29 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/9

A Shower

That sputter of rain, flipping the hedge-rows
And making the highways hiss,
How I love it!
And the touch of you upon my arm
As you press against me that my umbrella
May cover you.

Tinkle of drops on stretched silk.
Wet murmur through green branches.

Amy Lowell

Lowell sets the scene swiftly: we're outdoors, or looking at the outdoors; it's an area with lots of greenery (the hedge-rows), and it could be the countryside, or a park, or even a nice residential area, because we are not far from human habitations and connections (the highways). And it's raining: not a downpour but not quite gently either; the sounds of the rain are brought out vividly with sputter and hiss. And the rain is flipping the hedgerows – that's an odd word to use; the hedgerows obviously are not literally being flipped (turned over sharply) by this rain; perhaps we're meant to see the individual leaves in the hedge-rows being struck and inverted by the splashing rain, or perhaps she's hearkening back to the word's mid-sixteenth-century origins as a term to indicate flicking with the finger and thumb, which is an accurate description of how this sort of rain would hit leaves.

Sputter, flip, and hiss are not necessarily words with positive connotations – in fact, the primary feelings suggested by them are negative ones of confusion, loss, and disapproval. And not everyone is fond of rainy days. So there's a bit of a shock in the third line when this landscape is suddenly entered by the speaker, who expresses vigorous enthusiasm for the scene: How I love it! And we find out that the speaker has not only entered the scene emotionally, she is there physically as well, placing us firmly outdoors as she addresses her companion directly: the touch of you upon my arm. Her explosive exclamation of love is the hinge between the landscape with rain and the companion's touch upon her arm; the conjunction (And the touch of you) spreads the feeling of love from the rain to the companion's touch, another thing she loves; this unexpected joyful feeling of love suffuses the rainy scene. The effect is both public and intimate. She's speaking to the companion, but you encompasses the reader as well; we are drawn in under the sheltering umbrella in a way that feels intimate rather than voyeuristic. Here's another reason to love the rain: it causes her companion to touch her arm, to press against her; it allows her to protect her companion. (Since this is Lowell, we can assume the companion is another woman, though of course a reader can visualize whomever he or she likes as the loved companion; but in this case it's useful to bear in mind that this rain allows the two women to express physical closeness and affection in public.)

After this emotional climax, there is a break, and then two gentle and precise afterglow images:

Tinkle of drops on stretched silk.
Wet murmur through green branches.

The two are still outdoors, still walking in the rain under a shared umbrella. Again, sounds bring the scene to life: the drops fall musically, like chimes, on the stretched silk of the umbrella, though stretched silk may also bring a mental image of  the women's dresses, perhaps (in some future scene) in some disarray or stretched out through caresses. We're given another sound: the murmur of the wind through the branches (communication between the two women is blurred into our perceptions of the world around them). As with tinkle, it's a gentler word, with more positive connotations, than the opening splutter, flipping, and hiss. In this context, murmur may bring to mind postcoital love-talk, especially as it is modified by wet. There are three words in this poem that bring to mind physical sensations: touch, then the more intense press, and then wet. We can trace an erotic arc there. With the final words of the poem – green branches – we are given for the first time a specific color, green, the color of spring's renewal, of growth and health; the sudden appearance of a color may make it seem as if (under the love expressed here) the branches are suddenly flowering before our eyes. (Green is also the color of jealousy; perhaps that connects with splutter, flipping, and hiss to suggest an underlying uneasiness or danger in what is otherwise presented as a glowing and happy moment of love.)

Lowell was a leader in an early Modernist poetic movement called Imagism, which rejected high-toned "poetic" language and vague sentiments in favor of very specific images and emotions. As part of their rejection of what they saw as filler, most Imagist poets jettisoned what they felt were the shackles of regular rhyme and meter in favor of free verse. As in the slightly earlier art-world movement Pointillism, exemplified by the paintings of Seurat, the conjunction of different intense spots of color (or, in the poem, images) produces an energy that generates and vivifies a whole scene. Here, sheerly through precise description of specific details (the rain on the hedge-rows and highways, the sound of rain on an umbrella, the touch of her companion), Lowell has created not only a vision of the two women walking in the rain but a sense of the emotional and even implicitly the physical connection between them, a reminder of the erotic tension and release that can underlie and transform even our most casual and public moments.

