28 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/52

2 Songs (Spring & Winter; The Owl & the Cuckoo)

When daisies pied and violets blue
     And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue
     Do paint the meadows with delight,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When shepherds pipe on oaten straws,
     And merry larks are ploughmen's clocks,
When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws,
     And maidens bleach their summer smocks,
The cuckoo then, on every tree,
Mocks married men, for thus sings he:
Cuckoo, cuckoo!" O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

When icicles hang by the wall,
     And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
     And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow,
     And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
And birds sit brooding in the snow,
     And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-who!" a merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

William Shakespeare, from Love's Labor's Lost

Love's Labor's Lost, a play in which the characters are constantly trapping themselves in self-created theatrical tableaux, suitably ends with a pair of songs that frame Nature itself into matched picturesque vignettes. (One reason I've always loved these songs is that they remind me of the illustrations of the different months in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.)

It's might be useful to review the vocabulary first: in the Spring song, pied means having two or more different colors (that is, piebald); a lady-smock is a flower (Cardamine pratensis) also known as cuckooflower; the cuckoo-buds that flower in the next line, however, are now commonly known as crowfoot (Ranunculus bulbosus) though some commentators think they are a related flower, the bright yellow buttercup; in the second stanza, turtles refers, as it usually does in this period of English literature, to turtle-doves, famous as symbols of fidelity in love, which may be why they tread, that is, mate, as do the rooks and daws, which are types of crow.

In the Winter song: nail here means fingernail; to keel a pot means to stir or skim it, generally with the purpose of cooling it down; a saw is an old wise saying, like a proverb but with a hint that it's bromidic rather than enlightening; and the hissing crabs are small, sour crabapples.

The first song is not going to make much sense unless you know the old association between the cuckoo and the term cuckold, referring to a man who doesn't know his wife is cheating on him, which came about because the cuckoo bird lays her eggs in another bird's nest, leaving the intruder to be raised by the other birds – so the association gets at very deep fears of sexual failure as well as property-related deception. A sour note in such a pretty picture of spring! So pastoral, with the birds, and the flowers, and the shepherds making music with rustic, home-made instruments, and the maidens like flowers themselves (they bleach their summer smocks, cleaning and brightening them in a way that will associate them with the lady-smocks all silver-white we saw earlier): yet underneath all the efflorescence and the music and the fertility is a sense of mockery and unease, reminding us again that in this play, love's labors are lost.

And that may be why the play ends with the coldness yet comforts of love-lacking Winter. Here we see laboring people, with simple and common names (Dick, Tom, Joan, and Marian); the women are greasy (slovenly) and red-nosed rather than flower-like. The birds do not tread or mate, but brood in the snow. The paths are foul due to snow and wet weather. Yet there is a promise of warmth, treasured all the more for the surrounding cold: the shepherd blowing on his hands, the logs brought into the hall for a fire, the hissing bowls and steaming pots. The bird associated with the scene is not the deceptive cuckoo but the owl, traditionally associated with wisdom. Each season gives us an unexpected twist in the refrain: spring brought love and loveliness, but also related uneasiness and betrayal; Winter brings us the owl, singing a merry note amid the chill.

So that concludes the 2015 series of Poem of the Week. I hope readers have enjoyed them. This one is also a bit of a preview of the upcoming year, since 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and the great poet will no doubt be an even more prominent feature of our cultural landscape for the next few months.

I used the Signet Classic edition of Love's Labor's Lost, edited by John Arthos.

25 December 2015

Friday photo 2015/52

limestone Virgin & Child, from the Lorraine region of France, around 1300 (back view)

from the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

21 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/51

Christmas in India

Dim dawn behind the tamarisks – the sky is saffron yellow –

     As the women in the village grind the corn,
And the parrots seek the river-side, each calling to his fellow
     That the Day, the staring Eastern Day, is born.
           O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!
                 O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!
     And at Home they're making merry 'neath the white and scarlet berry –
             What part have India's exiles in their mirth?

Full day behind the tamarisks – the sky is blue and staring –

     As the cattle crawl afield beneath the yoke,
And they bear One o'er the field-path, who is past all hope or caring,
     To the ghat below the curling wreaths of smoke.
             Call on Rama, going slowly, as ye bear a brother lowly –
                  Call on Rama – he may hear, perhaps, your voice!
     With our hymn-books and our psalters we appeal to other altars,
             And to-day we bid "good Christian men rejoice!"

High noon behind the tamarisks – the sun is hot above us –

     As at Home the Christmas Day is breaking wan.
They will drink our healths at dinner – those who tell us how they love us –
     And forget us till another year be gone!
           O the toil that knows no breaking! O the heimweh, ceaseless, aching!
                 O the black dividing Sea and alien Plain!
     Youth was cheap – wherefore we sold it. Gold was good – we hoped to hold it.
             And to-day we know the fullness of our gain!

Grey dusk behind the tamarisks – the parrots fly together –

     As the Sun is sinking slowly over Home;
And his last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether
     That drags us back, howe'er so far we roam.
           Hard her service, poor her payment – she is ancient, tattered raiment –
                 India, the grim Stepmother of our kind.
     If a year of life be lent her, if her temple's shrine we enter,
             The door is shut – we may not look behind.

Black night behind the tamarisks – the owls begin their chorus –

     As the conches from the temple scream and bray.
With the fruitless years behind us and the hopeless years before us,
     Let us honour, O my brothers, Christmas Day!
           Call a truce, then, to our labours – let us feast with friends and neighbours,
                 And be merry as the custom of our caste;
     For, if "faint and forced the laughter," and if sadness follows after,
             We are richer by one mocking Christmas past.

Rudyard Kipling

This biting, wistful dramatic monologue takes us through an entire Christmas day – dim dawn / full day / high noon / grey dusk / black night – as seen behind the very un-English tamarisk trees. The regularity of each stanza's opening line not only provides a sort of guidepost and refrain through the poem; it perhaps also reflects the monotony and the slow pace of time in the life of the speaker, a disillusioned minor functionary of the British Raj, an Englishman self-exiled in India, thinking of home on Christmas day.

Yet he takes an acerbic view of home, and Christmas barely registers apart from his complicated views of home and India. It certainly doesn't seem to have any religious significance for him; what is born on this day is not baby Jesus but the staring Eastern Day, and the wreathes are not of pine but of smoke, above the ghat. (According to Hobson-Jobson by Henry Yule and A C Burnell, which is described on the cover of the Oxford World's Classics edition as "the Definitive Glossary of British India", the first meaning of ghat or ghaut is a "landing place; a path of descent to a river; the place of a ferry &c. Also a quay or the like.") The major event of the day is not a birth at all, but a funeral. His attitude to the funeral rituals is not unsympathetic; he refers to the dead man, feelingly, as one past all hope or caring, and he calls him a brother, though perhaps he means of the other Indians rather than of himself – his phrasing is ambiguous. Though he will later refer sarcastically to the screaming and braying of the temple's conches (presumably the shells are used as trumpets), he suggests – ironically, perhaps? with perhaps a touch of sincerity? – that Rama might hear the calls from the Hindu procession. (Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu.) The repetition of Call on Rama may suggest that he's finding the cries a bit monotonous (he seems to find much of his life monotonous).

