27 February 2014

Haiku 2014/58

between tall buildings
shining sliver of a view:
blue skies, silver seas

26 February 2014

Haiku 2014/57

first few drops of rain
dapple the tawny sidewalk
gleaming leopard skin

25 February 2014

fun stuff I may or may not get to: March 2014


Shotgun Players completes its astonishing traversal of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia trilogy with the third play, Salvage, from 20 March to 27 April. They are reviving their production of Part 1, Voyage, from 26 March to 17 April and of Part 2, Shipwreck, from 27 March to 19 April. There will be some marathon viewing days in April. For more information click here.

Cutting Ball theater has extended Ubu Roi to 9 March. The production is well worth your time. And their annual Risk Is This. . . festival takes place Fridays and Saturdays in March, featuring staged readings of five new (in development) plays: Stegosaurus or Our Golden Years by their Resident Playwright Andrew Saito, 28 February - 1 March; Ondine by Katherine Sherman, 7 - 8 March; Mt Misery by Saito, 14 - 15 March; WINK by Jen Silverman, 21 - 22 March, and Ex Machina by David Jacobi, 28 - 29 March. More information on all that is available here.

ACT has Venus in Fur by David Ives, directed by Casey Stangl, 19 March - 13 April.

New Music:

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Hot Air Festival takes place 2 March, from 12:30 to 9:00. It's free; check out the line-up here. And their new music ensemble, BluePrint, led by Nicole Paiement, performs music by Ryan Brown, John Adams, Lou Harrison, and Terry Riley on 16 March (that's Sunday, not their usual Saturday).

Other Minds, at the SF Jazz Center for its 19th festival, plays music by Mark Applebaum, Joseph Byrd, John Bischoff, and Donald Buchia on 28 February and by Charles Celest Hutchins, John Schott, Wendy Reid, Myra Melford, and Roscoe Mitchell on 1 March. Details here.

Volti sings new choral music by Shawn Crouch, Ted Hearne, David Smooke, Melissa Dunphy, and Forrest Pierce on the broad theme of "war and peace"; that's 7 - 9 March in a different location each day; click here for details.

Baroque Music:

Elizabeth Blumenstock leads Philharmonia Baroque in music of Muffat, Schmelzer, Schein, Biber, Benda, Bach, and Telemann, 5 - 9 March in their usual varied locations; details here.

Chamber Music/Recitals:

San Francisco Performances presents Quatuor Ebène playing Mozart, Bartók, and Mendelssohn on 3 March; pianist Angela Hewitt playing Bach's Art of the Fugue on 9 March; baritone Christopher Maltman on 16 March; and the Pavel Haas Quartet playing Shostakovich, Dvořák, and Beethoven on 31 March; details on all that (and more!) here.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra joins with men's chorus Chanticleer for a re-creation in music of a possible mid-1930s voyage from Berlin to New York, featuring music from Offenbach to Ellington, 18, 20 - 23, and 25 March, in their usual various locations; more details here.

Earplay presents music by George Crumb, Nick Omiccioli, Mark Winges, Jean Ahn, and Howard Hersh on 31 March at the ODC Theater.

The Fourth Annual San Francisco-Shanghai Chamber Music Festival returns to the Conservatory of Music, with concerts on 13 - 14 March and other events from 10 - 15 March.

Karen Clark sings Pierrot Lunaire on a program that includes works by Brahms, Zemlinsky, and Berg, 28 March at Old First Concerts. Check out the rest of their March offerings here.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Mahler 3 with soloist Sasha Cooke (27 February, 1 - 2 March) and the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist Julia Fischer along with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (6 - 9 March). Then they're off on a tour, but their place is taken in turn by other touring ensembles: Yuri Temirkanov conducts the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic in two different concerts of mostly Russian music (2 - 3 March); Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in two different programs, also mostly featuring Russian music, with Yuja Wang as the soloist in the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 3 in the second concert (11 - 12 March). Pianist Evgeny Kissin gives a solo recital of Schubert and Scriabin on 20 March. Details on all that and more may be found here.


San Francisco Performances presents the Stephen Petronio Company in Like Lazarus Did on 14 - 15 March.

San Francisco Ballet revives Cinderella, with music by Prokofiev and choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, 11 - 23 March.

ODC Dance presents two different programs, 20 - 30 March, at the Yerba Buena Center.

All of the Above:

Some highlights from the month at Cal Performances: the Vienna Philharmonic plays at Zellerbach for three nights, with three different conductors and three different programs, 7 - 9 March (there are also various lectures and panel discussions connected with their history); the Jerusalem Quartet plays three by Shostakovich, 16 March; the Takács Quartet plays the six Bartók quartets over two days, 22 - 23 March; and countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford perform songs by the Elizabethans (and Nico Muhly) on 28 March. Check out their other offerings this month here. As usual I don't list sold-out events because what's the point, but there might be turned-back tickets for some events, so you may want to check out their procedures for sold-out events.

