to me that this piece more than any of the others last night relied on recorded voices, so much so that I felt the music was reduced to underscoring. It all sounded the way you would expect it to sound.

The taped voices themselves are manipulated much less than in the other pieces on the program, which, on the one hand, is fine because it would be grotesque to make artsy arrangements of this material, but on the other hand is – setting aside the political and emotional content, and I realize this is itself a slightly grotesque complaint – kind of dull and dutiful. We’ve all heard all this before. In fact we’ve heard this material treated in the same way before (with heavy use of taped recollections from survivors), in John Adams’s 2002 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls, a work I found more oblique and to my ears therefore more evocative and wide-ranging than this one.

According to the program notes, “the Kronos Quartet asked [Reich] for a piece using pre-recorded voices.” He eventually realized that the voices should be from 9/11. He was in Vermont during the attack but his son, grand-daughter, and daughter-in-law were all in his apartment four blocks from the World Trade Center (fortunately it seems they were not injured). So centering the piece on 9/11 was Reich’s idea (and the timing with the tenth anniversary of the attacks is just a coincidence). He’s a composer, so of course his way of processing our time is through composing. But as an audience member, I didn’t feel he was saying anything I hadn’t already heard too often. I think it was a piece he needed to write, but it wasn’t a piece I needed to hear.

It’s hard to believe it was only two years ago when I was mocking the SF Symphony for scheduling their season-opening free public concert, a cheery program of waltzes, on September 11. And I still feel it was weird of them not to acknowledge the date. But I’m also feeling that it’s become rote, disingenuous, and intentionally naïve (let me be clear that I’m talking about the effect on me and not the motives of anyone involved last night) to recite the martyrology for our dead 3,000 while completely ignoring the over 100,000 (that’s only Iraqi civilians, and only an estimate) that we have since killed using our 3,000 as an excuse. WTC 9/11 is not a dishonest or shameful piece, and it’s not fatuous propaganda like Heart of a Soldier, but it’s also not very illuminating or interesting. It felt like a hard little lump that Reich had to get out of his system.

So for me the evening was on a downward trend, despite the beauty and intensity of the Quartet’s playing (which I think was amplified, to compete against the pre-recorded tapes; I was sitting far back in the hall, which is not where I usually sit so I'm not that familiar with the sound quality there, but the instruments sounded amplified until the encore, when there was to my ears a definite change away from a mechanical sound).

Different Trains is from 1988, which makes it the earliest Reich piece played Sunday night. He notes in the program that it began a new musical direction for him. It is based on his memory of cross-country train trips he took as a child, accompanied by his governess, shuttling between his divorced parents in New York City and Los Angeles from 1939 to 1942, and his later realization that if he had been a European rather than American Jew during those years he most likely would have been taking a train ride to a death camp. So there is a political and cultural context here, as in The Cave and WTC 9/11 (though I felt Different Trains conveyed the context more urgently and successfully than the other two).

The contexts and connotations of the three pieces played off each other in interesting ways (with the jagged and swirling Triple Quartet acting as prelude). I thought WTC 9/11 gained from the context (which it does not have in the recording, on which it appears first and is followed by the pleasingly gamelan-like Mallet Quartet), but it lost by being another taped-voices-and-string-accompaniment piece on a program made up of them – it made the method seem less like a necessity or a way of respecting the dead than like a mode.

I wondered during some of the pieces if they would work as well with a live vocalist. It would be interesting to hear some of them that way. But it wouldn’t work for all of them – one of the important recorded voices in Different Trains is Lawrence Davis, a retired Pullman porter who used to work the Los Angeles-New York line that Reich rode. Pullman porter was one of the very limited number of jobs open to black men in America at that time. Davis’s inclusion is a subtle and necessary link between American politics and American racism and the political situation and looming racial genocide in Europe at the same time. His voice complicates and deepens the piece. And obviously you can’t have a vocalist imitating the sound of an elderly black man without sounding offensively like a minstrel show. But using a vocalist instead of tape could work in some other places. There’s a sense of somewhat fetishistic “authenticity” about the insistence on a particular recorded voice that limits the possibility of what can happen in a live performance.