He's aware of Hindu rituals, and not dismissive of them, but he is also aware that they are alien to him. Religion here seems mostly a national marker, rather than a theology or an approach to life. Christmas is the day on which he and his compatriots bid "good Christian men rejoice" , but the rejoicing seems more social than anything else. The phrase in quote marks comes from John Mason Neale's mid-Victorian translation of the old carol, part German and part Latin, In dulci jubilo. Germany, in the person of Victoria's husband Prince Albert, had quite an influence on the English celebration of Christmas; perhaps this explains in some way the speaker's odd use of a German word, heimweh (homesickness). The sudden appearance of this non-English word increases the sense of dislocation. What does it tell us about the speaker? We know he's not quite at home even when he is at home, taking a cynical or perhaps just realistic view of the indifference of those he left behind. They are making merry; he immediately asks what part he – one of India's exiles (self-chosen as that exile most likely was) – has in their mirth. In England the late December day is wan, contrasted to the insistent, staring blue of the Indian sky. He doesn't specify whom he left behind – parents? siblings? a wife and children? – but the Christmas feast brings a momentary, perhaps misleadingly sentimental, connection, when those who tell us how they love us will drink a health to those distant in the colonies, before (the speaker immediately adds) they forget them again, until next Christmas.

Why is he in India? It was the place to go for ambitious, restless young men who couldn't find their way in England (regardless, of course, of whether the Indians wanted them there or not). Just as it's in the cultural air these days that high finance or tech are the places to be for advancement and riches, so were the British colonies then (think of the end of David Copperfield, and the number of characters whose dilemmas are solved by shipping them off to Australia). Only, of course, just as in finance or tech these days, the riches and advancement are for the few, and drudgery and difficulty are the lot of most others. The speaker here analyzes his motives: being young, he did not realize how precious youth is; he traveled to India for gains that he obviously has not seen. And to-day we know the fullness of our gain, he notes ironically: that is, to be isolated in a foreign land, not really belonging there, but not really a part of the land he left, either. Perhaps this self-knowledge is gain enough, in some ways. And [the sun's] last ray seems to mock us shackled in a lifelong tether / That drags us back, howe'er so far we roam: he's imagining the sun's last rays over "home," but most of the stanza describes the hold India now has on him, and it's ambiguous which country has him shackled: probably both. And he's reached an age at which he realizes he's taken the wrong road, but it's a little late to do much about it. He too is caught up in the mechanics of empire, and of life.

The speaker's uneasy suspension between two worlds is affirmed in the last stanza, in which he refers to his home-style Christmas celebrations as the custom of our caste, using a word associated with Hindu social customs to define his English ways. As the day closes in the last stanza, our exile offers a more sardonic view of his adopted land than he had earlier when describing the funeral; now the hooting owls compete with the screaming and braying from the temples. He sees fruitless years behind us and hopeless years before us. In between is this single holiday, Christmas Day, on which he can feel some connection, however sentimental, faint, or fleeting, with the people and traditions he left behind. "[F]aint and forced the laughter" is in quotation marks, but I'm not sure where it comes from; when I search for it, the results are mostly this poem. (Does anyone have any idea?) Regardless of source, the phrase shows the speaker's acute awareness that the good feelings associated with a traditional Christmas Day are an aberration in a world of struggle, pain, and indifference (after the toasts, those at home will forget him until next Christmas). Nonetheless he embraces the day: Christmas, with its traditional good spirits, is inherently mocking him – yet he feels himself richer for it. For the momentary connection and joy? Or for the mockery itself, which gives him some enlightening truths about his life?

This is from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

18 December 2015

Friday photos 2015/51

San Francisco City Hall lit up in red & green for Christmas; 10 December 2015. The second picture was taken a few minutes after the first; you can see how the colors became brighter and deeper. The colors kept pulsing like that.

14 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/50

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
     "Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
     By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
     They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
     To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
     In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
     "Come, see the oxen kneel

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
     Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
     Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy

Last week's poem was written in the certitude of belief; this week's is written out of a longing for belief. Yet it's not really religious faith that is longed for here, despite the references to Christmas, though that may be part of it.

The speaker is at a dying fire on Christmas Eve, when one of the old people refers to the ancient belief that at midnight on Christmas Eve barnyard animals reflect their ancestors' role in the original stable in Bethlehem by worshiping the Christ Child in some way. Often the story is that they are momentarily given the power of speech, but here it's that they kneel down in grateful praise of their creator. The atmosphere around this fire is rural and old-fashioned (for one thing, they are sitting around a fire, and discussing farm animals). The old folk belief is mentioned not as a charming curiosity but as a fact. Such is the mood of the group that no one there doubts it.

Doubts come in later, when the speaker (whose more sophisticated intellect puts him slightly out of place here, no matter what he temporarily feels on that Christmas Eve) describes the belief not as a matter of certainty but as "so fair a fancy" – charming, but all the more so because it is out of place with the way we live now, in industrial, urbanized, scientific (and alienated) societies. So the speaker – out of place in uneducated rural society, but also not quite happily settled in modern life – asserts his longing that this quaint notion be real. He feels (rather than thinks) that if someone invited him to see the oxen kneel, he would go.

When he imagines this invitation, it comes replete with suitably archaic, country words: yonder, as well as barton (a farmyard) and coomb (a short valley or hollow on a hillside or coastline). Melancholy attends this final stanza: the barton is lonely, it is distant from them, their childhood has long vanished, they proceed through the gloom. And he hopes, despite knowing better, that he will see that the lovely legend is real.

The longing here is not really for religious belief – it would be perfectly possible to be a staunch believer in the truth of the Incarnation and yet a doubter that some animals kneel at midnight on an arbitrary day to acknowledge it – it's really more for a vanishing way of life; not just the speaker's own childhood, but a rural, traditional and almost unchanging (until it vanishes) way of life that is in harmony with the natural cycles of the year and even with a spiritual meaning for the universe – a way of life in which even the old and experienced could unquestioningly believe that his animals know and acknowledge their creator on his birthday. It's about a longing for an unanxious community. (It's interesting to consider whether this world ever actually existed, or was created in retrospect as part of and in contrast to the modern world.)

To ask for this is to some extent to renounce modern consciousness; note the speaker's early reference to the group around the fire as a flock, a word usually associated with animals – that's the setting in which none of those around the hearth would think to question the old superstition. The oxen here – meek and mild – are appealing creatures. But could the speaker, with the essentially modern restlessness and uncertainty of his intellect, settle into such company easily? Or is he cut off from such certainty (or complacency), ever to be in-between what he knows and what he wishes were true?

This is from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and J D McClatchy for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series.

11 December 2015

Friday photo 2015/50

random Rudolphs in a drugstore window, December 2014

for my feelings about Rudolph, check here

07 December 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/49

A Christmas Carol

In the bleak mid-winter
    Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
    Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
    Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
    Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
    Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
    When He comes to reign::
In the bleak mid-winter
    A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
    Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him whom Cherubim
    Worship night and day;
A breastful of milk
    And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him whom angels
    Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
    Which adore.

Angels and archangels
    May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
    Throng'd the air,
But only His mother
    In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
    With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
    Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
    I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
    I would do my part, –
Yet what I can I give Him,
    Give my heart.