Haiku 2014/56

the sun sinks lower
the winds are rising higher
little birds fly home

24 February 2014

Eco Ensemble: Bedrossian, Jodlowski, Ligeti

Last Saturday I went up to Hertz Hall on the UC-Berkeley campus to hear their new music group, the eco ensemble, led by David Milnes. According to a note in the program the ensemble's name comes from its connections to the cultural ecosystem in the Bay Area; nonetheless they pronounce the name like "echo" and not "eeko." I have been to several of their previous concerts and have to admit I hadn't given the name much thought. I figured it was related to the Italian Ecco, which is like the French voilà, but of course it's spelled differently, and that point my theories broke down and my mind wandered elsewhere.

The first piece was titled IT, composed by Franck Bedrossian in 2004 and revised in 2007. I won't quote anything the program says about it because I read the write-up and it did not sound particularly enticing. It turned out to be a stunner, and the write-up didn't do it justice (I can't say mine does, either, in all honesty). It begins quietly, then swells up into strange, growling, enticing bursts of sound and the saxophone slowly rises through and the sounds end by circling back to the quiet beginning. It was fascinating, given the instrumentation (listed below), to hear what sounds were produced; in a way you were made intensely aware of the nature of each instrument exactly because they were often called on to produce sounds that were not what you expected from them. At times the noise from the saxophone seemed mostly the player's fingers strumming the keys; the violin and cello produced eerie whispers. I was shocked when I realized afterwards that the piece was only about ten, possibly fifteen minutes long; I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say it seemed much longer: it was such a varied, intriguing, rich sound world that I was sure we must have covered as large a temporal area as we did aural.

The players were Stacey Pelinka on flute, piccolo, and alto flute; Bill Kalinkos on bass clarinet; David Wegehaupt on alto saxophone; Hrabba Atladottir on violin; Leighton Fong on cello; and Ann Yi on piano. All were excellent. I particularly enjoyed Wegehaupt on saxophone; he threw himself physically into his playing, so that at times his left leg it seemed involuntarily went across his right knee (at one point, and it may just have been the angle from my seat, it looked as if he were using his left heel as a mute on the saxophone).

While the stage was being set up for the second piece composer and Berkeley professor Edmund Campion came on stage, clearly excited by what he had just heard, and brought Bedrossian on stage. The latter has recently joined the music department at Berkeley. He was lanky and soft-spoken and looked pleased and took every opportunity to thank the musicians. He said he had composed the piece "about nine years ago" but that it was still representative of his work.

Campion introduced the next piece by saying that they were all very glad that Hertz Hall had a new sound system (it was then I noticed semi-discreet black speakers hung at intervals down the lengths of the side walls) so they could do spatial music pieces like Pierre Jodlowski's Limite Circulaire (composed in 2008). The house was darkened and Tod Brody came out and played flute, alto flute, and bass flute, while various flutish-related electronica, managed by Greg T. Kuhn and Jeff Lubow, came through the speakers in various places of the hall. It was enjoyable enough but with pieces like this I tend to feel after the first few minutes that I've pretty much gotten the point. It did suffer from comparison with the intense overload of the first piece, which I was hoping they would play again as an encore.

It also suffered by comparison with the third piece, Ligeti's Chamber Concerto from 1969 - 1970, though unfortunately there was an intervening intermission. I prefer not to have the mood- and behavior-break caused by intermissions if it's at all physically possible, and in this case it certainly was, since the players were mostly different for each piece and the whole concert, including late start, set-up time, and intermission, was only 90 minutes, so playing the whole thing straight through certainly wouldn't have taxed anyone unduly. The Ligeti is in four movements, each quite distinct in its sound world, though throughout each note seemed to wobble and dissolve immediately into another note, as if the whole piece were coming to us with the wavy indeterminacy of a mirage, a hallucination of an early symphony. The third movement, Movimento preciso e meccanico, was particularly striking; it brought to mind (as the program note also noted) the sound of Ligeti's piece for 100 metronomes (the Poème Symphonique). The players for this piece were Stacey Pelinka on flute and piccolo; Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, oboe d'amore, and cor anglais; Peter Josheff on clarinet; Bill Kalinkos on clarinet and bass clarinet; Alici Telford on horn; Brendan Lai-Tong on tenor trombone; Ann Yi on harpsichord and Hammond organ ("Oh, look, a harpsichord!" exclaimed an audience member as we walked back into the hall after intermission; it was perhaps not what he was expecting to see at a concert of contemporary music, though he sounded pleased); Karen Rosenak on piano and celesta; Jennifer Curtis and Dan Flanagan on violin; Ellen Ruth Rose on viola; Leighton Fong on cello, and Richard Worn on double bass.