Sadly for me, I am the sort of person who often has little to say about something he loves except that he loved it (usually expressed as “that was nice; I enjoyed it”), but who has plenty to say about his nagging thoughts during something he loves less. So I should point out that I really did enjoy the music (not so much WTC 9/11, but I was glad to hear it) and the performers. But my ticket cost me I think $45 (that’s with a subscriber discount), and given that most of the evening involved listening to recordings, I have to wonder if this was the best use of my time and money. I didn’t feel disappointed or ripped off, but I could have stayed home and had basically the same experience for a fraction of the trouble and cost.

This frustration of a live performance that wasn’t quite live was really brought home by the encore. I had not previously heard of the medieval composer Perotin (though there’s always the possibility I had heard his music on some recording while not registering the name; coincidentally this morning Amazon recommended a Perotin disc to me, which needless to say I bought). He is apparently a favorite composer of Reich’s, who brought him to the attention of first violin David Harrington. It was a mystical and witty piece, played with stately tenderness. And it was the first time all evening I felt I was experiencing something I could only have experienced live.

Haiku 2011/283

our shoulders are bent
a lamp glows a dim yellow
rain slaps the window

09 October 2011

Haiku 2011/282

we are faceless folk
winds make leaves dance before us
our shoulders are bent

Tomas Transtromer

This week Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had been meaning for quite a while to buy one of his collections; now, of course, I will look like a prize-winner camp-follower. The moral is clear: do not hesitate to spend all your money immediately on poetry collections!

I thought at first that I had not read any of his poems, outside of bits in the occasional article, but then I realized I had read several of his poems in the excellent anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things. So here are a couple of his poems. If you find these satisfying, he has several collections currently available (well, there might be a delay in shipping while the publishers slap on stickers reading "Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature").


Men in overalls the same color as earth rise from a ditch.
It's a transitional place, in stalemate, neither country nor city.
Construction cranes on the horizon want to take the big leap, but the clocks are against it.
Concrete piping scattered around laps at the light with cold tongues.
Auto-body shops occupy old barns.
Stones throw shadows as sharp as objects of the moon surface.
And these sites keep on getting bigger
like the land bought with Judas' silver: "a potter's field for buying strangers."



Night, two o'clock: moonlight. The train has stopped
in the middle of the plain. Distant bright points of a town
twinkle cold on the horizon.

As when someone has gone into a dream so far
that he'll never remember he was there
when he comes back to his room.

And as when someone goes into a sickness so deep
that all his former days become twinkling points, a swarm,
cold and feeble on the horizon.

The train stands perfectly still.
Two o'clock: full moonlight, few stars.

(both poems were translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly)

08 October 2011

Dial M for Mother

Last week was a week of theatrical mothers for me, since I went to Lucrezia Borgia at the opera on Monday and then Adam Bock’s contemporary update of Phaedra at Shotgun Players on Thursday. Then I came down with a sudden and ferocious cold, which left as rapidly as it arrived, like a summer thunderstorm (if you live in an area that gets those), but not before I missed Thomas Ades twice, at Cal Performances and the Symphony, so too bad for me.

Shotgun’s ticket prices are very low (about $20) and they now have 7:00 start times on Thursdays (still 8:00 on some nights, for those who prefer that), which I love since I am less and less inclined to waste three hours after work waiting for a show to start, and now it’s easier to take a chance on a theatrical evening. Well, Phaedra is a known quantity, but not in this particular adaptation. Another thing that’s great about Shotgun: when you show up, the house manager shows you what seats are available and you pick one, so there’s no annoying scrum for unassigned seats.

I had wanted to see the Phaedra anyway, partly because I had seen and liked two other plays by Adam Bock (both at Shotgun: The Typographer’s Dream and The Shaker Chair) and partly because a mostly dull production of Racine’s play at ACT last year* had left me wondering if maybe the story of the lustful lying stepmother had simply lost its punch in an age of reality TV. It hasn’t.