I took this poem from Amy Lowell: Selected Poems, edited by Honor Moore for the American Poets Project in the Library of America.

27 February 2016

fun stuff I may or may not get to: March 2016

There's a lot going on this month! Too much, from any realistic point of view; but attending live performances can't really be justified through realism. Of particular note, to me at least, are appearances by Meredith Monk at Other Minds, Matthias Goerne singing Winterreise at the Wilsey Center, and the Mark Morris Dance Group performing L'Allegro etc at Cal Performances. So I'll just sit here for a moment being grateful that I live in an area that offers such largesse – and then I was going to start complaining, because that is what I do, but you know what? I complain enough in the entries below. So up here I'll just radiate the Attitude of Gratitude, and down below I'll jab at weird start times that are inconvenient for working people and odd locations that are inconvenient for non-drivers and the irritations of general admission (rather than reserved seating) and being surrounded by people who think they're at a party when you wanted to be at a concert. I'll refrain from all that up here, and just bask in anticipatory pleasures. Enjoy your month!

Cutting Ball Theater presents Risk Is This. . . , its annual festival of new play readings; this year you can see all of what you love and none of what you hate by Phillip Howze on 11 - 12 March, My Home Is Where by Alex Johnson on 18 - 19 March, and Borealis by Bennett Fisher on 25 - 26 March.

Custom Made Theater presents Will Eno's Middletown, directed by Brian Katz, from 24 March to 23 April.

Will Eno is also taking the stage at ACT, which presents The Realistic Joneses, directed by Loretto Greco, from 9 March to 3 April.

42nd Street Moon presents The Boys from Syracuse, Rodgers & Hart's wonderful musical version of The Comedy of Errors, from 23 March to 17 April, at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco.

Cal Performances presents Yefim Bronfman in the second and third concerts of his three-concert survey of Prokofiev's piano sonatas, in the intimate confines of Hertz Hall. On 4 March you can hear sonatas 5, 6, and 7, and on 6 March you can hear sonatas 8 and 9. Bronfman performed the first four sonatas on 24 January; I attended that afternoon, and it was my first time hearing Bronfman – he's pretty remarkable, with a clear sound that can be both strong and refined. The hall was almost full that afternoon, so you should probably move quickly if you're interested in hearing these concerts.

The San Francisco Symphony presents Jeremy Denk in a solo recital on 20 March, performing works by Bach, Byrd, Bolcom, Joplin, Tatum, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Ives, Nancarrow, Lambert, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert.

San Francisco Performances presents Paul Lewis playing works by Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt on 8 March at Herbst Theater.

Sarah Cahill performs a free concert of music by Ruth Crawford, Pauline Oliveros, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Bunita Marcus on 20 March at the Central Library (2090 Kittredge Street) in Berkeley.

Cal Performances presents soprano Renée Fleming and pianist Olga Kern in recital (in Zellerbach Hall) on 5 March, performing works by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, Patricia Barber, and Rodgers & Hammerstein.

San Francisco Opera's Merola Program has two Schwabacher Debut Recitals this month in the new Wilsey Center: bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch with pianist John Churchwell on 6 March and baritone Efraín Solís with pianist Bryndon Hassman on 20 March.

Also at the Wilsey Center, presented by San Francisco Opera: baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser perform Schubert's Winterreise, along with videos by William Kentridge. That's 11 - 13 March, and I am happy to say it's reserved seating, not general admission. I am less happy to see that the Opera's (slow loading, clunky, uninformative, and generally horrible) new website offers assurance that there is a bar in the lobby and cupholders on the seats, because God forbid you might have to sit through an entire hour and twenty minutes of music without boozing it up during as well as before and after.

Volti will feature works by Robert Paterson as well as Mark Winges, David Lang, and Ingrid Stölzel on 11 March at St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco and on 12 March at the Piedmont Center for the Arts in, of course, Piedmont (the latter is not a public-transportation-friendly venue).