Christina Rossetti

In the first stanza, Rossetti immediately creates a striking view of a cold, hard world: the wind is frosty, and moans; earth is hard as iron, water frozen solid, like a stone. The description is elemental: wind, earth, water; iron and stone. Everything is unyielding; there are no plants or birds or animals providing warmth or life. The snow had fallen, suggesting that it has stopped, so there is a stillness in the scene; the only movement now (but perhaps it is more of a sound?) is the moaning wind – even the labile liquids are like rocks. Rossetti rather daringly repeats snow on snow twice (those two lines have nine words, five of which are snow), giving a slightly hypnotic and numbing effect. The words softly pile up like the snow, giving us a sense of being buried under the feathery accumulation. The repeated sn and  long o (moaning like the wind) of Snow had fallen, snow on snow, / snow on snow bring a hint of softness, perhaps, at least when compared to the sharper sounds of frost and iron, but they also connect back to the s and o of stone. The first line of the stanza – in the bleak mid-winter – is scene-setting, almost a stage direction, transformed into an emotional reality through a daringly minimalist use of a few words, their sounds, and their repetition,

The timeless quality of the scene is qualified in the stanza's last line, when we are told that this bleak mid-winter was long ago. Given this information, in conjunction with the title, it's not a surprise that the poem focuses on the Nativity – but perhaps it is a bit of a shock when we immediately fly away into the Universe and contemplation of a God too vast and powerful to be held by either Earth or Heaven, and we then vertiginously swing back to the bleak mid-winter and a small, dirty stable. This will be Rossetti's method in the next three stanzas: she will evoke the celestial grandeur of Godhead adored by various rank of angels (she will again use repetition in evoking angels, cherubim, and seraphim; you get the sense of them ranked endlessly around) and then immediately contrast the golden glories with the humble but touchingly human realities of the Nativity scene. Angels worshiped him round the clock, but as the infant Jesus he is content with the worship of dull domestic animals like the ox and ass (they are traditional in Nativity scenes, referring back to Isaiah 1:3: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib).

The camel might seem like an exotic touch, but it could be considered typical for a Middle Eastern scene, though there is little else in the poem that conjures up a sense of ancient Palestine. It would also remind us of the visit of the Three Wise Men, though they themselves do not appear, nor does the Star that guided them. Rossetti strips away some of the more picturesque and even extravagant trappings of the narrative in order to sharpen the contrast between God's heavenly power and might and the lowly intimacy of the incarnation. In this regard the breastful of milk is a particularly striking expression, giving an unexpectedly physical sense of the incarnated God as a regular human child, in need not just of nourishment in the form of food but also in the form of his mother's love. She makes another, fuller appearance in the next stanza, worshiping the child with a mother's kiss. These two appearances, brief as they are, give Mary the most powerful human presence in this stripped-down, even stark, poem.

The most powerful human presence: until the final stanza, when the narrator speaks to us directly. Until then, this has been a fairly impersonal poem, opening with an invocation of a frozen world, followed by essentially theological comparisons between Heavenly power and the humblest things of earth. One reason we have such a strong sense of Mary here, even though the first reference is an indirect one (the breastful of milk), is that there simply isn't much human presence otherwise. But in the final stanza the poem becomes intensely personal: What can I give him? The speaker's first impulse is a generous one: to give something to the baby. She feels that she too is one of the humble things of the earth. Rossetti again deftly invokes the traditional nativity story with fleeting references to the shepherds and the wise men. She cannot join in their offerings, given her poverty. So she offers the one thing she does have: her heart; that is, the qualities of love and compassion (connecting back perhaps to the maternal love expressed earlier in the nurturing figure of Mary). The first stanza, with its frozen, sterile, impersonal world, is contrasted with and answered by the final stanza, with its personal choice of generosity and love.

This lyric has been set to music by several composers and has become quite popular. The text here is from the Penguin edition of The Complete Poems of Christina Rossetti, edited by R W Crump and with an introduction and notes by Betty S Flowers.

04 December 2015

Friday photo 2015/49

bird on the BART steps, Powell Street Station, San Francisco, October 2015

01 December 2015

the Wilsey Center

Tickets went on sale today for the first season at the San Francisco Opera's new Wilsey Center, an intimate new theater upstairs from Herbst Theater, on the top floor of the Veterans Building adjacent to the Opera House. It's intended as a flexible space suitable for offbeat and experimental works. The building itself doesn't open until February 2016, but you can catch some glimpses provided by Michael Strickland over at Civic Center.

The first season looks eclectic and enticing, ranging from the Schwabacher Debut Recital Series, chamber concerts with members of the Opera Orchestra and the Adler Fellows, live music accompanying the French animated film The Triplets of Belleville, soprano Deborah Voigt in her new one-woman show Voigt Lessons, a Serbian a cappella chamber opera by Ana Sokolović called Svadba-Wedding, and – for me the irresistible offering – the great baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser in Schubert's Winterreise, with film accompaniment by William Kentridge.

Here's the odd thing: I went to the Opera's website this morning to buy tickets, and couldn't find where they were selling them. I finally ended up calling the Opera box office, where the nice woman who helped me told me that they were not available on line yet but I could order them over the phone. Eventually, she said, the Wilsey Center will have its own site, on which tickets will be available.

And that's what I don't understand. This sounds similar to SoundBox at the San Francisco Symphony, which is not listed on their monthly calendar – like a private club, you have to know about it already to find it. (Anything to do with exclusive access and private clubs just rubs me the wrong way.) Apparently the Wilsey website will be similar. Why? If the purpose is to "rebrand" or reposition the Opera or the Symphony from "stodgy rich people with formal wear, lorgnettes, and grand marble bosoms" to "exciting adventurous hipsters in a happening scene" then wouldn't you want to associate the experimental stuff with your main site and its more (or less) traditional offerings? Why separate them? There are people who enjoy Lucia di Lammermoor as well as black-box theater (I mean, it couldn't just be me, could it?) – why not encourage each camp to try what the other one is offering? Why not make it easy?

Maybe I should be grateful for the separation, considering how awful the Opera's new website it. It used to be you'd open the site and right there on the left was a handy list of the season's operas, each clickable so you could check out cast, production, performance dates, tickets . . . now you open it and some random person who looks dressed for New Year's Eve (by the way, SF Opera: that's not going to help you attract the rest of us slobs) is grinning at me while a slogan assures me that some unspecified "it" is the perfect evening out. I don't care! For the love of God, where is the calendar? And not just "what's on" that week: where is the month-by-month season calendar?

There is some information on the Opera site about the Wilsey Center, and you can find it here, though you may need to dig around a bit to get performance dates (though I will tell you the Winterreise is 11 - 13 March 2016). In the meantime, for tickets you can call the Opera box office at 415-864-3330.

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December 2015

And another year comes to a close. As usual, this month is dominated by holiday-themed events, most of which I've omitted, on the grounds that the best ones are the ones you make a personal tradition, so you already know if your solstice is incomplete without The Nutcracker in any of its various forms (if it's not The Hard Nut, I can skip it) or without one of the Symphony's festive pops concerts. Nonetheless I do begin with a list of Messiahs, because I love it, and I end with some new or unusual holiday concerts. And in-between are various other holiday treats, like ABS's performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, NCCO's Christmas / Hanukkah concert, and the Lacuna Arts Chorale singing for the Virgin Mary. I guess it's inescapable; you might as well enjoy it.