Eco Ensemble's next concert is 12 April; they are presented by Cal Performances.

Haiku 2014/55

like adored singers
our paths are strewn with petals
by the grateful trees

Poem of the Week 2014/9

To the Tune "The Fair Maid of Yu"

Once when young I lay and listened
To the rain falling on the roof
Of a brothel. The candle light
Gleamed on silk and silky flesh.
Later I heard it on the
Cabin roof of a small boat
On the Great River, under
Low clouds, where wild geese cried out
On the Autumn storm. Now I
Hear it again on the monastery
Roof. My hair has turned white.
Joy – sorrow – parting – meeting –
Are all as though they had
Never been. Only the rain
Is the same, falling in streams
On the tiles, all through the night.

Chiang Chieh, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

The speaker's entire life is laid out in these lines, and though they may seem impressionistic – we travel from youth and a brothel to white hair and a monastery, with only a small boat on a big river bobbing in between, and even the sex of the speaker is unclear* – it is actually, below its sensuous surface, brutally direct about what remains of the speaker's life when it's been winnowed in old age by memory and experience: a few strikingly vivid visual/auditory moments, isolated from the daily flow of work and sex and general human relations and actions, and a sense that these things of the outside world as stored in the speaker's memory (candle-light on silk, the cries of wild geese, the low clouds, and in particular the rain on the roof; he speaks of these things rather than of his thoughts and emotions) are the things that last, outliving an individual's particular joys and sorrows (which have in fact not even survived to the end of his life). A blunt statement of a concrete detail ("My hair has turned white") acquires resonance from its juxtaposition with a broader philosophical statement ("Joy – sorrow – parting – meeting / Are all as though they had / Never been"), and in turn those lines, which could out of context seem too obvious, perhaps banal and overly generalized, hit home through their connection with the physical evidence of the speaker's increasing age and impending death. No novelistic connections or explications help get us from brothel to monastery, but more information would be an intrusion on what the speaker is saying about what remains of and what matters in his life. The great cycle of Nature, the rain falling in rivers and evaporating back up to the sky and then falling again, will outlast this life.

I've always been entranced by the sound of rain. I wonder if this poem, which I find haunting, would resonate as much with someone who did not feel that way?

* Chiang Chieh was a man, but when I first read this poem I thought the speaker was a woman. I guess I was assuming the speaker was a worker rather than a customer at the brothel. It's not uncommon in translations of Asian poetry to find a building for nuns called a monastery rather than a convent, so nothing here really tips the reader off, but for the sake of convenience I'm identifying the speaker's sex with the poet's.

I took this from Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese: Love and the Turning Year.

23 February 2014

Haiku 2014/54

behind bare branches
other branches spring to Spring
blooms soft as starlight

22 February 2014

Haiku 2014/53

human specimens
fluttering, hapless, hopeless
pinned like butterflies

21 February 2014

Haiku 2014/52

train station at night
tracks stretching out to darkness
no one is smiling

ubiquity of Ubu-osity

Last Sunday I saw Cutting Ball's production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, directed by Yury Urnov, in a new translation by Cutting Ball Artistic Director Rob Melrose. When the play premiered in Paris in 1896 there were riots in the audience, and the play immediately became a touchstone of modernism and a milestone in theatrical history. Oddly, though that kind of thing is right up my alley I had never seen or even read the play before. I'm always fascinated by these lacunae among aficionados; life is crammed with incident, most of it irrelevant to what we're really interested in, and time grows scarce, and you can't get to everything, and admitting that is admitting your mortality. Anyway I walked into the theater with only the vaguest idea of what I was going to see, and though apparently some adjustments have been made from the original version I can't speak to what exactly they are, though I can say that this production is brilliantly entertaining, with the sort of simple, even subversive directness that can only be produced by the highest sophistication.

The story itself is a variant of Macbeth; Father Ubu and his ambitious wife Mother Ubu join forces to take over the kingdom of Poland (the play of course predates Hitler, but for us it's as impossible not to hear an echo of the Third Reich in this plot as it is not to remember the Shoah during The Merchant of Venice). Along the way there are also refracted references to Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Richard III, and a bit of Romeo & Juliet, and maybe more, but though such things provide structure and ironic connections to theatrical history you could enjoy the play even without having heard the name "Shakespeare" ever before in your life; it's a slapstick tragedy that looks very much like the daily newsfeed. Few things fade faster than yesterday's shocking art; at this distance, though one can only admire the willingness of the Parisian audiences to be ridiculously outraged, what was absurd and obscene provocation to them looks like realism to us. The play has value beyond its historical interest and its once-shocking content.