Chora Nova performs Mendelssohn's Die erste Walpurgisnacht and Rheinberger's Mass in E Flat; that's 19 March at Grace Presbyterian in Walnut Creek and 20 March at First Congregational in Berkeley.

Sven Edward Olbash leads the Lacuna Arts Chorale in Rheinberger's Mass in E Flat, as well as short works by Heinrich von Herzogenberg and Arnold Schoernberg; that's at Star of the Sea Church on Geary Street on 18 and 19 March.

Cal Performances presents the Mark Morris Dance Group in the modern classic L'Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato. Handel's music will be performed by Philharmonia Baroque. If you've never seen this work, don't miss this chance! It runs 11 - 13 March in Zellerbach Hall.

Cal Performances presents Trajal Harrell's The Ghost of Montpellier Meets the Samurai on 18 and 19 March in Zellerbach Playhouse.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to Cal Performances with three different programs, performed on 29 - 31 March and 1 - 3 April.

San Francisco Ballet presents Coppélia from 8 to 13 March and a double-bill of Dances at a Gathering and Swimmer from 16 to 22 March.

Cal Performances presents the Montreal Symphony in Zellerbach Hall on 26 March; Kent Nagano conducts Debussy's Jeux, Prokofiev's Piano Concerto 3 with soloist Daniil Trifonov, and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Joshua Bell leads the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in the Classical Symphony of Prokofiev, the Violin Concerto 1 by Bruch (Bell will do double-duty as soloist), Elegy for Orchestra by Schumann (arranged by Britten), and the Beethoven 8; that's on 6 March, presented by the San Francisco Symphony.

Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony in Cherubini's Requiem, the Beethoven 2, and the world premiere of Martin Rokeach's Piccolo Concerto with soloist Amy Likar; that's 18 March at the Paramount in Oakland.

Chamber Music
San Francisco Performances presents the JACK Quartet in Georg Friedrich Haas's Quartet no 3, "In iij Noct.", which is an hour-long work performed in total darkness with the four musicians in different corners of the room. That's at the Strand Theater on 4 March. This is the opening concert in a new series called PIVOT, which SFP is branding as "for the culturally adventurous" – a category which apparently excludes people who have to work for a living, since the concert takes place at 11:00 PM on a Friday night. It also excludes people who don't drive, since BART will be shutting down around the time the concert lets out. In a final "give us your money and then you're on your own" touch, it's general admission. The Kronos Quartet's David Harrington will give a pre-performance talk at 10:00 PM. It is extremely awkward to have a talk before a concert with open seating – you have to get there extra early to get a good seat, whether you want to hear the talk or not; you have to remain seated during the talk (I generally stand until concerts start, since I have trouble sitting for long periods); people are milling around and coming in and out during the talk, because they are ruder than I am and don't realize they shouldn't do that. . . . just awkwardness. I'm complaining a lot here because this set-up seems indicative of a trend: works that are adventurous or unusual are staged at odd hours that are difficult for working people, in locations that are not friendly to non-drivers, with an emphasis on the social rather than artistic experience of the concert. I think there are a lot of assumptions being made about who would be interested in these concerts, and the algorithm is wrong because I would love to attend but, you know, being a non-driver who works for a living and is no longer 20 means it's just not possible.

On 30 March San Francisco Performances presents the third of the four Bridge to Beethoven concerts with violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner. This one presents the Beethoven Sonatas Op 30, No 1 in A Major, No 2 in C Minor, and No 3 in G Major, interspersed with new music by Andrew Norman that responds to the Beethoven works.

Earplay performs music by Donald Aird, Ursula Kwong-Brown, Herb Bielawa Shiuan Chang, and Stefan Wolpe at the ODC Theater on 14 March.

San Francisco Performances presents the Sean Jones Quartet in a couple of concerts: one is a recreation (with special guests Marcus Shelby and the Oakland Futures Trio) of a live recording Miles Davis made at the Black Hawk Jazz Club; there are two shows at the Strand Theater on 16 March; the other (program to be announced) is at Herbst Theater on 18 March.

Early / Baroque Music
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Purcell's The Fairy Queen on 12 - 13 March. Performances are free but reservations are required.

