31 March 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: April 2013

There's a lot going on in the cruelest month, even with the San Francisco Symphony still on strike. (Apparently the strike ended about the time I hit "publish" on this, so here's one case in which instant obsolescence is good news. I'll probably do an addendum later with the Symphony highlights. Right now I need to stop staring at computer screens. For the record, I supported the musicians all the way.)

First up, there's a new performing ensemble in the area: Curious Flights, the brainchild of clarinetist (and Artistic Director) Brenden Guy, is dedicated to performing new and rare works from the solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire. The inaugural concert is 26 April at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street, in San Francisco. The program features Updike's Science by Brian Holmes, Fantasy Pieces (a world premiere) by Joseph Stillwell, Cafe Music by Paul Schoenfield, Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano by Aram Khachaturian, and Nonet by Arnold Bax. Read more about this new group here.

There's definitely a lot of opera going on for a month when the San Francisco Opera isn't performing:

Opera Parallele presents Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti along with Barber's A Hand of Bridge 26 - 28 April at Z Space.

Philharmonia Baroque presents Handel's Teseo, with Nicholas McGegan conducting, featuring Amanda Forsythe, Dominique Labelle, Amy Freston, Celine Ricci, Robin Blaze, and Drew Minter, on 10, 11, 13, and 14 April, in their usual various locations. Please note that the evening performances start at 7:30 and the Sunday performance at 4:00.

West Edge Opera presents the American premiere of Fabrizio Carlone's Bonjour M Gauguin at the El Cerritto Performing Arts Theater (conveniently near the El Cerritto BART station) on 6, 12, and 14 April.

This certainly sounds operatic: awesome local chorus Volti joins with the SF Choral Society, the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, and the Leah Stein Dance Company to present the west coast premiere of David Lang's Battle Hymns 26-28 April out at Kezar Pavilion; the unusual locale is to accommodate the large forces required for this site-specific commemoration of the Civil War sesquicentennial.

My usual criteria for including things here is (1) it's something I'm going to or (2) it's something I would like to go to, given world enough and time, and though Die Fledermaus doesn't qualify on either count (let me quote myself: watching it is like being clubbed to death with meringues), what does qualify is opera at the San Francisco Conservatory's own theater, rather than off in the inadequate and hard-to-get-to Cowell Theater at Fort Mason. So if the opera in question is acceptable to you, you can see it in the Conservatory's beautiful theater 4 - 7 April; call the Box Office at 415-503-6275 or purchase online (and find more information) at the Conservatory's website.

If you're looking for theater where people speak rather than sing their lines, Cutting Ball has extended The Chairs to 7 April and Shotgun Players continues voyaging through The Coast of Utopia. Then there are some new things starting:

Aurora Theater presents Max Frisch's The Arsonists, translated by Alistair Beaton and directed by Mark Jackson, 5 April to 12 May.

Berkeley Rep presents Pericles, Prince of Tyre, by Shakespeare (mostly), directed by Mark Wing-Davey. The website says the performance is 90 minutes, straight through, so clearly it's a shortened version. I'm intrigued! This is the play that inspired Eliot's Marina ("What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands / What water lapping the bow / And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog / What images return / O my daughter").That's 12 April to 26 May on the main stage.

Cal Performances highlights this month include harpsichordist Davitt Moroney playing Bach's Art of the Fugue, 7 April; pianist Simon Trpčeski playing Schubert and Liszt, 14 April; the return of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, 23 - 29 April; and Boston's Handel and Haydn Society, 26 - 27 April (the 27 April program features my favorite Handel oratorio, Jeptha).

San Francisco Performances highlights include jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, 10 April (Salon at the Rex); pianist Martin Helmchen playing Bach, Webern, Schubert, and Brahms, 14 April; pianist Andras Schiff playing Bach's French Suites, 14 April, and English Suites, 21 April; dancer Shantala Shivalingappa, 16 April; and pianist Till Fellner playing Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Schumann, 29 April.

New Century Chamber Orchestra presents works by Golijov, Mozart, and Chausson, featuring pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, 3 - 7 April in their usual various locations.

San Francisco Ballet has two different programs running: Program 6, 9 - 20 April, features Raymonda, Act III (choreographer Rudolph Nureyev and composer Alexander Glazunov), Ibsen's House (choreographer Val Caniparoli and composer Anton Dvorak), and Symphonic Dances (choreographer Edwaard Liang and composer Sergei Rachmaninov); and Program 7, 11-21 April, features Criss-Cross (choreographer Helgi Tomasson, composers Scarlatti and Schoenberg), Francesca da Rimini (choreographer Yuri Possokhov and composer Tchaikovsky), and Symphony in Three Movements (choreographer George Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky).

