25 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/48

I was casting around for a poem for Thanksgiving week and not really coming up with anything that satisfied me, until I realized I had a long-standing tradition of listening to The Rake's Progress on Thanksgiving while I prepared dinner and a long-standing thought of posting Tom Rakewell's Act 1, Scene 2 aria; so here it is. The music is by Stravinsky and the brilliant libretto by W H Auden with Chester Kallman.

Ambitious and restless young Tom Rakewell, informed by a mysterious messenger, Nick Shadow, of a generous bequest from a hitherto unknown uncle, has left his sweetheart, Anne Trulove, back in the country as he goes to seek adventure and further fortune in glamorous London. Nick has brought him to Mother Goose's brothel, where the custom is for each newcomer to "sing you a song / in earnest of his desire to be initiated." (Mother Goose is not the famous nursery rhyme character, though the name does bring with it an aura of the fairy-tale and the fantastical; "goose" is old slang for a prostitute, used as such by Shakespeare.)

Tom's Aria ("Love, too frequently betrayed")

Tom Rakewell:
Love, too frequently betrayed
For some plausible desire
Or the world's enchanted fire,
Still thy traitor in his sleep
Renews the vow he did not keep,
Weeping, weeping,
He kneels before thy wounded shade.

Love, my sorrow and my shame,
Though thou daily be forgot,
Goddess, O forget me not!
Lest I perish, O be nigh
In my darkest hour that I
Dying, dying,
May call upon thy sacred name.

Chorus of Whores:
How sad a song,
But sadness charms.
How handsomely he cries!
Come, drown your sorrows in these arms.
Forget it in these eyes,
Upon these lips.

W H Auden & Chester Kallman, from The Rake's Progress

Like other poems I've posted here (the occasional Broadway song, everything by Sappho), this was intended to be experienced with its accompanying music. And if you know the opera, you can't help hearing the melody; as you read you will, as the music does, repeat Tom's anguished "O be nigh," and mentally hear whichever performer's "weeping, weeping" and "dying, dying" break your heart. But the words makes sense even if you've never heard a note of the opera, though the music enriches the experience; it also makes sense even if you've never read Auden's poetry, though familiarity with his poems on loving steadfastly despite lacking true love in return (which he felt described his relationship with Kallman) also expand the experience.

Even at this early stage in his "progress," Tom is torn by regrets, though he takes no steps to return to the true love whose worth he already contrasts with the frivolity and cynicism of London society (the "world's enchanted fire," which warms, burns, and consumes). His song is an anguished cry from his heart – yet it is also a self-conscious performance in the theater of the world; Nick introduces him to the assembled prostitutes, he performs, and the appreciative ladies are seduced by his appealing melancholy – his song must have echoed in many of their hearts, or what hearts they had left after the commerce of love – as well as by his youthful good looks.

"Shade" at the end of the first stanza is an interesting word: "He kneels before thy wounded shade." The obvious, technical answer to "why shade?" is "to rhyme with betrayed." But Auden at least was too great a poet for that convenience to be sufficient. A shade can be light diminished by obstructions, or a device to cause such diminution, or shelter from heat, or a trace or gradation of something, or a disembodied spirit: all these things are possible interpretations or aspects of Love. But can a shade in any of its senses really be "wounded"? Perhaps there is an implication that part of Tom's egotism is thinking that his betrayal of Love can harm its unsubstantial substance. Shade also links Love with the shadow world (perhaps with overtones of Jung's idea of the shadow as the necessary but hidden and denied part of one's personality), in particular with Nick Shadow, the devil of the piece. ("Old Nick" is an antique folk-term for the Devil.) It's clear as the plot unfolds that Nick is trying to capture and destroy Tom's soul, though I once attended a performance during which it took the gentleman next to me two and a half acts to figure out that Nick Shadow is the devil – I know this because he announced in the middle of the third act, "Oh! – he's the Devil!"