Philharmonia Baroque offers a range of music from the cultural centers of baroque Europe, featuring works by Arne, Zelenka, Heinichen, Tartini, and Rameau; that's 2 March at First United Methodist in Palo Alto, 4 March at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and 5 and 6 March at First Congregational in Berkeley.

Magnificat, led by Warren Stewart, performs Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri, along with his cantata Fürwahr er trug unsere Krankheit (Surely He has borne our griefs); that's 18 March at First Presbyterian in Palo Alto, 19 March at St John's Presbyterian in Berkeley, and 20 March at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

To celebrate Bach's birthday, American Bach Soloists is presenting organist Jonathan Dimmock in an all-Bach (surprise!) concert on 18 March at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco.

Modern / New Music
The Hot Air Music Festival takes place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on 6 March, beginning at 10:30 AM and running to 9:30 PM. You can check out the full and very exciting-looking schedule here.

Curious Flights presents an evening of new music by both British and Bay Area composers; Simon Dobson, Samuel Adams, Mason Bates, Noah Luna, and Robert Chastain are featured. That's 19 March at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The annual Other Minds festival takes place 4 - 6 March at the SF Jazz Center; you can find the full schedule here, but for me the most enticing concert is Meredith Monk on 6 March.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players present warmth and darker by David Lang on 15 and 17 March and works by Gérard Grisey and Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri on 16 and 18 March; both concerts are at Z Space and be warned that both are "don't worry we'll be selling you booze" concerts.

The Center for New Music always has a full and fascinating schedule; some things this month that look particularly interesting are String Noise: The Book of Strange Positions on 2 March; Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble & Chartreuse on 6 March; pianist Lisa Leong playing works by Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, Jonathan Harvey, Amy Williams, Mei-Fang Lin, and Chris Arrell on 12 March; and Eine Kleine Henze Fest, featuring chamber works by Hans Werner Henze, on 26 March.

West Edge Opera presents the second in its Doppelgänger series of Famous Operas But Not The One You're Thinking Of: after last month's Paisiello's Barber of Seville, they now present Mascagni's La Bohème. You get two chances to hear it: a matinee on 20 March at Lisser Theater (Mills College in Oakland) and an evening performance on 22 March at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley.

26 February 2016

Friday photo 2016/9

late afternoon atmospheric effects seen from the San Leandro BART station, January 2016

22 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/8

A poor woman

In her cottage she knows nothing
       of elegant silks and scents;
She thinks of getting a go-between
       but that distresses her more.
Who will love a person of quality,
       somebody with talent?
Everyone falls for fashionable women
       made up in exotic ways.
She's prepared to vaunt the stitching skills
       she has in her ten fingers,
But not to compete at who is better
       at painting their eyebrows long.
She wields her needle and gold thread bitterly,
       year in and year out,
Making wedding costumes that
       are for other people to wear.

Qin Taoyu, translated by Peter Harris

This poem from the intersection of romance and economics dates from the Tang dynasty (618 - 907); it's probably unnecessary for me to point out how relevant its concerns still are (even the go-betweens still exist, sometimes in the form of websites). It's a deftly structured poem, and by the end of it, we feel we know this imaginary and unnamed woman from over a thousand years ago. It opens with a view of her cottage; she's not indigent, but she is cut off from life's luxuries. Yet she seems to be a sensitive, even refined person; the thought of engaging a go-between to find a husband is upsetting to her. Though marriage at that time was more of an economic and social rather than romantic institution than it is in contemporary America, the longing for love and understanding still exist somewhat uneasily with the economic necessity of finding a spouse (in China there were also spiritual and social imperatives for having children who would take care of you in your old age and honor your spirit when you joined your ancestors). She wonders who could love her – yet there's pride and dignity there, too, as she thinks of herself as someone with talent (we have not yet been told what her talent is). She realizes that quality and talent are not necessarily what men are looking for: they want "fashionable" women in "exotic" make-up. She looks down a bit on these women; she declines to compete with them at their elaborate and stylish cosmetology. And now we find out what her talent is – she's a seamstress. As the lonely years pass (each one making her less marriageable in the eyes of others), she feels bitter, the bitterness of a talented, sensitive person condemned to drudgery by economics, a bitterness associated inextricably with her talent – she wields her needle and gold thread bitterly. The gold thread might tip us off to the final twist: she's making wedding costumes, but only for other people. Presumably she can get a better income by making elaborate wedding outfits rather than everyday clothes; it's possible that people would only hire a seamstress for such fancy work, relying on their own lesser skill for day to day outfits. But you also have to wonder if there isn't a bit of self-imposed suffering there, the way one might keep obsessively pressing a sore tooth with the tongue. This is a haunting and poignant portrait, as vivid, subtle, and surprising as one of Browning's monologues.