The California Bach Society is joined by cornett and sackbut ensemble The Whole Noyse for selections from Heinrich Schutz's Symphoniae Sacrae, 26 - 28 April in their usual various locations.

Highlights at the SF Jazz Center include a mini-festival devoted to the Weimar Republic, featuring Ute Lemper (11 April), Max Raabe & Palast Orchester (12 - 13 April), and Lang's Metropolis with live music by the Club Foot Orchestra (14 April); and also Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish, set by Bill Frisell and with visual design by Ralph Steadman (18 April).

25 March 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/13

Here's one for Holy Week:

The Heavenly Aeroplane

One of these nights about twelve o'clock
The old world's going to reel and rock,
The sinner's going to tremble and cry for pain
And the Lord will come in his aeroplane.

O ye thirsty of every tribe
Get your ticket for an aeroplane ride,
Jesus our Savior is a-coming to reign
And take you up to glory in His aeroplane.

Talk about your joy-rides in automobiles,
Talk about your fast time on motor wheels,
We'll break all records as we upward fly
For an aeroplane joy-ride through the sky.

There will be no punctures or muddy roads,
No broken axles from overloads,
No shocks to give trouble or cause delay
As we soon will rapture up the narrow way.

You will have to get ready if you take this ride,
Quit all your sins and humble your pride,
You must furnish a lamp both bright and clean
And a vessel of oil to run the machine.

When our journey is over and we'll all sit down
At the marriage supper with a robe and a crown
We'll blend our voices with the heavenly throng
And praise our Savior as the years roll on.


This anonymous hymn dates from around the mid-1930s, from the Ozark Mountain region of the United States: a time and place in which air travel was no longer experimental, but still glamorous and thrilling and almost as if from another world (so put today's cramped, horrible flights and security-theater shenanigans out of your mind for now). The use of an older form of airplane - the three-syllable aeroplane - helps establish this mental  distance (and as in some older English verse, the rhythm won't sound right unless you use the old-fashioned form of the word). The writer deftly and ingeniously combines long-standing Biblical imagery (the vessel of oil, Heaven as a marriage feast) with current, mundane technology (the broken axles, the shocks - I love the offhand pun on that word). It may seem odd to use an airplane/aeroplane in this context, but it's actually a wonderful contemporary equivalent of the fiery chariots that appear in the writings of the Biblical prophets. What was the chariot to the Prophets but a dazzling example of the latest technology available to the rich and powerful? As for the fiery part of the chariot, concepts exist before they are named, and though "totally cool" and "wicked awesome" are not how the prophets would have expressed it, I think that was the underlying feeling behind the flames.

I took this from The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse, compiled by Donald Davie. According to his footnote on this poem, he took it from Volume 4 of Ozark Folksongs, collected and edited by Vance Randolph, and published originally by the State Historical Society of Missouri.

18 March 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/12

Here's another villanelle:

One Art

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

-- Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not to hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

More and more this has become the Elizabeth Bishop poem, the one people know if they know just one, kind of like Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is for Frost or This Be the Verse is for Larkin. The title of this poem was even used as the title for a collection of her letters. And it's very characteristic of Bishop in its refined craftsmanship, its unsentimental specificity and clarity, and its sense of something profound and painful handled with strength and grace. Those familiar with Bishop's life could probably link each line to an event in her life, but that's missing the point; it might add some poignancy to realize that the mother whose watch she lost was herself lost to Bishop through mental illness when the future poet was five, but the real meaning of that line comes when you think of something you've lost of your own mother's, or father's, or grandparent's. She starts out with the everyday loss of little things and then moves out to bigger things: the loss of what you meant to do with your life, and your connection to your past (the mother's watch); then she moves from things that are small or intangible to physical locations, again starting small with houses, then cities, then continents - the losses seem larger, but then in the last stanza the dash signals an abrupt change in focus, shifting from large land masses down to one particular individual whom she loves, and that one person seems like a larger loss than any continent or river. But even the loss of that loved one can be survived, though in the final line the parenthetical exhortation as well as the repetition of "like" after it subtly suggests the emotional cost she pays as she steels herself to survive this final loss. The exhortation "(Write it!)" and the "One Art" of the title point out the connection between our inevitable losses and the creation of art as a way of offsetting them: her loss is something we've all experienced (and that's one reason why interpreting a poem like this purely as autobiography is too reductive to be useful). I'm reminded of Heine's magnificent quip, "Out of my great sorrows I make my little songs."

I took this from my copy of The Complete Poems 1927 - 1979, but that appears to be out-of-print and superseded by Poems.

11 March 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/11

Here is a villanelle: that is, a nineteen-line poem (five tercets and a concluding quatrain) that uses only two rhymes throughout and that uses the first and third lines of the first tercet as alternating stanza refrains, bringing them both together in the last two lines of the quatrain. If that sounds confusing, just read the poem and you'll see how it works. This is by Mark Ford, a contemporary British poet.