The constantly repeated obscenities, for instance (generally versions of "shit"; I think there wasn't a single "fuck" uttered in the two-hour run time, which makes sense because devouring and therefore defecation are what you might call the all-consuming motive of the Ubus) sound depressingly like everyday conversations to us (I hear this sort of thing on the commuter trains and the sidewalks of the Financial District all the time); you have to want very badly to be shocked to find shit shit shit shocking, rather than a sad example of how we sound to each other these days – such accuracy forms its own scabrous satire on how we live now.

The setting for this production is a modern-style kitchen, all gleaming stainless steel and shiny utensils, which is a really brilliant concept, since it makes the setting both stylishly up-to-the-minute and primal: there is a basic hunger portrayed in these characters, who ignore or attack officially admired institutions of church and state and live in a world of abrupt, self-centered and self-serving actions breaking through the feeble veneer of civilized life. Ubu's opponents are sometimes portrayed using tomatoes or baby carrots, which is funny in the way of Chaplin's dance with the dinner rolls in The Gold Rush but also terrifying: Ubu looms over these little objects, slicing and smashing and devouring them. There's a honey bear that is put to threatening use, at one point last Sunday reducing two of the actors as well as the audience to helpless laughter. Spatulas become swords, the company forms itself into a horse, everything metamorphoses into something else. Clever use is made of music, lots of klezmer but also bits of Mozart and, in one memorable mimed battle, Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Ubu's opponent, the Czar of Russia, first appears shirtless and fishing; he is often shirtless and sporting, in the manner of Vladimir Putin, just one of the unobtrusive ways this production links the world of Ubu to the world around us. There is also the son of the King he killed, who (the son) is portrayed as a posturing, queeny youth, which was genuinely funny but also somewhat shocking to modern sensibilities, since we like to pretend that such caricatures have no basis in reality (I guess the shock of having to laugh at stereotypes is the current equivalent of an earlier age's shock at obscenity, just as people who these days casually say fuck would never use a racist epithet). Ubu is concerned almost entirely with how to get more money out of his world without having to spend any, even on the army he needs to defend what he has already grabbed. They might as well call him Mr 1%; his unprincipled and selfish greed is the guiding light for current American capitalism.

David Sinaiko, a Cutting Ball stalwart, brings his manic edge to Father Ubu, and Ponder Goddard is the hilariously scheming Mother Ubu. William Boynton, Nathaniel Justiniano, Andrew Quick, and Marilet Martinez bring the other parts to life. There is some audience involvement, of a painless and even enjoyable sort; when Mother Ubu towards the end tries to persuade her angry, stunned husband that she is an apparition, come to tell him that she has in fact never wronged him, some members of the audience get to read the "apparition's" lines to him (I was one of them – it's fun being an actor! but I was a little surprised that the other readers were so halting and stiff). Some of the audience members, depending on their proximity to the action, are given plastic ponchos to wear when the egg-tossing and tomato-smashing starts.

The last scene is done mostly on video, with stage directions read out loud as we see the Ubus wander out into the seedy surrounding neighborhood. It's an interesting way of transitioning us out of the theatrical world into the real but oddly similar world. It makes us conscious of theatrical artifice, and of how much it is a major element in the world around us, and our perceptions of that world.  As I left the theater I heard sirens and the rumor flying around the streets was that there had been a shooting in front of the Westfield Mall, just a block or two away from the Cutting Ball. This meant that the Powell Street BART station was closed, but of course the lazy, useless, overpaid BART employees didn't actually tell anyone that, and it wasn't until I got down on the dangerously crowded platform that I realized something was wrong. There were no announcements as to what was going on, and the electronic signs just flashed the usual boilerplate messages. I soon realized that I needed to get out of there and walk to another station. I stopped along the way to buy some chocolates, since I was quite hungry by then. And though I did spare a thought to the man who had been shot and his still-unapprehended would-be killer, I mostly cursed the inconvenience caused me by the greedy, incompetent BART employees who couldn't be bothered to get off their fat asses to tell people not to enter the station. Ubu's world is our world.

The show has been extended through 9 March. Go see it if you can. More information and tickets may be had here.

Friday photo 2014/8

at the DeYoung Museum, November 2011

20 February 2014

Haiku 2014/51

in perfect blankness
the absent days roll away
ocean-washed pebbles

19 February 2014

Haiku 2014/50

the sun rose today
while I was looking elsewhere –
maybe at the moon

18 February 2014

Haiku 2014/49

who will say goodbye
to the last leaves of autumn
now that spring is here?

17 February 2014

Haiku 2014/48

familiar hallways
fluorescent unchanging light
artificial noon

Poem of the Week 2014/8

A Birthday

My heart is like a singing bird
     Whose nest is in a watered shoot:
My heart is like an apple-tree
     Whose boughs are bent with thick-set fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
     That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
     Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
     Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
     And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
     In leaves and silver fleur-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
     Is come; my love is come to me.