Merry / Happy / Blessed Whatever You Celebrate, and thanks to all who come by regularly or even occasionally to read.

Ragnar Bohlin leads the San Francisco Symphony in Messiah with soloists Sarah Coburn (soprano), Lauren Segal (mezzo-soprano), Brian Stucki (tenor), and Adam Lau (bass), along with the fabulous San Francisco Symphony Chorus (and the orchestra!) on 17 - 19 December.

Nicholas McGegan leads Philharmonia Baroque in the "Foundling Hospital" edition of Messiah, with soloists Amanda Forsythe (soprano), Meg Bragle (mezzo-soprano), Isaiah Bell (tenor), and Tyler Duncan (baritone). That's 19 December at First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

American Bach Soloists give their annual performances of Messiah in Grace Cathedral on 16, 17, and 18 December. Jeffrey Thomas conducts, with soloists Hélène Brunet (soprano), Agnes Vojtko (alto), Kyle Stegall (tenor), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone) – the same quartet who will be performing Bach's Christmas Oratorio with the group (see below).

Early & Baroque Music
Jeffrey Thomas conducts the American Bach Soloists in Bach's Christmas Oratorio in St Ignatius Church in San Francisco on 12 December, with soloists Hélène Brunet (soprano), Agnes Vojtko (alto), Kyle Stegall (tenor), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone). This is the first event in a season that will see the group performing all three of Bach's oratorios.

Philharmonia Baroque, conducted by Nicholas McGegan, plays works by Handel (the Ode for St Cecilia's Day and Tra amplessi innocenti from Cecilia, volgi un sguardo) and Purcell (the Te Deum and Jubilate in D and the Suite from Distressed Innocence), with soloists Sherezade Panthaki (soprano) and Isaiah Bell (tenor); that's December 2 (in Palo Alto), 4 (at Herbst Theater in San Francisco), 5 and 6 (at First Congregational in Berkeley; the Sunday show is at 4:00).

The San Francisco Early Music Society presents Magnificat Baroque Ensemble in a program that attempts to recreate what a contemporary of Bach's might have experienced while attending the weekly liturgy. Warren Stewart will lead the group in works by Buxtehude and Hammerschmidt and Bach himself. That's 11 December at First Presbyterian in Palo Alto, 12 December at First Congregational in Berkeley, and 13 December at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco (the Sunday concert is at 4:00).

New Century Chamber Orchestra, joined by the San Francisco Girls Chorus and klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, presents what they call a "Chrismukkah" celebration, featuring holiday songs both beloved and obscure from both traditions. That's December 17 in Berkeley (First Congregational), 18 in Palo Alto (First United Methodist Church), 19 in San Francisco (Herbst Theater), and 20 in San Rafael (Osher Marin Jewish Community Center).

Joana Carneiro leads the Berkeley Symphony in brass music by Gabrieli, the US premiere of Gubaidulina's Fachwerk (with Geir Draugsvoll on bayan), and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition on 3 December in Zellerbach Hall.

Modern / New Music
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the Del Sol String Quartet in a world premiere work by Terry Riley (part of a year-long celebration of the composer's 80th birthday): Dark Queen Mantra for string quartet and guitar (Gyan Riley will be playing the guitar). The program also includes The Wheel and Mythic Bird Waltz by Riley, Huang Rao's Calligraffiti, and Stefano Scodanibbio's Mas Lugares (su Madrigali di Monteverdi).  That's 5 December.

See also Lacuna Arts Chorale under Choral below. And there's always something intriguing listed at the Center for New Music.

The Bad Plus perform with Joshua Redman at the SF Jazz Center on 10 - 13 December.

At Old First Concerts, Lacuna Arts Chorale sings Hymns to the Virgin: A Lacuna Arts Christmas.
Sven Edward Olbash leads the chorus (with soprano soloist Winnie Nieh) in Vincent Persichetti's Mass, Christmas motets by Francis Poulenc, and works by David Conte, Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and Pierre Villette. That's on 11 December, and this may be the entry this month that covers the most categories: choral music, new music, and holiday music.

Cal Performances presents Garrick Ohlsson playing Beethoven, Schubert, and Granados, on 6 December at Zellerbach Hall.

San Francisco Performances presents mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton in recital, with pianist Robert Mollicone and cellist Emil Milland. They will perform songs by Turina, Chausson, Schubert, Dvořák, and the west coast premiere of Heggie's The Work at Hand. That's 16 December at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

San Francisco Opera presents a double-bill: two adaptations (Gordon Getty's Usher House and Robert Orledge's "reconstruction and orchestration" of Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher) of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher. It should be interesting to see how two versions of the same story play off each other. That's 8, 10, 11, and 13 December. The Opera's fall season closes out with a few more performances in December of The Magic Flute, the Barber of Seville, and the one and only matinee of Die Meistersinger, and let me mention again how bizarre I find it that the Opera scheduled a five-hour-plus work with only one matinee. Good luck finding information on the Opera's crappy new website!

The annual farewell concert of the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows, The Future Is Now, will take place 12 December at Herbst Theater. You may buy tickets on-line or by calling the Opera Box Office at 415-864-3330.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents La tragédie de Carmen, the chamber-opera adaptation by Peter Brooks of Bizet's classic. That's December 4 and 6 (matinee); it's free, but reservations are required.

Shotgun Players continues its tradition of offering something unusual but somehow appropriate for the holiday season with Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, directed by Patrick Dooley, running 4 December to 10 January.

Repurposed Theater presents the premiere of Megan Cohen's The Horse's Ass and Friends, directed by Ellery Schaar; that's 3 - 19 December at the Exit Theater.

SHN presents A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, the 2014 winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical. The book and lyrics are by Robert L Freedman and the music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak; it is based on the hilarious movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, and, as in the movie, all the murder victims are played by one man. That's 1 - 27 December at the Golden Gate Theater.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents A Day of Silents on 5 December at the Castro Theater, with live accompaniment (by the Alloy Orchestra or Donald Sosin, depending on the film). Their events are always fun and they have another terrific line-up, including a film starring Houdini that was previously thought lost, The Grim Game. When Kino released a Houdini box set a few years ago (now apparently out of print), they included all that remained of the film: a five-minute sequence involving the hero moving from one airplane to another mid-flight (those are 1919 airplanes, by the way). Just thinking about it makes my legs turn to water, especially since the planes crashed, an accident which was incorporated in the final film (fortunately no one was hurt). But if I had to pick just one film to see, it would probably be Marcel L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine (The Inhuman Woman), which seems like a notable piece of French Expressionism. Check out the full schedule and buy tickets here.

Holiday Music
The Blind Boys of Alabama perform a holiday Gospel show at the SF Jazz Center on 17 - 18 December.

Also at the Jazz Center, the Klezmatics play a Hanukkah show on 20 December.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present Phil Kline's Unsilent Night on 19 December. Participants walk around a designated area (in San Francisco's case, Civic Center) playing one of four pre-recorded tracks by Kline on whatever devices the kids are using these days (though the site says some cassette tape versions will be available in case you're going old school and bringing a boombox). This is the sort of thing that could be either magical or, you know, not. If you'd like to find out which you'll think it is, get more details here.