A few weeks ago, we saw Housman extending a fragment of Sappho into a new poem. This week, Ford also uses the ancient Greek poet, ingeniously incorporating several of her surviving fragments into a modern structure, much as some medieval builders incorporated random blocks from classical ruins to create something new. Housman's and Ford's poems are both openly derived from Sappho, but a subtler version of her influence is built into the DNA of most European-language lyrics (especially love lyrics), even though much of her work, like that of most classical authors, is now lost: her influence on the subsequently influential, particularly such Roman poets as Horace and Catullus, makes her one of the great if sometimes indirect well-springs of world poetry.


When dawn, wearing golden sandals, awoke me,
I began to crawl, burning, shivering, to my uncurtained window;
Migrating birds streamed over the dark sea.

Who can quench the ingenious fires of cruelty?
I was dreaming of white-fetlocked horses conferring in a meadow
When dawn, wearing golden sandals, awoke me.

On my stopped loom, a sort of landscape: icy
Peaks, serrated as daggers, a corpse, and beside it a crow,
And migrating birds streaming over the dark sea.

Fat, autumnal flies alight on my sheets, rainbow-hued, dizzy;
This one on my wrist - its mandibles quiver, its gibbous eyes glow. . . 
Then dawn, wearing golden sandals, awoke me.

Merciless daughter of Zeus, immortal Aphrodite,
Come to me, sing to me, low-voiced, in sorrow
Of migrating birds that stream over the dark sea.

Cast aside your spangled headband: in my mirror I see
You beneath these stringy locks, puckered lips, and tear-stained cheeks . . . go,
Migrating birds, stream over the dark sea;
And dawn, wearing golden sandals, awake me.

[Author's] Note: "Fragments" makes use of a number of images from the poetry of Sappho.

Mark Ford

Ford strikingly captures that half-waking, half-dreaming state as we move towards dawn, where one thing slips into another and then back again, and the menaces of the night give way hazily to the menaces of the morning. The repetitions inherent in the structure of a villanelle work brilliantly to bring out the obsessive, circular nature of this state. There is a pervading sense of loss and threat; the migrating birds definitely seem to be fleeing rather than just migrating; strange, surreal landscapes appear, icy, with a corpse and a crow; flies seem lazy and colorful and then as if in close-up we see their horrible jaws and bulging eyes. The appearance towards the end of Aphrodite, who is merciless yet sorrowful and who melds with the poet's haggard image, implies that it's erotic loss and failure haunting these dreams.

This is from the anthology Villanelles, edited by Annie Finch and Marie-Elizabeth Mali, from the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series. Amazon has other Mark Ford books here.

04 March 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/10


On roadsides,
   in fall fields,
      in rumpy bunches,
         saffron and orange and pale gold,

in little towers,
   soft as mash,
      sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,
         full of bees and yellow beads and perfect flowerlets,

and orange butterflies,
   I don't suppose
      much notice comes of it, except for honey,
         and how it heartens the heart with its

blank blaze.
   I don't suppose anything loves it except, perhaps
      the rocky voids
         filled by its dumb dazzle.

For myself,
   I was just passing by, when the wind flared,
      and the blossoms rustled,
         and the glittering pandemonium

leaned on me.
   I was just minding my own business
      when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
         citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
   Are not the difficult labors of our lives
      full of dark hours?
         And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
   All day
      on their airy backbones
         they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
   they rise in a stiff sweetness,
      in the pure peace of giving
         one's gold away.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is a contemporary American poet. And this poem strikes me as a contemporary American version of last week's poem, Wordsworth's I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. Again we have a solitary walker who suddenly comes across an expanse of common wildflowers brought to golden life by the wind, and the sight enriches the poet inwardly. Both Wordsworth and Oliver carry on a subtle dialogue against their respective time's prevailing emphasis on monetary gain: Wordsworth calls the daffodils "golden" and pointedly describes the inner consolation their memory has brought him as "wealth." (In fact, it's a windfall.) Oliver too is minding "her own business" when she learns from the goldenrod - generally considered a useless and even, for those with allergies, harmful weed - a spiritual lesson in "the pure peace of giving / one's gold away." Both poets find not just consolation but strength and meaning in solitary union with wild nature.

Wordsworth uses regular rhyme and meter, but also a radical simplicity of diction (more apparent and startling in his time than in ours, thanks partly to his influence). Oliver delights in the use of alliteration and wordplay to build her poem and make it memorable: "sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers" the goldenrod "heartens the heart with its blank blaze"; her looser contemporary lines are full of similar examples.

This is from Oliver's New and Selected Poems, which is apparently now Volume 1, though it was a stand-alone volume back when I bought it.