Christina Rossetti

This poem seems at first fairly straightforward in its ecstatic celebration of new love, a love so overwhelming that it marks the beginning of the speaker's real life – her "birthday." Note how each line is a separate grammatical unit, usually a comparison or command followed by a separate clause extending the simile or command, until the the final line, when the enjambment (the grammatical break over the lines) gives the effect of the speaker's emotion bursting forth, breaking through the balanced lines that preceded it. Many of those lines are references to the natural world, but they are also dense with Biblical, classical, and heraldic references and language, as if the entire world, natural and civilized, had to be brought in to convey the speaker's emotion.

Some explications: I take "a watered shoot" to be a young tree by a lake or river, fresh and green and everything a bird would want for its home. Vair refers to fur from a variety of the Eurasian Red Squirrel whose winter coat was bluish-grey on top and white underneath; in the Middle Ages it was stylish for aristocrats to line their mantles with alternating blue-grey and white skins, a fashion so popular that an alternating pattern of blue and white shapes was used in Heraldry and also called Vair. The "purple dyes" are a reference to Tyrian/imperial purple, an anciently-used natural dye derived from the Murex, a type of sea snail. Due to its great cost and high quality, it was favored by royal families in the Mediterranean around the time of the Roman Empire.

The peacock with "a hundred eyes" is a reference to Argus, the giant with a hundred eyes whom Hera ordered to watch Io, whom she had transformed into a heifer (both the transformation and the watchman were to keep Zeus away from the girl). When Zeus had Mercury kill Argus, Hera honored her servant by transforming him into a peacock (the spots on the bird's spectacular tail are the "hundred eyes"). The story is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, as is the story of Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus ruler of the Winds, who married the mortal king Ceyx. When he drowned, she in her grief threw herself into the sea, where she was transformed into a bird who allegedly nests on the water – the story is that the seas are calm on the days she is nesting; hence "halcyon days."

The reason I said above is that the poem "seems at first" fairly straightforward is that on closer examination there is a disturbing pattern in her comparisons, a surprising number of which are linked in symbolism or origin with suffering and tragedy, in ways a writer like Rossetti would surely have been conscious of: the apple is traditionally considered the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve ate, resulting in their expulsion from Eden; a few chapters later in Genesis, the rainbow is the sign God gives Noah after the cataclysmic flood, offering the less than reassuring assurance that next time He will destroy the world with something other than water (as the spiritual has it, "No more water – the fire next time!"); as noted above, "halcyon" comes from a myth about suicide based on the death of a loved one; the pomegranate is the fruit of which Persephone, held captive in the Underworld, ate three seeds, with the result that for part of every year she must descend back to the Kingdom of her captor; as also noted above, the peacock (which is also a traditional symbol of vanity) is linked to a myth about adultery and love-suffering; the fleur-de-lys is the traditional symbol of the French monarchy, which had been violently cut off in the French Revolution a few decades before Rossetti's birth.

Certainly the images are all beautiful and apt and luxurious, and no real sense of foreboding attaches to such images as "my heart is like a singing bird." Perhaps Rossetti simply thought the apple-tree the most beautiful of the fruit trees in England, or the only one likely to have fruit heavy and plentiful enough to bend the bough. Yet there do seem to be enough images tinged with doom, enough of a repeated pattern, to give the reader pause. Are these things just unavoidable but random associations because language is slippery like that? Or is the implication that in this world everything, no matter how beautiful or glorious, is linked with suffering and death? Is she warning us that ecstasy is always shadowed with tragedy?

I took this from my copy of Christina Rossetti's Selected Poems, edited by C H Sisson, but I imagine any collection of her work would include this poem.

16 February 2014

Haiku 2014/47

harlequin shadows
scamper lightly through the woods
then depart the stage

15 February 2014

Haiku 2014/46

wisp of curling steam
a teacup, gray skies outside
it might start raining

14 February 2014

Haiku 2014/45

random raindrops roll
in silver streams down the glass
resplendent rivers

Lovely "Rita"

Last night I was at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the first in New Century Chamber Orchestra's latest concerts, their first foray into operatic repertory. They programmed wisely, starting with a selection of opera-related pieces and then, after intermission, concluding with a Donizetti rarity: Rita, a roughly hour-long comedy for three singers (rescored and edited for New Century by Peter Grunberg, and staged by Eugene Brancoveanu).