A huge amount of credit goes to the power-house work of the consistently fine cast: Cindy Im as Taylor (Aricia), Trish Mulholland as Olibia (Oenone, the maid), Keith Burkland as Antonio (Theseus), Patrick Alparone as Paulie (Hippolytus), and especially Catherine Castellanos as Catherine (Phaedra), who maintained the remarkably fine balance between repugnant and desperately sympathetic. There was something in the way she moved off in the finale, dragging her scarf, that told me she was going to hang herself with it, and when we saw the silhouette of a hanged woman there were gasps in the audience, even from the chatty girl two rows behind me who had ten minutes earlier muttered that Catherine was a hellacious bitch. (The only one of the actors whose name rang a bell with me was Alparone, whom I had seen as a solid Hamlet in an otherwise abysmal production several years ago.)

There were a lot of students in the audience. One of them, a very nice young biology student from Afghanistan, came up to me in the lobby when we were waiting for the house to open, when there were only a couple of other people, and asked me if I knew the story and if so could I explain it to him and his fellow student. So I told him I wasn’t sure how much of the story had been changed, but – and I gave him a summary of Racine’s version. I was a little concerned about spoilers, until I realized that’s what he wanted: he said he’d be able to enjoy the play more if he knew what was happening. I guess knowing the story freed him to concentrate on other aspects rather than on the basic question of what was going on.

So I included Phaedre’s rape allegation (which I’m happy to say Bock has transferred back to Phaedra, whereas in Racine she is merely complicit in allowing the scheming maid to make the charge). It turned out the student was sitting next to me, and indeed the play seemed to gain in power for him because he knew what was going to happen. It made me ponder once again the importance of how much we know about something going in; there’s definitely knowing too much, but there’s also knowing too little; after all, we have to know something, don’t we, or otherwise why would we choose one show over another?

I had nothing but admiration for the performances and the direction (by Rose Riordan). The late-night scene when Catherine confesses her love to Paulie and is rejected, and then the subsequent day when she falsely accuses him of rape, are particularly gut-wrenching and indelible. And on the whole I really admired Bock’s treatment, which very deftly updates the story while retaining a surprising number of traditional elements, even to the vivid description of Hippolytus’s mangled body and violent death (as the seventeenth-century poet Francis Quarles put it, “Hippolitus, who scorned incestuous sports, / Was torn with horses, as his name imports”; here his death comes with tragic wittiness in a car accident in a Mustang).

Paulie’s beloved is no longer a virginal princess, but a girl he met in rehab, who is a bit abrasive but also appealingly direct. She is still the daughter of an enemy, though; her father is a labor lawyer, and Antonio is a right-wing judge. The maid Olibia is cheerful rather than scheming, always chattering and trying to feed everyone, to an extent they sometimes find irritating.

In Racine, Theseus is a notorious philanderer, which lends an interesting texture to his wife’s desperate love for his son, and to the son’s reputation as a haughty enemy of love. I didn’t like that Bock made Antonio a right-wing hack. At the very opening he denounces giving more money to public schools: the audience here is people near Berkeley who go to live theater, so obviously Antonio is condemned in our eyes from the get-go. Catherine disagrees with him – OK, so they don’t get along all that well, but isn’t there a way to show that which won’t slam shut the audience's potential sympathy for him? Antonio has no arguments in favor of any of his positions, not that I can imagine what they would be, which is one reason I’d like to hear some.

I’m all in favor of ridiculing right-wing hacks, but this just seemed like an overly easy way to get the audience to write him off. But why the need to reduce the character in that way? The intention may be to justify Phaedra’s love for the son who seems like a younger version of the man she fell in love with, but Phaedra’s love is not meant to be justifiable or easily explicable – that’s why it’s dramatically interesting and powerful. Also, if her husband is such a buffoon, and if she disagrees so deeply with his idiotic views (and they do seem to be his main topic of conversation, not an easily overlooked sideline), and she doesn't even love him much, you have to wonder why Phaedra sticks with him: the obvious answer is status and money, but that implicit issue is not explored.