So why would the "sacred name" of the goddess of Love be linked to Nick Shadow? Perhaps Tom's trust in both has been misplaced. Like Goethe's Faust, Tom will be saved from damnation by selfless love (not his own). But in the opera's acerbic twist, Love's redemptive power is not all-mighty: though Tom does in fact call upon Love in his darkest hour, his reliance on this notoriously disruptive, irrational emotion leaves him vulnerable to Nick's parting curse: "Your sins, my foe, before I go / Give me some power to pain: / To reason blind shall be your mind, / Henceforth be you insane!" Tom's progress ends in Bedlam. He believes he is Adonis, the beloved of Venus. When the faithful Anne is brought to visit him by her steadfast father, he thinks she is Venus. She sings him a lullaby, as you would to a fretful child. He falls asleep, then he awakes, calling upon not Anne but Venus. But she has left – there is nothing more she can do for Tom. He dies, or falls back into a living death.

My tears for Mimi and Violetta dried up years ago, but I still weep for Tom Rakewell, and for Anne Trulove. There are many recordings of the piece; for sentimental reasons (it was the first recording of the opera I had, and for years the only one) I'll mention the Riccardo Chailly; if you prefer to see as well as hear your opera, there's a good DVD with the celebrated David Hockney sets.

18 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/47

I now have a slick and spiffy new computer, but I had no time this week and I'm still getting used to the new computer interface, so here's another brief bit of life wisdom from Sappho. Once again, this is from the Mary Barnard translation.

If you are squeamish

Don't prod the
beach rubble

Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard

11 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/46

My computer is still down, so here's a brief one for Veterans Day:

Leaving for the Front

Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.

We're marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.

There's nothing wrong with me. I'm glad to leave.
Now mother's crying too. There's no reprieve.

And now look how the sun's begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.

Once more the good old sunset's glowing red.
In thirteen days I'll probably be dead.

Alfred Lichtenstein, translated from the German by Patrick Bridgewater.

7 August 1914: seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead

This poem, including the note on when it was written and when the poet was killed, comes from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, edited by Jon Silkin. Veterans Day of course began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I, the cataclysm that created the modern world.

04 November 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/45

I'm still trying to deal with my computer situation, so here is a fragment by Sappho to tide us over.

Must I remind you, Cleis,

That sounds of grief
are unbecoming in
a poet's household?

and that they are not
suitable in ours?

Wise words, which I will try to take to heart. The translation is by Mary Barnard. Cleis is Sappho's daughter (mentioned by name in Fragment 132).

02 November 2013

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

This entry was not quite ready to go when my computer gave out. I was going to put in an update on the BART situation, organize things a bit more, add in a few more entries and some pictures. . . Since these preview entries are my attempt to stay somewhat current (thoughts on actual performances can come whenever; it's all memory anyway once the curtain descends) I figure I should just go ahead and hit publish, since I am not sure when I'll be back to what passes for normal.

As usual there is a bewildering variety of performances of all types over at Cal Performances, from the Brandenburg Concertos to ballet to mariachi to things that sound kind of indescribable . . . other highlights for me are puppeteer Basil Twist's Dogugaeshi (6 - 10 November, with two performances on most of those days), the Joshua Redman Quartet (16 November), pianist Paul Lewis playing Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, and Mussorgsky (3 November), pianist Shai Wosner playing Widman and Schubert (24 November), and the Danish String Quartet playing Abrahamsen, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven (17 November). Check out the whole month here.

The big news at the San Francisco Symphony in November is Semyon Bychkov conducting Britten's War Requiem, with soloists Christine Brewer, James Gilchrist, and Roderick Williams. There are only two performances, 27 (that's the day before Thanksgiving, which is going to rule it out for some of us) and 30 November. I'd give the runner-up prize to Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Beethoven, Mozart, Copland, and Steven Mackey with soloist Jeremy Denk, 7 - 10 November. You can check out the particulars of that concert as well as the month's other offerings here.