Fortunately we were spared any chat from the stage and the first part opened immediately with music, the Intermezzo from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, arranged by Clarice Assad, followed by the Prestissimo from Verdi's String Quartet in E Minor, then the Meditation from Massenet's Thais, arranged by Clarice Assad, with NCCO leader Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as the violin soloist, and  closing with the Overture to Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, arranged by Mats Lidstrom. The orchestra members clearly enjoy playing together, and cast a melodious spell in these popular favorites, the fleeter, more comic selections alternating with the more poignant. The Verdi is probably the least familiar, though parts of it sounded very Verdian, as if these embryonic slashes would swell into something like a chorus from Ballo. Salerno-Sonnenberg as Thais provided an inward Meditation, a searching contemplation that clearly affected some of the audience, who stood up to applaud when that selection was finished. The part of the Meditation usually taken by (I think) a harp was replaced by (I think) a xylophone, whose comparatively less ethereal sound provided an interesting and contrasting earthward pull and comment on the soaring violin. [UPDATE: I am reliably informed (see the comments) that it was a marimba, not a xylophone, that replaced the harp.] The Fledermaus Overture was very pleasant and I was surprised at how familiar I was with it, since though I understand many people really love Fledermaus I am not among them. It could maybe have sparkled a little more, but it was enjoyable, which is all that I can ask and usually more than I get from that particular operetta. So a very enjoyable first part, about thirty-forty minutes, preparing us with arching beauty and dashing tunefulness for bel canto comedy.

I was actually a little surprised at how much fun the performance of Rita was. To get some complaints out of the way, the concert, in the middle of the work week, started at the ridiculous hour of 8:00, which is probably why most members of the audience looked as if they were retired. And the second half started with a useless video, in which Salerno-Sonnenberg went on about wanting to do something operatic with the group and choosing the Donizetti because it was manageable and then warning us about the subject matter ("spousal abuse," and though they didn't come right out and say it I'm going to guess that NCCO is, in fact, opposed to it) but it's a farce so it's all OK (I was relieved that the term "politically incorrect" was not used) and that was intercut with the director giving away crucial elements of the plot. What was the point of all this? We're already sitting there, waiting – we don't need to be persuaded that this is worth seeing, we don't need behind-the-scenes banalities. Why not let us discover the piece on our own? We'll find out soon enough what it's about. It's rare enough that we see an opera where we don't know semi-quaver by semi-quaver what's going to happen next; please, let it unfold as it was meant to, in real time on stage in front of our ears and eyes. Last NCCO concert I went to they performed the Four Seasons, prefaced with one of these unnecessary videos, in which different members of the orchestra talked about parts of the music they liked, which is very nice but I'm more interested in the parts I like. Anyway once they actually started performing the Vivaldi, there was bustle and applause from the audience after each segment until the third or fourth time it happened when Salerno-Sonnenberg, without looking at the audience, lifted her bow off the violin and pointed it at us, commanding silence. It was a dramatic (and effective) gesture, but if you're going to get all chatty and personal from the stage you can't blame the audience if they take you at your word and think they're at a cocktail party and don't pay much attention. (And in fact the audience was noisier during Rita than during the first part of the concert.)

So I was sitting there, having been told plot twists I had carefully avoided reading about, wondering glumly if farce was my least favorite form of comedy, or just close to my least favorite, and – OK, I'm going to give away some plot elements here; to be both clear and obscure, I'll say that the basic plot of Rita is a comic variant of  Enoch Arden – reflecting that I don't find "spousal abuse" any more amusing when it's the man who's being abused. Then the performance started and it was, as I said, a surprising amount of fun. Brancoveanu, who directed and designed the staging and prepared the English-language spoken parts between the musical numbers (which were sung in Italian, with surtitles), is well known around here for his beautiful baritone and strong stage presence, but he's just as talented on the other side of the stage lights; the staging was filled with clever, witty touches (starting with the cover of the program, which showed the three singers in a pose reminiscent of the Lubitsch/Ben Hecht film Design for Living – OK, there's another plot tease for you). Not everything worked brilliantly, but most of it did, and there was nothing dull or wrong-headed. Lots of it was surprisingly funny, like a slow-motion boxing match between the men. He also avoided the trap of making the stage business so busy and constant that shtick overwhelmed the performance, something I've seen happen with bel canto comedy fairly often (looking at you, Barbiere). It's too bad they didn't have a raised stage for the singers, the way Philharmonia Baroque does when they stage things at First Congregational, but it was all visible enough with a bit of neck-craning.