See also New Century Chamber Orchestra's holiday mash-up, listed above under Orchestral.

30 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/48

Turkeys Observed

One observes them, one expects them;
Blue-breasted in their indifferent mortuary,
Beached bare on the cold marble slabs
In immodest underwear frills of feather.

The red sides of beef retain
Some of the smelly majesty of living:
A half-cow slung from a hook maintains
That blood and flesh are not ignored.

But a turkey cowers in death.
Pull his neck, pluck him, and look –
He is just another poor forked thing,
A skin bag plumped with inky putty.

He once complained extravagantly
In an overture of gobbles;
He lorded it on the claw-flecked mud
With a grey flick of his Confucian eye.

Now, as I pass the bleak Christmas dazzle,
I find him ranged with his cold squadrons:
The fuselage is bare, the proud wings snapped,
The tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder.

Seamus Heaney

After Thanksgiving last Thursday, many of us have spent the weekend dealing with turkey carcasses in various stages of being devoured. So here's a poem by Seamus Heaney reflecting on them.

With the very first line, Heaney sets up the strange and somewhat contradictory alternating states that will keep us off-balance throughout the whole poem. One observes the turkeys, and that's a significant act, more so than noticing or seeing would be; observing suggests watching closely, registering significance, adhering to custom or ritual (the way one observes a holy day). Yet one also expects them, which suggests one knows they will be there – one takes it a bit for granted.

Why would one expect them? In the second line, we discover these are dead turkeys, displayed on cold marble slabs, which suggests, long before we reach the bleak Christmas dazzle in the last stanza, that it's holiday season, and we're seeing the plucked birds in a butcher's shop. (Turkey means Thanksgiving for Americans, but it's associated with Christmas dinner as well, particularly in the British Isles.) But the butcher shop is referred to as a mortuary, a term usually associated with human remains. Throughout there is an insistence on the carcasses' identity as (former) birds: the feathers, the gobbles, the claw-flecked mud, the wings and tail-fan. Yet all these identifiers are subtle skewed, deracinated from their birdness and linked to humans or, at the end, weapons of war: the feathers are immodest underwear frills, the gobbles were extravagant complaints, he lorded it over his little farmyard, his eye was Confucian, suggesting a rational system of government, order, piety, and philosophy, even in his little stretch of native mud.

Suggestions of triumph are quickly countered (we're brought back to the counters, the cold marble slabs): the Christmas dazzle is bleak, the majesty of living is smelly. But smelly also suggests a certain vitality still found in the huge sides of beef; the near-rhyme on retain / maintains gives a certain elevation to the beef stanza, and some isolation, since rhyme is not used elsewhere in the poem. Beef consumption has a traditional association with courage and strength and other manly virtues (think of the British royal guards known as the beefeaters). By contrast, the turkey – this half-humanized creature – cowers; you can pull his neck – the neck that once gobbled complaints – without reprise. He is, vividly, a skin bag, his flesh and blood not demandingly red like the half-cow's, but inky putty.

He is just another poor forked thing, which calls to mind King Lear's Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man [man on his own, stripped bare, lacking civilizing flourishes] is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art (King Lear, Act 3, scene iv, ll 108 - 110). Once again, the turkey is associated with human existence, though it's a life reduced to its sometimes humiliating essentials. Forked refers to the split formed by the two legs of the turkey or a person, but it also, with a bit of macabre wit, may remind us that these birds are on sale and intended for the dinner table.

Finally the dead turkey is compared to a war-plane, but one that is out of commission: the body of the plane is bare (just as the turkey has been plucked of almost all his feathers), the wings snapped, the tail-fan stripped down to a shameful rudder (a rudder is a flat piece used for steering; is there a phallic suggestion in rudder, given how much we are guided by sexual urges? if so, stripped and shameful suggest, in keeping with the emotional mood of the poem, a deeply ambiguous view of our urges).

This is from the anthology On Wings of Song: Poems About Birds, selected and edited by J D McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

27 November 2015

Friday photo 2015/48

street lamp in front of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, early evening, October 2015

23 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/47

Yet praye ich you that reden that I write,
Yet I pray you that read what I write,
Foryeve me that I do no diligence
forgive me that I take no pains
Thil ilke storye subtilly t'endite;
to write this story artfully;
For bothe have I, the wordes and sentence,
For I have both the words and the substance
Of him that at the seintes reverence
from him who, in honor of the saint
The storye wroot, and folwen hir legende,
wrote the story and followed her legend,
And pray yow that ye wol my werk amende.
so I hope that you will take my work in the best way.

First wolde I yow the name of Seint Cecilye
First I will for you the name of Saint Cecilia
Expowne, as men may in hir storye se.
Expound, as men may see in her story.
It is to seye in Englissh "hevenes lilye",
It is like saying in English "heaven's lily",
For pure chastnesse of virginitee;
for the pure chastity of her virginity;
Or, for she whitnesse hadde of honestee,
Or, for the whiteness [spotlessness] of her purity,
And grene of conscience, and of good fame
And greenness [spring-like freshness] of her conscience, and of good reputation
The swote savour, "lilye" was hir name.
the sweet scent, "lily" was her name.

Or Cecile is to seye "the wey to blinde",
Or Cecilia is like saying "a path for the blind",
For she ensample was by good techinge.
for she was an exemplar by her good teaching.
Or ellis Cecile, as I writen finde,
Or else Cecilia, as I find written,
Is joined by a manere conjoininge
is formed by a sort of conjoining
Of "hevene" and "lia"; and here in figuringe
of "heaven" and "lia", which here symbolizes
The hevene is set for thoght of holinesse,
Heaven for thoughts of holiness
And "lia" for hir lasting bisinesse.
and "lia" for her lasting labor and diligence.

Cecile may eek be seid in this manere:
The name Cecilia may also be interpreted in this manner:
"Wantinge of blindnesse", for hir grete light
"lack of blindness", for her great light
Of sapience, and for hir thewes clere.
of wisdom, and for her bright and clear qualities.
Or elles, lo, this maidenes name bright
Or else, indeed, this maiden's bright name
Of "hevene" and "leos" comth, for which by right
comes from "heaven" and "leos", because of which 
Men mighte hire wel "the hevene of peple" calle,
men might well call her "a heaven of the people",
Ensample of goode and wise werkes alle.
as an example of works good and wise altogether.

For "leos" "peple" in Englissh is to seye,
For "leos" is "people" in English,
And right as men may in the hevene see
and just as men may see in the heavens
The sonne and moone and sterres every weye,
the sun and moon and stars in every direction,
Right so men goostly in this maiden free
just so men spiritually in this gracious and liberal maiden
Sayen of feith the magnanimitee,
may see the magnanimity of faith,
And eek the cleernesse hool of sapience,
and also the spotless wholeness of wisdom,
And sondry werkes brighte of excellence.
and various works of bright outstanding excellence.