For more Britten, Volti is offering one of his late choral works, Sacred and Profane, along with new works by Mark Winges, Forrest Pierce, and Sarah Kirkland Snider. That's 22 - 24 November, in a different location each day; check here for details. and if you attend the concert on the 22nd, you will be there on Britten's 100th birthday.

Philharmonia Baroque offers a program of early Russian rarities, conducted by Steven Fox, featuring Tanya Tomkins on cello and soprano Anna Dennis singing arias by Glinka arranged by Rimsky-Korsakov – and those are the most familiar composers on the program; the others are Berezovksy, Bortniansky, Facius, and Fomin. Sounds like a fun adventure! That's 15 - 17 and 19 November, in their usual various locations; check here for specifics.

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Blue Print new music series continues on 16 November with Lembit Beecher's And Then I Remember and Poulenc's Le Bal Masqué. Check here for their other offerings this month.

There's more new music at Old First Concerts: on Saturday, 9 November, the San Francisco Compoers Chamber Orchestra presents new works by Davide Verotta, Philip Freihofner, David Sprung, Scola Prosek, and Mark Alburger; check here for their description of the concert, written as a parody of the Communist Manifesto, which I have to say not only amused me but may compel me to go to this concert in solidarity with fellow new-music comrades. Another offering that looks interesting is the 17 November portrait-concert of Hyo-shin Na, featuring Shoko Hikage on koto, Thomas Schultz on piano, and Narae Kwon on kayageum.

San Francisco Performances has Peter Wispelwey playing the complete Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello in two concerts on one marathon day, 9 November; they also have the Pacifica Quartet and Marc-André Hamelin playing Shostakovich, Ornstein, and Dvorak, 11 November; and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, 16 November. Check out those offerings and others here.

November at San Francisco Opera sees the final performance of its much-praised Falstaff, the continuation through 15 November of its less highly praised Flying Dutchman, and the opening of its final production of the fall season, The Barber of Seville, which opens 13 November and closes 1 December. There are two separate casts for the Rossini; Isabel Leonard is in one, and Alek Shrader in the other, and if they were both in one cast I would probably go see it, and possibly if I had more time and money I'd see each cast, but as it is . . . . that's just not my current reality. You can check its performance dates and casts here.

42nd Street Moon presents the Rodgers and Hart musical I Married an Angel, 30 October - 17 November.

Cutting Ball Theater continues its run of Sidewinders by Basil Kreimendahl, directed by M. Graham Smith, through 17 November. I have not seen it yet. They also have two interesting shows in their Sunday afternoon Hidden Classics Reading Series: The Natural Relations and Other Plays by nineteenth-century Brazilian playwright Qorpo Santo, translated by resident playwright Andrew Saito, on 3 November; and Antigone by Sophocles, directed by Paige Rogers, on 10 November.

Shotgun Players continue their run of Strangers, Babies, written by Linda McLean and directed by Jon Tracy, through 17 November. I haven't seen it yet. They have also announced their 2014 season (unlike most performing arts groups, they kind of follow the calendar year instead of the traditional September to June performance cycle). Check it out here – I've already subscribed. I have to say, I have seen the movie version of Our Town, with music by Aaron Copland, and I've seen Ned Rorem's operatic version, but I have never seen the original play on stage. Even after a lifetime of theater-going, there are still basics I've never come across. I often think about things like that when people complain about over-reliance on the warhorses of the repertory, even when I'm the one complaining.

Aurora Theater presents A Bright New Boise, written by Samuel D. Hunter and directed by Tom Ross, 8 November to 8 December.

Berkeley Rep presents Tristan & Yseult, adapted and directed by Emma Rice of Britain's Kneehigh Theater. The last show I saw at Berkeley Rep was actually a Kneehigh show, The Wild Bride, which I found disappointing, for reasons I explain here (short version: inventive staging, weak script), but I'm willing to give them another chance, which is pretty magnanimous of me. That's 22 November to 6 January 2014.