And why the need to make Paulie a recovering drug addict, instead of a contemporary version of proud and puritanical Hippolytus? Paulie is in therapy, but his language is oddly free of the therapeutic, 12-step language people in recovery tend to use; there’s also a kind of pure-spirited, essentially innocent honesty about him, which struck me as slightly sentimental, given how prone drug addicts and recovering drug addicts are to lying and self-justification. I have no fault to find with either Burkland’s or Alparone’s portrayal, but I’m wondering why Bock felt that the major change he had to make in the story was to damage and weaken the two men.

Phaedra runs through October 23 at the Ashby Stage (right by the Ashby BART station); click here for tickets, because you should go see it if you can.

* I've linked to what I wrote at (or near) the time, but in each case it's a combo review and the part that I'm referencing is about halfway down.

Haiku 2011/281

to the faceless stars
shining from so far away
we are faceless folk

07 October 2011

Haiku 2011/280

and the upward glance,
past the tall faceless buildings
to the faceless stars

06 October 2011

Haiku 2011/279

it's all for the birds
from sunrise to its setting
and the upward glance. . .

05 October 2011

04 October 2011

Haiku 2011/277

the warm south beckons
cheery cheesy travel sites
it's all for the birds


the warm south beckons
clear blue waves hiss back, then crash

03 October 2011

Picasso in the park

I took a day off work recently and trekked out to Golden Gate Park to see Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso in Paris, which is at the DeYoung Museum until 10 October (according to the website) or 9 October (according to the sign near the museum entrance).

The show has been there a while but I was so absorbed in the Stein collection at SFMoMA that there wasn't room in my world for another exhibit, even one centering on an artist as central to the Steins as Picasso. It turned out to be an interesting complement to the SFMoMA show. Seen in the context of the Stein collection, Picasso seemed to be absorbing and reacting to the influences around him: Japanese prints, African masks, and most particularly the Matisses, whose striking and indelibly wild colors seemed to be pushing Picasso in the opposite direction, towards the monochromatic blue period paintings or towards the subdued browns and grays of cubism.

What the DeYoung exhibit brought out is how incredibly inventive, original, and influential Picasso was. He seemed like his own artistic universe. There must be a dozen pictures each in the show with titles like Head of a Woman, Woman with Hat, Artist and Model, yet each picture is different, often vividly different, from the others. There are pictures hanging next to each other of the same subject, yet one will be done with a classical authority and the other with all the abandonment of modernist distortion.

The curators did a really beautiful job hanging the show, by the way. Though the rooms can get fairly crowded (which is why I went on a weekday), the paintings themselves have well-judged space between them, hanging high enough so that they can be seen from across the room but not so high that you can't inspect them closely once the crowd opens up.

The pictures range from his very early days to the very end. There are pictures that reminded me of New Yorker covers and pictures that reminded me of classical frescoes and pictures that reminded me of mid-1950s hotel-room harlequin paintings. The show is in one sense smaller than I thought (I had the impression, from where I don't know, that there would be about ten more rooms) but its effect is aesthetically and emotionally much larger and frankly kind of overwhelming.

Picasso is indelibly associated with Paris, especially in its avant-garde glory days in the early twentieth century, but he's of course very Spanish, and I was reminded again of how crucial Spain has been to shaping modern art and culture, though it tends to get overlooked a bit. Right by the DeYoung in Golden Gate Park are some reminders of the Spanish cultural influence; above, that's Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, who covered the state with Spanish placenames; and that's a bust of Cervantes below. The two almost but not quite face each other across the parkway.

There was an informative booklet available surveying Picasso's career, which I read during lunch in the cafeteria while waiting for my timed entrance to the show. It connects the works with cultural and biographical facts, which is interesting but also irrelevant; if Picasso (in Bullfight: Death of the Torero from 1933) did intend to show himself as the bull and his wife as the wounded horse and his mistress as "the effeminate matador," then that particular emotional complexity may be part of where the picture is coming from, but it doesn't explain the picture for me, a foreign viewer looking on long after the deaths of all involved, in any useful way. The emotions of the picture are there to be unpacked by the viewer and can be deduced without reducing them to biography. I think most artists are actually more immersed in the technical matters of their art.