And right so as thise philosophres write
And just as philosophers write
That hevene is swift and round and eek brenninge,
that heaven is swift and round [quickly revolving] and always burning,
Right so was faire Cecilye the white
Just so was fair Cecilia the white [pure]
Ful swift and bisy evere in good werkinge,
always swift and ever occupied in good works,
And round and hool in good perseveringe,
and daily dedicated and complete in persevering in good,
And brenning evere in charite ful brighte.
and ever-burning with the full brightness of charity [caritas];
Now have I yow declared what she highte.
and now I have explained to you why she was called what she was called.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The Second Nun's Prologue, ll 78 - 119

Yesterday (November 22) was the feast of St Cecilia, so here is an appropriate selection from The Canterbury Tales. The Second Nun (the first nun would be the Prioress, who also recites one of the lives of the saints) tells the story of Cecilia's life and martyrdom. Oddly enough, in our eyes, no mention is made of her role as the patron of music, except for a passing reference in the opening section describing her self-mortification and spiritual practices: And whil the organs maden melodye, / To God allone in herte thus song she (And while the organs were being played, to God alone in her heart thus she sang) (The Second Nun's Tale, the beginning of the third stanza). Although her story was always a favorite among the lives of the early Christian martyrs, her musical prominence, the reason for her continued renown, seems to be a product of the early baroque.

The Canterbury Tales is an anthology of many varieties of medieval narrative genres, from chivalric romances and beast fables to bawdy anecdotes. Hagiography (or the lives of the saints, a form of magical realism before the term was invented) was one of the most favored story-forms in this period in Europe; The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, a massive compilation of these legends, was one of the most popular books of the period, surviving in around one thousand manuscripts, which is an amazing number for a lengthy book that had to be written out by hand for each new copy in those years before the invention of the printing press. De Voragine is the him that at the seintes reverence / The storye wroot referred to in the first stanza of this excerpt.

Chaucer's rendition is closely based on the story as found in The Golden Legend; up until the Romantic era, when the idea of the genius writer became linked with inspiration and originality, it was common practice to borrow, adapt, or loosely translate earlier works (this is one way stories were disseminated across Europe in the days before the printing press). Such new versions were seen as adding to and building off of (or even surpassing) the original; there's a whole tradition of poets taking specific similes from Homer or Virgil and adapting them – the point is not to present someone else's work as your own, but to show your knowledge of and your skill compared to the great classic writers. Sometimes the debt is acknowledged, as it is here (though de Voragine is not named; presumably, given the popularity of his book, you would recognize him as the source); other times educated readers are being flattered by the assumption that they will recognize the source. Part of the fun is seeing how the author has changed the original, and seeing how that changes the shading of the story.

The miracle-filled stories of the saints may seem more like fantasy than history to modern eyes, but they are meant to reveal a spiritual reality – actions illustrating Christian doctrine – under mundane reality (as with magical realism, the fantastical reveals a deeper, often emotional or otherwise non-physical, truth). This attitude underlies the long analysis of possible meanings of the name Cecilia; though each interpretation suggests that she is a moral exemplar for us, there are a number of possible interpretations with no definitive final meaning given – an ambiguity which might remind us that "in my Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2). Though we tend to think of the religion of the middle ages as monolithic and intolerant, it was actually, within certain boundaries, full of multiple meanings and different pathways: a compendium of possibilities, like The Canterbury Tales itself. Many people associate the collection with the stories that are robust and ribald jokes, but the longest single "story" is a prose sermon on the seven deadly sins (and it's actually quite lively; I had never read that one until this past summer, when I decided to read the entire book, from the General Prologue to Chaucer's Retraction, something I had never done despite majoring in English and taking at least one course solely in Chaucer; The Parson's Tale is not usually assigned to undergrads).

The whole lengthy analysis of the significance of a name comes from de Voragine; it is his typical way of opening a saint's life. The idea is that the name reveals some truth about the person. Such playing with names seems to be an ancient form, dating from a period when nomenclature was likely to be based on personal circumstances. (The Second Nun and Wagner may seem like an unlikely duo, but this passage always reminds me of Siegmund's lengthy explanation to Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walküre of the name he travels under.) Here is the relevant passage from The Golden Legend, in the translation from the Latin by William Granger Ryan:
The name Cecilia may come from coeli lilia, lily of heaven, or from caecitate carens, lacking blindness, or from caecis via, road for the blind, or from coelum and lya, a woman who works for heaven. Or the name may be derived from coelum and laos, people. For Saint Cecilia was a heavenly lily by the modesty of her virginity. She is called a lily because of her shining cleanness, her clear conscience, and the aroma of her good renown. She was a road for the blind by giving good example, a heaven through her continual contemplation, and a worker for heaven by her application to good works. Or she is called heaven because, as Isidore says, the philosophers have said that heaven is revolving, round, and fiery, and Cecilia was revolving in a constant circle of good works, round in her perseverance, and fiery with the warmth of her charity. She was free of blindness through the splendor of her wisdom. She was a heaven of the people because in her, as in a spiritual heaven – the sun, the moon, the stars – people saw how to imitate heaven, namely, by the perspicacity of her wisdom, the magnanimity of her faith, and the variety of her virtues.
(The life of Saint Cecilia is found in Volume 2 of the two-volume translation of The Golden Legend, the first complete one in modern English, by William Granger Ryan, issued by Princeton University Press in 1993.)

The lily is a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, signifying her purity and chastity (in paintings of the Annunciation you will almost always see, either prominently or tucked in some corner, a vase of lilies), so referring to Cecilia as a lily links her to the Virgin Mary (and, in fact, the Second Nun begins her prologue by invoking the Virgin Mary as a kind of heavenly muse to guide her in her tale, just as Homer and Virgil begin by asking the appropriate muse to inspire them). The Isidore referred to is St Isidore of Seville, the sixth-century archbishop whose Etymologiae was a learned, vast, and vastly influential compilation of universal knowledge as found in hundreds of classical sources.

Despite the elaborate and suggestive interpretation of the saint's name, our speaker protests that she is speaking plainly, not artfully: what is important is not stylishness but the truths exemplified by the martyr's life. Throughout this passage there is a traditional association of whiteness and light with purity and holiness. This association of whiteness with purity and goodness tends to make modern readers understandably uncomfortable, so it may help to think of it as suggesting spotlessness and clarity rather than the mere color. Though light is traditionally associated with Godhead, the name Cecilia's connections to caecus, the Latin word for blind, may strengthen the association between this saint and brightness and light (think of the opening of Purcell's setting of an Ode to St Cecilia: Hail, bright Cecilia!). The word heaven keeps recurring in this passage, reminding us of our ultimate goal. The climax of the passage is that the life of a single good and wise woman expands to the size of the universe, glowing with the celestial light of the sun, moon, and stars. (Chaucer – the author of The Legend of Good Women and the creator of the Wife of Bath as well as of a strikingly sensitive and empathetic portrait of Cressida, who is traditionally seen as basically a faithless whore – tends to be very sympathetic to women.)

By the way, current research suggests that, just as Judith is actually a generic name meaning a woman of Judea, so Cecilia is actually a collective name common to all women from the Roman family Caecilii, named after their legendary founder Caeculus (the little blind boy, from caecus, blind), a son of the divine blacksmith Vulcan. It was, early on, mistaken as a personal name. The beloved legend is based on little to no actual historical evidence.