This poem is from Three Hundred Tang Poems, translated and edited by Peter Harris in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. It's a translation of the Chinese classic Three Hundred Tang Poems (the number is approximate; all versions of the collection contain over three hundred poems), the first version of which was assembled around 1763 by a scholar named Sun Zhu (also referred to as Hengtang Tuishi, "the retired master of Hengtang"). This is the only poem in the anthology by Qin Taoyu; I don't know if other works by him survive.

16 February 2016

Ondine at Cutting Ball Theater

Last Saturday I went to Cutting Ball Theater to see Ondine, a new play by Katharine Sherman, directed by Rob Melrose. Ondine is a mermaid who falls in love with Hildebrand, a young mortal, an alchemist who is searching for the "universal solvent" (though he also wonders what container could hold a substance that can dissolve anything – he occasionally ponders whether there is a hidden meaning and unity there). Like its titular mermaid, the play is appealing but also oddly disjointed.

For one thing, the setting is not some Maeterlinck-like Vague & Timeless Land of Misty Enchantments; it is insistently and clearly contemporary, in behavior, appearance, and language. So . . . an alchemist? I'm more likely to accept the mermaid, frankly. The facts of modern physics are far more marvelous than the fantastic dreams of the alchemists (who were generally considered frauds by Chaucer's time). But here we don't even reach Newton, much less Einstein – Aristotle is cited as the ultimate scientific authority. Hildebrand proclaims himself a knight as well as an alchemist. I couldn't help wondering how he's paying the rent. I suppose I should just accept the two worlds – mermaid and alchemist in one aspect, and (honestly, not very interesting) young contemporary couple in another – but the juxtaposition seemed more about convenience than anything else. Hildebrand not only appears to have no job other than his alchemist gig, he appears to have no friends, no family, and no history; Ondine has three older water-women who show up to remind her, rather gently, that there is a price for leaving the sea, but she too is in many ways a blank – Hildebrand literally teaches her language. Their life together is a Pinterest dream, revolving around cups of tea and home-made scones. (I was a bit baffled when Ondine talked about "learning to make scone dough rise" – yeast doughs rise, and they can be tricky, as yeast is a living organism, but scones are a quick bread and rise while baking – how do you "learn to make scone dough rise"?)

We're not really shown how they meet – Hildebrand pours some water out and she appears and it seems to be mutual love at first sight. This may be just my problem, but I don't find happy young love an interesting subject for the stage – it's sort of the point of their shared joy that there is nothing dramatic there: no conflict, no clash, just cups of tea and lovely homemade pies and scones. (This is not the only time the playwright avoids potentially interesting and dramatic scenes.) There are brief scenes, often variations on these themes (I've learned about tea! look at how much in love we are! I don't want to return to the sea yet, because of tea and scones and love!); the language is waterlike: fluid, flowing, often sparkling, occasionally murky. I do have to object to the frequent use of fuck / fucking, which is part of the insistently contemporary tone I referred to earlier: fuck and its variants started showing up more frequently as the play went on, and I winced each time, not because I was shocked and offended, but exactly because I wasn't: in the course of a few decades, that once powerful word has descended through overuse into a merely annoying verbal tic; an atomic bomb has turned into a damp squib. This is why we can't have not-nice things. It really used to mean something when you said fuck you to someone. Now: not so much.