After viewing the show I took the elevator up the bronze tower for the panoramic view of the city, which was beautiful in the fog. But the elevators are rather small and the wait is long and I realized I was kind of trapped up there and I should have just left after seeing the Picasso show.

I'll have more chances to check out the view from the tower, since I'm sure I'll be trekking out to the DeYoung several times for their upcoming show of paintings from Renaissance Venice.

I got back on the #5 Fulton bus but hopped off as soon as I was close enough to a BART station. That turned out to be in Civic Center, where there was an interlude of brilliant sunshine and warmth between the fog of Golden Gate Park and the fog in San Leandro. Several skateboarders were taking turns going up a portable plywood ramp, and I was reminded of the energy and expressive physical contortions of the Picasso paintings I had just seen.

Haiku 2011/276

cool winds shake the trees
birds look up and fly away
the warm south beckons

02 October 2011

drink to me only with thine eyes

The John Pascoe production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, staged as a vehicle for Renee Fleming, was so thoroughly trashed when it played in Washington a few years ago and again Friday before last when it opened here (in this work’s first appearance at San Francisco Opera) that last Monday I went into its second performance with very low expectations, which may have been a good thing because I found myself enjoying the evening thoroughly.

This is not to say that the production or the opera itself is particularly good, though approached in the right way it is entertaining and very effective. I’m the first person to sneer coldly at people who discuss all opera as if it’s silly inane camp (“but of course the music,” they always simper condescendingly, “is simply gorgeous!”), but if I were a lawyer arguing that case I’d do my best to have Lucrezia ruled inadmissible as evidence. You may well spend a lot of time trying to piece together the haphazard plot, but this is I think the wrong approach. What we have here is not Lulu; it is not even Lucia. What I realized during an early scene in which a suddenly unmasked Lucrezia is confronted with four or five men who take turns announcing which of their relatives she has murdered, while La Lucrezia makes an anguished but exculpatory little backward sweep of her hand, as if to say, “Well, yes, I did poison all those people – but what else was I to do?!?” – what I realized then is that what we have here is a Joan Crawford movie.

I need to point out that I was not one of those jackasses who feel the need to laugh at something other people are taking seriously, in order to show how superior they are to it (and to those taking it seriously). I need to point this out because I despise people who impose their reactions on others during a performance, or who feel the need to assert their superiority to something they’re enjoying (I have no guilty pleasures, at least aesthetically), and I realize I’m coming about as close as I can imagine coming to saying an opera is best enjoyed as camp. It’s just that I realized that if I approached this the way I would something like Le Nozze di Figaro, or some similarly deep and, you know, coherent work, then I would miss the very different pleasures provided.

So I sat silently and in perfect attendance, as did those around me, and perhaps I would have enjoyed myself less if the audience had been more annoying, or if the opera had started at 8:00 rather than 7:30, as I was pretty much done by Act 3: the experience of live theater is so fragile and fraught with peril! – much like life in Renaissance Italy, as portrayed in Lucrezia Borgia. I’m used to such a portrayal in Shakespeare, but it seemed a slightly odd approach for an Italian to take to an era in his country's history that is one of the glories of this world. I kept thinking of Shakespeare because watching Lucrezia was a bit like watching Two Gentlemen of Verona, in that there are situations that are quite enjoyable and satisfactory, unless you know some of the later plays in which similar situations are elevated far beyond the earlier work; I kept thinking of Verdi, in particular Un Ballo in Maschera, and how much more effectively he had treated some similar situations (or something like Macbeth, in which both Shakespeare and Verdi achieved something deep and unified, as Donizetti didn't with his heroine).