This is from the Penguin Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales, edited and with notes by Jill Mann. One of the interesting points she makes is that referring to you that reden that I write is inconsistent with the framing device of the Tales, in which each speaker tells the story orally to the other pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Chaucer used some of his earlier works in putting together the Canterbury Tales, and died before the work reached final form, so these little contradictions do occur.

The interlinear crib is my attempt to convey the meaning of the passage. For some suggestions on how to pronounce the Middle English text, see the links in this earlier entry from Chaucer.

16 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/46

I won't come
I won't go
I won't live
I won't die

I'll keep uttering
The name
And lose myself
In it

I'm bowl
And I'm platter
I'm man
And I'm woman

I'm grapefruit
And I'm sweet lime
I'm Hindu
And I'm Muslim

I'm fish
And I'm net
I'm fisherman
And I'm time

I'm nothing
Says Kabir
I'm not among the living
Or the dead

attributed to Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra

Kabir is a fifteenth-century Indian mystic, one of those who expressed his intensely spiritual vision in robust poems. His primary concern is not aesthetic, but sacred: removing all distinctions and obstacles, he immerses himself in the deity's sacred name, specified in other poems in the series as Rama, but Kabir doesn't seem too hung up on particulars. Since we (we being contemporary Americans) tend to live in a less clearly religious and rule-bound society than fifteenth-century India, the important thing for us to keep in mind when reading these poems is that Kabir is not just being a loosey-goosey proto-hippie: he is arguing against rigid adherence to doctrine and religious laws in favor of an inclusive search for the annihilating surrender to the Godhead, a radical approach that is part of both the mystic fringe and the essential core of religious searching (I can imagine a mystic in Europe a century later writing that he or she is both Catholic and Protestant, though I can't imagine such a poet at that time and place not being silenced or killed).

This loss of self is not without its terrifying aspects. Note the opening of this poem, with its paired opposites (I won't come / I won't go / I won't live / I won't die); if there were an and between the opposites, that might suggest some sort of personal volition, but as it is, the lines suggest an almost helpless suspension between two states in constant, irreconcilable tension (a tension that, perhaps, is the nature of the universe). The closing lines have a similar effect: I'm not among the living / Or the dead; even the lack of a concluding period emphasizes the on-going, endless state of being-not-being. When you're everything – when you're the fish, and net in which it's caught, and the fisherman casting the net, and the time in which all this is happening – then you, yourself, are nothing.

This is from Songs of Kabir, translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, with a preface by Wendy Doniger. The volume is brief – I read the entire collection, along with the illuminating forewords by Doniger and Mehrotra, in maybe a bit under an hour – but it is intense and invigorating. Some poets suffer from having many of their lyrics read at once, as repetition makes their effects pall; for a few, accumulation is an advantage. I found that to be the case here. It's worth reading the introductions first, as they give some cultural and theological background for Kabir's "upside-down" language (such as his use of direct contradiction, which we see in this poem, and surreal juxtaposition, as in the poems in which he describes "fish spawning / on treetops; / A cat carrying away / A dog . . .") and his complicated relationship to the two major religions of his time and place (he was most likely born a Muslim, though also influenced by Hindus; attacked by both religions during his life for his disregard of their protocols, he was claimed by both after his death). Mehrotra has some interesting things to say about the fluidity of Kabir's corpus, which was composed and initially passed down orally – there is no single definitive text. In a way what we now have of Kabir's works is a collective expression of an attitude (which justifies Mehrotra's occasional use of anachronistic terms; not only do they add to the pungent sense of the poems, anachronism is in a way part of the living tradition of Kabir).

12 November 2015

Cappella SF sings Songs for the Earth

Last Saturday night there were quite a few concerts to choose from – among them Ensemble Intercontemporain at Cal Performances at 8:00, Jennifer Koh and Shai Wosner at San Francisco Performances at 7:30, and Ragnar Bohlin leading Cappella SF at the Mission Dolores Basilica at 7:00 – so I went with the earliest start time and found myself walking around the basilica's block several times, waiting for the doors to open, which they did not do until 6:45. A considerable crowd had gathered in the chilly dark by then, so I waited off to the side until the line was what I considered manageable, with the result that the front part of the church was full by the time I made it in. The usher was having such a wonderful time teasing someone in front of me that he was unable either to hand me a program or even let me pass. I managed to grab a program while he was mid-josh and semi-shove my way through, as politely as I could. Given the late hour at which they opened the doors, I wasn't really up for tomfoolery. I was also in even less of a mood than usual for sitting in a crowd, so I kept moving back as latecomers wandered in (as they continued to do even after the concert started), until finally I found myself almost all the way in the back of the nave, with a safe number of pews between me and anyone else.

This turned out to be an excellent spot from which to hear the chorus. The last time I heard Cappella SF was also in Mission Dolores Basilica, only I was much closer, off to the side near the transept, and the sound arrived there a bit muddied. From where I sat on Saturday the sound came through in clear and well-shaped form.

The theme of the concert, presented in collaboration with Food & Water Watch, was Songs for the Earth: Music and Reflections on Protecting Nature. It did occur to me fairly late in the game that the "reflections" mentioned in the subtitle would take the form of readings during the performance, and indeed between each number a member of Food & Water Watch would read a brief comment. These were mostly well chosen, though personally I would have preferred more in the way of philosophy and poetry rather than politicians (more Thoreau and Wordsworth, fewer congressional representatives, in other words). I guess the idea was to remind us that political solutions are essential for some of the larger problems, but by concert's end, when I saw several people rudely holding up their glowing phones to get a shaky and inadequate video of the group singing, which reminded me of an article I read recently pointing out that Steve Jobs's major contribution to our world will most likely be piles of toxic waste dumps full of instantly outmoded phones, I wondered how deeply the message of ecological urgency is penetrating to any of us. Given Big Tech's clout around these parts, and the adulation that industry tends to receive, I wonder how many people concerned with things like unfair working conditions, the surveillance state, income disparity, and strip-mining the earth for products we dump after a year would be willing to resist the latest "innovation," or at least hang on to their instantly outmoded phones for a cycle or two. I suppose all of us end up having to deal with our own preferences and ironies when it comes to our individual attempts to solve a massive world-wide problem.

The music itself was more abstract than the readings, tending towards contemplation and celebration of nature and natural cycles. The first piece was by Jan Sandström, a contemporary Swedish composer, who adapted a traditional Sami (Laplander) song to the wind. Tenor soloist Ben Jones sang and the chorus followed, with a drum beating softly with the murmuring sounds. That was followed by the world premiere of Madrigals for the Season by David Conte. There will be a song for each season, but on Saturday we heard two, Summer and Autumn (I couldn't quite tell from the program note if Winter and Spring had been composed yet). Summer was a setting of Dickinson's A Summer's Day and Autumn was John Clare's Autumn (The summer-flower has run to seed). Both settings were very appealing but, especially given the composer's note on his vivid memories of sharply differentiated seasons during his Midwestern childhood, they were a bit too much alike. Dickinson and Clare both write about Nature but don't really sound in the same world. I did feel that the concert as a whole could have used a few more radical contrasts. So the third piece, Monteverdi's setting of Tasso's Ecco mormorar l'onde (Now the waves murmur) offered a welcome tang.