The staging was solidly grounded in the personalities and performances of the three excellent leads, soprano Maria Valdes as Rita, tenor Thomas Glenn as Beppe, and baritone Efraín Solís as Gasparo. All are young and good-looking enough so that the strong physical attraction behind their abused/abuser byplay was clear. Clever use was made of the physical differences between the two men; Glenn, who starts out as the hen-pecked husband, has a slighter build than does Solís, and his clear and distinctive tenor is not as large a voice as Solís's baritone, and those distinctions made part of the comedy. Glenn was hilariously meek as the opera opened, dressed, ironically, in a wifebeater, as he obediently painted his wife's toenails. His bearing and voice opened up when he realized he had a chance to escape her (the opera was of course written before divorce became a realistic possible solution for unhappy marriages). In a very funny bit he appropriates Gasparo's jacket (which he stuffs with things to create the appearance of muscles), and his dark glasses, and his swagger, and also a bit of Lucia's mad scene. Both Solís and Valdes are charming enough to get away with their "abusive behaviors," which seem like pre-emptive attempts not to be overwhelmed by their attraction for each other. Gasparo had some funny interplay with the orchestra, when he asked for something romantic and Salerno-Sonnenberg obliged with a brief reprise of the Meditation from Thais until he stopped her and demanded something italiano. Beautiful singing and playing all around, with lots of joy in the audience. When the opera ended the amiable older gentleman next to me, who had earlier noticed my bag from Moe's and with whom I had been summoning up remembrances of bookstores past, cheerfully said of his elegant wife, "Well, now I have to go home and beat her" and we all three laughed.

There are three more opportunities to catch the performance, and when else are you going to get to see Rita: Friday 14 February at First United Methodist Church in Palo Alto, Saturday 15 February at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, and Sunday 16 February at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael. More information and tickets here.

Friday photo 2014/7

the Bay Bridge, from San Francico's Ferry Building, April 2010

13 February 2014

12 February 2014

Haiku 2014/43

silver, white, black, gray
rainy skies, slick city streets
seagulls, white and gray

11 February 2014

Haiku 2014/42

to a co-worker

your resounding cough
echoes down the cubicles
desolate canyons

10 February 2014

Haiku 2014/41

garden dark with rain
wet white cat sits there scowling
pale apparition

Poem of the Week 2014/7

Some say that love's a little boy,
     And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
     And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
     Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
     And said it wouldn't do.

     Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
          Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
     Does its odour remind one of llamas,
          Or has it a comforting smell?
     Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
          Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
     Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
          O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
     In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
     The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
     Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
     The backs of railway-guides.

     Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
          Or boom like a military band?
     Could one give a first-rate imitation
          On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
     Is its singing at parties a riot?
          Does it only like Classical stuff?
     Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
          O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
     It wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
     And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
     Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
     Or underneath the bed.

     Can it pull extraordinary faces?
          Is it usually sick on a swing?
     Does it spend all its time at the races,
          Or fiddling with pieces of string?
     Has it views of its own about money?
          Does it think Patriotism enough?
     Are its stories vulgar but funny?
          O tell me the truth about love.

     When it comes, will it come without warning
          Just as I'm picking my nose?
     Will it knock on my door in the morning,
          Or tread in the bus on my toes?
     Will it come like a change in the weather?
          Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
     Will it alter my life altogether?
          O tell me the truth about love.

W H Auden

Here's a poem (though it has such a rhythmic swing we might as well call it a song) about love that avoids most of the usual poetic symbols of love, unless you count a reference to Cupid ("a little boy") in the first line, though that's also a sly, punning reference to illicit and even indecent love. The poem is divided into stanzas that describe the narrator's search for love in the actual world and stanzas (which I'll call choruses to differentiate them from the first type) that are made up almost entirely of questions, whimsical, exotic, and mundane, speculating on what it is he's searching for. The only non-interrogative statement in the choruses is their invariable last line's plea: "O tell me the truth about love."

The matter-of-fact mid-century British world around the speaker doesn't seem too receptive to his search, and love seems like an elusive something that has just slipped away. When we are told that some say (in an old bromide) that love makes the world go round, that is immediately countered by those who say that such a claim is absurd: reality dismisses the metaphorical. This is a world of convention and propriety, with every attempt made to control the disruptive force of love: the narrator (with another hint at homosexuality, or, if you want to imagine a woman singing this, adultery) asks the man next door, "who looked as if he knew," about love, but his wife is immediately "very cross" and says in the beautiful and peremptory phrase of the right-thinking that "it wouldn't do."

This world is full of solid-seeming things, like history books, transatlantic ships, and railway guides, but love, often furtive, irregular, and disruptive, has left its fingerprints on these things too; there are "cryptic little notes" and scribblings in guide-books. It is a subject both of trivial conversation ("quite a common topic") and the cause of suicide. Place-names also hint of love, as if the visitor had stumbled on an unmade bed, its inhabitant just departed; there's the obvious joke about "Maidenhead" (an old term for a woman's virginity) and a reference to Brighton, the seaside resort for London day trippers which was notorious, at least for a while, as a place to arrange adulteries and divorces. The birds and flowers of love poetry make an appearance only to be dismissed as bafflements ("I don't know what the blackbird sang / Or what the tulip said" – perhaps "tulip" is meant to conjure up, however faintly, a mental image of "two lips"; love is always just under the surface, around the corner, over somewhere else).