As for following the plot, the opera gods forbid that five minutes of stage time be taken from the inevitable drinking song or the chorus’s umpteenth repetition of such relevant sentiments as “Venice is awfully nice!” or “We like to party!” in order to clarify such questions as why young soldier Gennaro (tenor Michael Fabiano) was raised by a fisherman instead of his mother Lucrezia, why he has never been told that she is his mother, why she never tells him she is his mother when she runs across him in Venice (allowing him instead to proclaim himself in love with her, and not in a brunch-and-corsage-on-the-second-Sunday-in-May way, either), or – and this is the question that nagged at me the most – why she simply doesn’t tell her husband Duke Alfonso (Vitalij Kowaljow) that Gennaro is not her lover but her son, when such information could save Gennaro’s life, which seems to be her general goal. Yes, I can assume it’s a shocking or shameful secret, but what’s the point (other than providing a smashing final curtain, of course) of announcing it only when it is most obviously way too late?

You see that making sense of the plot is not the way to go here. You talk about tabloid operas – this is the mother of them all, steeped in gossip so sordid and scandalous it was whispered down the generations. Lucrezia Borgia is like Salome without the philosophical underpinnings. You can feel Donizetti straining to fit this wild, shocking Romantic-movement fantasia into the theatrical restrictions of the early nineteenth-century Italian stage, and not quite succeeding. It’s all about what is most vivid and sensational and depraved from moment to moment, and if that means a certain overall incoherence, or a lack of such niceties as plausible characterization, then so be it.

It’s all about the moment, and isn’t that where live theater exists, only in the vanishing moment? But I don’t want to make it sound like a philosophical exercise, or too aesthetic and rarefied, as if you were reading Mallarme or holding an opal up to the sun to watch it flash its dazzling colors; what watching Lucrezia is like is standing in the supermarket check-out line and reading contradictory tabloid headlines about the same star (the most relevant star in this case would be Angelina Jolie) and realizing that in that universe there is no contradiction.

The heroine is both a powerful, vindictive woman and a heart-broken mother; there are intimations of betrayal and lurid crimes of all sort; the plot is convoluted and elliptical to the point of incomprehensibility; and of course it’s all very noir, not only in style, but quite literally – whether a scene takes place in a secret dungeon or in a public square during what was later, to my great surprise, announced as “broad daylight,” the stage is plunged in unrelenting night – I might as well enter into the extravagant spirit of the thing and call it Cimmerian gloom. I assume this is a deliberate, if slightly puzzling, artistic choice, and not an attempt by the Opera company to cut down on its no-doubt expensive utility bills, but it sure doesn’t help when you’re trying to figure out which interchangeable minor courtier is doing what to another interchangeable minor courtier.

But, again, legibility is not the point. Given this approach, it was easy to enjoy the show without worrying too much about why the courtiers were occasionally elaborately choreographed and why they sometimes moved like regular human beings; or why people kept giving the Nazi salute (I don’t care if this salute was customary in Renaissance Italy; if you put it on stage in 21st-century America, it reads as a Hitler reference); or why – well, why bother listing? I stopped dwelling on such things. I even consented to pretend that the leather-clad jailer desultorily whipping a thin nervous dancer as the dungeon scene opened was the height (or depth) of titillating depravity, even though the newspaper that morning had far more explicit photos and descriptions from the previous weekend’s Folsom Street Fair (a major San Francisco tourist attraction), complete with a report from a nice middle-aged lady visitor that she hadn’t seen much like this up in Eugene, Oregon. The signifiers of depravity have their iconic functions.

The homoeroticism was not limited to leather-clad jailers. In Act 3 Gennaro, after spending the first two acts falling in love or at least horniness at first sight with beautiful women (even if they turned out to be his mother), was suddenly smooching in the piazza with his compatriot Maffio Orsini (mezzo Elizabeth DeShong). Usually this sort of shoe-horned same-sexiness irritates me, because you can tell the directors feel smug about how “honest” they are (when what they’re really doing is messing up the psychological relationships among the characters) and how “bold” they are (when instead they are simplistically reducing all relationships among men to purely sexual ones). But I entered into the anything-goes spirit of sensationalism so fully that when I realized that Orsini was not Gennaro’s pageboy, as I had initially thought (DeShong is quite short and youthful-looking, and her part kept reminding me of Oscar in Ballo, hence my pageboy assumption), I was mostly disappointed that the sulfurous whiff of pedophilia wasn’t adding to the heady tabloid brew.