Then we heard Stjernespejl (The star rises on the horizon) by contemporary Danish composer Per Nørgård, followed by Swedish composer David Wikander's Kung Liljekonjalje (King Lily-of-the-Valley), and then Estonian composer Veljo Tormis's Sugismaastikud, a setting of seven short movements presenting autumn vignettes. I assume the welcome programming of unfamiliar Danish and Scandinavian composers reflects the interests of artistic director Bohlin. That was followed by Stanford's The Blue Bird and Vaughn Williams's Three Shakespeare Songs. These were all lovely, contemplative numbers, nicely delineated by the chorus. The final two selections were Frank Tichell's Earth Song, to the composer's own text, based on a heartfelt longing for peace amid our misadventures in Iraq, and Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst, which has the chorus snapping their fingers to recreate the sound of falling rain, a sound we have have sadly lost familiarity with during these drought years.

The concert was about ninety minutes with no intermission. The darkened basilica was a nice venue for its contemplative essence, despite the occasional intrusion of glowing screens mentioned earlier. There was a reception afterwards in the parish hall. I slipped in just long enough to grab some cheese-biscuits, say hello to a singer or two that I know, and buy Cappella SF's new Christmas album, Light of Gold, which I may write about if I find the time. Cappella SF's next concert, again at Mission Dolores Basilica, will be a celebration of Russian choral music, on 17 January 2016.

09 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/45

"Is my team ploughing,
     That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
     When I was man alive?"

Ay, the horses trample,
     The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
     The land you used to plough.

"Is football playing
     Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
     Now I stand up no more?"

Ay, the ball is flying,
     The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
     Stands up to keep the goal.

"Is my girl happy,
     That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
     As she lies down at eve?"

Ay, she lies down lightly,
     She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
     Be still, my lad, and sleep.

"Is my friend hearty,
     Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
     A better bed than mine?"

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
     I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
     Never ask me whose.

A E Housman

This poem is from Housman's celebrated collection A Shropshire Lad. Even though it was published in 1896, you can see why it became particularly popular during and after the First World War, which ended 97 years ago this Wednesday, 11 November (celebrated as Veterans Day in the United States). The collection's pervasive and deeply emotional, even erotic, engagement with young men and death struck a chord in a country devastated by the loss (to death or lasting wounds, physical and psychological) of a generation of young men. Although there is not much religious comfort offered, that also suited a generation made cynical about pieties by the war. (This pointed avoidance of the expected Victorian religious uplift may have helped the poems seem modern despite their very traditional form and language.) But the work does suggest some sort of continuity with an after-life, as in this poem, in which a man speaks to the spirit of his dead comrade, though I wouldn't call the conversation consoling.

A Shropshire Lad also offers an ideal view of England: written at the height of the British Empire, we are presented instead with an intensely local, pastoral setting, in which the complications and pains are the ever-lasting ones of loss, death, grief, and betrayal, rather than the complications of, say, modern urban capitalist alienation. (This is not a negative criticism of the collection, in my view; writers write what speaks to them, and that's what produces work of value and interest. But you can see why these poems appeal to some readers as a kind of authentic England, shorn of imperial and industrial complications.) Even when published the poems were considered "old-fashioned" in their style and language; unconnected to the Decadent Movement or to increasingly influential contemporary French poetry or other movements towards the birth of Modernism, Housman's poems speak with a formal purity and concision of language that may strike us not so much as old-fashioned as nearly close to timeless, or as timeless as any human artifact can get. This is less of a problem for later readers than it is for contemporary ones, who are more concerned with what is current and new. Everything changes and it matters less to us, who read later on, where writers fit with the movements of their times. In fact, the great writers create their times for us, no matter how out-of-step or obscure or elitist they seemed in their own day.

This is an England in which the land is still plowed by farmers driving teams of horses. The call-and-response structure of the poem starts with the dead man asking about his team of horses. In four brief lines in the first quatrain, we are told that the speaker is dead (used to drive, but that could imply he's simply moved elsewhere, so we also get When I was man alive), that he is recently dead (it's reasonable for him to think his horses are still at work), and that he was a rural man, a farm-worker. The jingling harnesses are one of those details that bring the scene vividly before us (vividly and, to many readers, picturesquely; this is not the daily life we lead).

The dialogue proceeds with mounting emotional intensity. After asking about his horses, the dead man asks about his friends, the other young men he played football with. (Football would be what Americans think of as soccer.) After that he asks about his girlfriend, remembering her grief as he was dying. The speaker suggests, as tactfully as you can say such a thing, that she has moved on: she is now well contented (which is gentler than the happy that the dead man used in his question). And at this point the drama increases a bit: for the first time, the living man suggests to the dead one that he should not ask any further questions: Be still, my lad, and sleep. But the dead man persists, asking about the living man himself, his friend. And the answer brings up complicated questions about grief and endurance and moving on in the face of death and pain – or maybe about indifference and a sort of betrayal.

It's interesting that the question about his friend comes after the one about his girlfriend. Partly this is so that the poem can end with the revelation that the living man and the girlfriend are now a couple. But given the increasing emotional charge of the questions, and the reference to sharing a bed, there's pretty clearly an erotic suggestion here as well, even surpassing the one between the man and his girlfriend. The dead man, perhaps with some surviving jealousy, asks if his friend has found a better bed than mine to sleep in. The friend replies that he lie[s] as lads would choose: perhaps the implication there is that the dead man's love, at least in its possibly erotic aspect, was to some extent unrequited. The somewhat odd use of pine (Now I am thin and pine) strengthens this idea: pine, which is used here roughly in the sense of I have pined away, suggests physical and mental decline, particularly as caused by a broken heart; it also suggests to pine, as in to long (unsuccessfully) for someone, usually in a romantic sense. (There may also be a "reference by resonance" to a coffin made of pine wood.)

It's important to note, though, that sharing beds was not uncommon among friends through the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas. It's also important to note that A Shropshire Lad was published the year after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison for "gross indecency" in one of the notorious scandals of the day. Sexual relations between men were criminal in Britain and would remain so until 1967, much too late for Wilde or Housman. Since the collection was self-published, it seems unlikely that Housman would put himself in legal and professional danger: that is, the same-sex elements of the poems could, in the context of the time, be seen either as a deep (but non-physical) friendship between two men, or as an erotic attachment (however one-sided or temporary) between them. Though I am resistant to reducing all male emotions to sexual ones, and resistant to forcing an interpretation on a poem based on what we know, or think we know, about an author's life, it seems to me that at this point it would be foolish to deny that element in this poem, or to deny that it enriches the emotional complexity of this dialogue between the living and the dead. But we should also remember that in a society intensely fearful and contemptuous of gay male relationships, thousands read these poems without suspicion and loved them enough to make them an enduring icon of an ideal England and to use them to mourn their war-time dead. So that element is there in them to the extent that each reader wants to see it. Ultimately we take from poems what we individually find useful.

Given A Shropshire Lad's popularity and cultural standing, it's not surprising that selections from it have been set to music by many English composers. The most famous is perhaps that by George Butterworth, one of the young artists killed during war (he saw action in France). I have heard this song, with its alternation between the living and ghostly voices, sung to devastating effect by artists such as Simon Keenlyside, Ian Bostridge, and Gerald Finley.

There are many editions of A Shropshire Lad, including some very elegant limited editions; I took this from The Collected Poems of A E Housman.