The choruses conjure up a different world, one freer and fancier, in which everyday things – eiderdown, hedges, Alsatians (the dogs also known as German shepherds), a pair of pajamas – take on a a glamorous metaphorical edge: are these things like love? (Or, perhaps, is love like these things? – is it found exactly in the banal accouterments of standard domesticity?) The first chorus is mostly about smell and touch and outward appearance, but as they proceed love is increasingly personified with specific actions – is it (love, the loved one) fun at parties? Will it know when to leave the speaker alone? What are its views on patriotism and money? – subjects which seem to have nothing to do with love; the speaker is moving towards imagining another person, one with independent views, and a personality possibly unrelated to what the speaker loves in him or her. Love seems able to arise independently of the personality traits that may come to sum up the loved one in the speaker's mind. In the last chorus the speaker wonders when (not if, but when) the banality of his life (the nose-picking, the bus ride) will be disrupted by this mysterious force, about which he still has determined nothing ("Will its greeting be courteous or rough? / Will it alter my life altogether?"). The questions continue to the end; there is no answer.

I took this from the Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson.

09 February 2014

Haiku 2014/40

rain splashes outside
jittery pitter-patter
harpsichord weather

08 February 2014

Haiku 2014/39

invisible birds
flutter the birdbath's surface:
wind and rain and storm

07 February 2014

Haiku 2014/38

tearing through the dark
the whoosh of the day's first train
dragging dawn behind

Friday photo 2014/6

Jackson Street, San Francisco, July 2010: Red, White, & Blue

06 February 2014

Haiku 2014/37

blurry borderlands
between dreaming and waking
smudged by pooling rain

05 February 2014

Haiku 2014/36

cold gray wind-swept street
saxophone playing Gershwin
golden "Summertime"

04 February 2014

Haiku 2014/35

on a frosty night
exhaling wispy white clouds
my visible breath

03 February 2014

Haiku 2014/34

brown leaf hanging on
despite wind and slanting rain
and oncoming Spring

Poem of the Week 2014/6

Song. On Her Loving Two Equally

How strongly does my passion flow,
Divided equally 'twixt two?
Damon had ne'er subdued my heart,
Had not Alexis took his part;
Nor could Alexis powerful prove,
Without my Damon's aid to gain my love.

When my Alexis present is,
Then I for Damon sigh and mourn;
But when Alexis I do miss,
Damon gains nothing but my scorn.
But if it chance they both are by,
For both alike I languish, sigh, and die.

Cure then, thou mighty winged god,
This restless fever in my blood;
One golden-pointed dart take back:
But which, oh Cupid, wilt thou take?
If Damon's, all my hopes are crossed;
Or that of my Alexis, I am lost.

Aphra Behn

Behn was, among other things, one of the leading dramatists of her place and time (the place being London, and the time being the second half of the seventeenth century, after Charles II, restored to the throne of his executed father, re-opened the theaters that had been shut down by Cromwell and the Puritans). And in this song she swiftly creates a tense dramatic situation. There is little information about any of the three people involved; all we know about Damon and Alexis, this Restoration Jules and Jim, is that they are friends, and helped each other win the speaker's love (so to what extent are these friends also rivals? the singer doesn't say). The emphasis in the song is on her probing and I would say even Proustian portrayal of an individual experience of the ironies and vagaries of love and desire. She would not have loved either of these men without the persuasion of the other one; she does not want to give up either (does this mean they have very different personalities, almost as if you need both men to create a satisfying whole? or are they alike enough so that if you long for one you would naturally long for the other as well?). She desires whoever is absent (clearly absence makes for a stronger mental presence), yet if both are present, though you might expect logically (except of course that logic has nothing to do with longing) that she would long for neither, she actually longs for both. There's an implication that she's physically engaged with both, perhaps in a threesome (I'm basing this on the last line of the second stanza, since in love poetry from the Elizabethans to the eighteenth century "die" is a frequent euphemism for or hint towards "orgasm"). But this is not a long-term solution for her; she's clearly anguished by her inability to choose; she wants her physical desire ("this restless fever in my blood") for one or the other to go away, but nothing is tipping the scales towards either Alexis or Damon. Faced with this unresolvable conflict, she calls like the dramatists of the ancient world on a deus ex machina – in this case, Cupid. Yet the perverse god of love gives no resolution, and no happy ending seems possible.

I took this from Oroonoko and Other Writings by Aphra Behn, in the Oxford World's Classics series.

02 February 2014

Haiku 2014/33

as grateful for rain
as plants wilting in parched earth
(let this third line bloom!)

01 February 2014