I also loved the much-mocked costumes, which I found sumptuous, lurid, and slightly ridiculous, and therefore perfectly suited to the staging. It makes sense in the terms of this production that Lucrezia would visit her husband’s dungeon wearing a glam chiffon-and-shimmer ballgown in russet and green-gold, with her hair done up in a Dairy Queen swirl which was slightly off-center, no doubt to express inner anguish. In the grand finale, she bursts into the party room like the Red Death, wearing black tights and an elegantly cut (or hammered) silver breastplate, her hair now done in a severe and punitive shag, looking totally ready for Joan of Arc night at the dance club. She enters with sword grandly drawn, which may seem quite literally like overkill, as she has already poisoned the drinks of everyone in the room, but it is undeniably a kick-ass entry, and who am I to deny a diva her accessories in the name of some dramatic or logical principles that clearly had been set aside when the curtain first ascended?

Meanwhile Gennaro is rocking a pair of tights with broad vertical stripes in muted and blended shades of green – nothing too bright or primary, which is good because such shades really don’t work for the portrayal of overripe decadence, which is why I feel designers of Salome should reach for olive-green and purple and not crimson – topped by a golden pec-baring tunic perfectly suited for watching the tenor’s chest rise and fall as his last aria pours forth in the sweet anguish of death. I don’t usually react this way to costumes, but in this case I really had some sartorial envy: I thought, My God, if I were a Renaissance mercenary who smooched boys in the alley and fell in love with his own Mom, that is exactly what I would want to wear! My own costume of black pants and long-sleeved black T-shirt (long sleeves: the secret of elegance, or at least presentability!) seemed in comparison like a utilitarian failure to truly live.

I have no idea how the costumes read farther back in the barn that is the War Memorial Opera House. As I said, the lighting was notably dim throughout.

This was all a reminder that the pleasures of the opera house are not only musical. As for the actual musical pleasures . . . well, that was a mixed bag, though Donizetti had certainly supplied some promising raw materials. I have seen Carol Vanness carry roles that weren’t really suited to her through sheer force of personality; if Fleming didn't quite achieve that, seeming more disengaged, more a visiting celebrity than an engine of the story, well . . . as I mentioned earlier: Joan Crawford. Under the circumstances it didn’t seem entirely unsuitable for her to stand there smiling vaguely amid the destruction. She is more engaged and convincing in some aspects of the part than others – she’s much better at the suffering mother than the tempestuous temptress. Vocally some parts were rougher than others, but then there were moments of astonishing beauty, in particular one long sustained anguished note as her Act 1 unmaskers accuse her to her son, which may have been one of the most memorable purely vocal moments I’ve experienced recently in the opera house.

Clearly Fleming was the selling-point of the evening (quite literally; she’s been ubiquitous in the Opera’s marketing materials, and we were urged to subscribe before her appearances sold out), but on the whole the other singers provided more consistent pleasures; in particular Michael Fabiano made an excellent debut as Gennaro, with a strong and flexible voice that was always pleasing, and Vitalij Kowaljow was a thunderous and authoritative Alfonso.

As I said, I enjoyed my evening thoroughly, though I understand why the performances have gotten mixed and often negative reactions. The audience the night I went seemed generally quite enthusiastic, culminating in the now perhaps inevitable standing ovation. But when it came to that – well, so soon after we all stood for the SF Symphony’s epic and blazing Mahler 3, it just didn’t seem right to me to give the same tribute to the lurid pleasures of Lucrezia Borgia. But I’m not going to pretend I didn’t enjoy it all quite a lot, and I’m not going to sneer at what I genuinely enjoyed.

Haiku 2011/275

fading into clouds
disappearing summer skies
cool winds shake the trees

01 October 2011

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

According to an e-mail from Theatre of Yugen, one of the names for autumn in Japan is Geijutsu-no-Aki, meaning "the season of art." Here are some artful suggestions for October, the most beautiful month of the year ("season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" -- see, its beauty is acknowledged worldwide). Enjoy these, even if you feel every season is the season of art, or simply go somewhere to contemplate the fragile beauty of the autumn leaves and so forth:

I'll continue with Theatre of Yugen, and its Asian-fusion theater: the season-opening SORYA! A Minor Miracle! Part 1 runs 2-24 October (Part 2 is coming in the spring).

The ACT MFA Program presents Aphra Behn's The Rover from 19 October to 5 November, at the Hastings Studio Theater, 77 Geary Street, San Francisco.

The Olympians Festival (contemporary visions and revisions of classical Greek mythology) takes place all month at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy Street, in San Francisco; check out the complete schedule here.

Cutting Ball Theater opens its season with Pelleas & Melisande -- the original Maeterlinck play, that is, not Debussy's more famous opera -- in a new translation by Rob Melrose, who also directs. 21 October through 27 November.

Cal Performances has a lot going on this month, including composer and pianist Thomas Ades joining the Calder Quartet in works by himself, Liszt, and Stravinsky (2 October); the Kronos Quartet in an all-Steve Reich concert (9 October, but at 7:00 instead of the usual Sunday matinee); Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra in all six Tchaikovsky symphonies in a three-concert series (14-16 October); Desdemona, an extrapolation/interpretation of the relationship between Desdemona and her African nurse (who taught her the Willow Song), put together by Peter Sellars and Toni Morrison, and featuring Rokia Traore (26-29 October); and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky joins Apollo's Fire in a performance of music by Handel and Vivaldi (30 October).

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players open their season Monday 3 October at Herbst Theater, with Josh Levine's Transparency (Part 1), Varese's Octandre, and John Luther Adams's Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing. This program looks exciting enough so that I am actually thinking of going, despite its absurdly worker-unfriendly start-time of 8:00.

Pianist Lara Downes, currently an Artist in Residence at the Mondavi Center in Davis, has an upcoming release party/concert featuring 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, a new set of Goldberg variations featuring thirteen contemporary composers, including Higdon, Foss, Bolcom, del Tredici, and others; 14 October at 8:00, at Salle Pianos, 1632 Market Street in San Francisco.

Magnificat presents Charpentier's Orphee, 14-16 October, in various locations.

San Francisco Performances opens its season this month, with lots of great stuff including Stephanie Blythe (13 October) and Simon Keenlyside (27 October).

At the San Francisco Symphony, James Conlon conducts the Verdi Requiem with soloists Sondra Radvanovsky, Dolora Zajick, Frank Lopardo, and Ain Anger (19-22 October) and Alan Gilbert leads Renaud Capucon and the orchestra in Dutilleux's L'Arbre des Songes, along with the Haydn 99 and the Beethoven 8 (27-29 October; the 27th is a Thursday matinee).

Nicole Paiement's Blueprint series at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents John Harbison's song cycle North and South, along with a preview of Ensemble Parallele's upcoming chamber opera version of his Great Gatsby, plus a Violin Concertino by Kurt Rohde, featuring violinist Axel Strauss, and Erwin Schulhoff's Concerto for piano and small orchestra, with pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, on 22 October.

Philharmonia Baroque presents Vivica Genaux in a program of arias written for Farinelli, 27-30 October, in various locations, as is their wont.

At the Legion of Honor, the exhibit Pissarro's People, featuring, as you might guess, paintings by Camille Pissarro of people, opens 22 October and runs through 22 January 2012.

At the DeYoung, the exhibit Masters of Venice, featuring Renaissance paintings now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, opens 29 October and runs through 12 February 2012.

At the Asian Art Museum, which has a silly new logo that looks like an arrow plummeting downward, the exhibit Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts opens 21 October and runs through 8 April 2012.

Haiku 2011/274

three birds fly away
blue-gray spots in blue-gray skies
fading into clouds