And Sherman doesn't really do anything with the word, which is odd, considering that fucking is presumably what really draws these two characters together, even though their life together, as shown to us, is quite decorously tea-and-sconesy; the only reference to sex is on their first night, when Hildebrand gives her his bed and sleeps on the floor "because of chivalry" (though apparently he gets over that at some elided point). Other words are played with, but there's no playing with fucking. (As far as I recall, it is never used to refer to, you know, copulation; it's only used as an expletive or adjective.) The word just sits there, a standard marker of anger that's too conventional to attract much attention; it's a little dried-up pellet of dead language. If this were a play that aimed at realism, its use could be defended as an accurate representation of how many of our contemporaries speak, but when your protagonists are an alchemist and a mermaid, the way we live now is maybe not the effect you're really aiming for.

I found the actual experience of watching the play entertaining. The set (scenic design by Michael Locher) is a sort of wave-like crest running down the middle of the performance space (the audience sits on either side), and the characters climb and roll and sink over and around and even into it. There's a lot of movement. The cast is quite accomplished and charming (Jessica Waldman as Ondine, Kenny Toll as Hildebrand, and – I just now found out that the three water women have names! – Molly Benson as Rain, Marilet Martinez as Mist, and Danielle O'Hare as Ice). The set and staging are captivating. The language, except for its tired use of fuck, is playful and interesting. But the material seemed stretched a bit thin even for 80 intermissionless minutes, often because of Sherman's tendency to skip potentially meaty dramatic moments in favor of a chant-like repetition from the trio of water-women or sometimes puzzling remarks about baked goods. It may sound as if I'm asking for a more conventional play here, but I think that's not really it. I'm asking for a more dramatic play.

We do get one big dramatic scene, when Hildebrand decides that although he loves Ondine he needs to leave her because his important and urgent alchemical research dictates that he seek out a hermit and then live in solitude for a while. Ondine, apparently not understanding that his departure is temporary, curses him (much use of fuck in that speech). I'm not really giving anything away here, since the program tells us ahead of time about the actual though rare syndrome called Ondine's Curse, and in addition all along we're given brief scenes of Ondine gently slapping or shaking her knight to keep him awake, but if you're going to the play you might want to read the next few paragraphs selectively.

If you suffer from Ondine's Curse, you lose the ability to breathe automatically. This means that if you sleep, you will stop breathing and therefore die. Since being deprived of sleep will also kill you, it's a condition that condemns you to a painful death one way or the other. So Ondine is sentencing Hildebrand to death for leaving her. But it turns out that he does return, and he really did love her all along, which makes her feel really kind of bad for punishing him with a gruesome, painful, and premature death. (There's no explanation for her inability to undo a curse she laid on someone; presumably, as in Tennyson's Tithonus, "The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.") When he realizes his beloved has laid this cruel, irrevocable curse on him, how does Hildebrand react? He doesn't. No anger, no sense of betrayal, no ironic laughter, no questioning. . . . no drama.

There's no clash of opinions or realities or desires here, not even a sense of the savage consequences of fooling with water sprites. I had the feeling that the material would work better as a lyric poem or ballad, forms in which a relentless focus on only one perspective or one voice can seem suggestive, ironic, and powerful, rather than narcissistic and emotionally self-serving. But the strength of drama as an art form is the forum it offers for a multiplicity of voices and different points of view, and we're just not getting that here. In a poem our imagination can supply the doomed youth's unmentioned reaction, but when we see the actor physically in front of us, the art form (and reasonable expectations) dictate that we're going to see some reaction from him.

I felt that underneath its shining carapace, the essence of the play was banal: it's about a young woman who is all about love and baking. There's a young man who lets her down, because he has an interest other than her – he's putting his career first. She curses him, in the way of young women let down by young men, and in a bit of wish fulfillment, he dies a horrible death (horrible, however gracefully and gently staged), even though (in another bit of wish fulfillment) it turns out he loved her all along. For me, this was one of those plays whose pleasures – an ingenious set and staging, a fine cast, a mostly interesting flow of words (but please, everyone, stop with the fucking) – gradually recede as the experience passes, leaving doubts about the themes and structure of the work. But there was enough there so that I would be interested in seeing another play by Sherman.

If you'd like to check it out yourself, the show is running at the Exit on Taylor through 6 March; you can get tickets here.

15 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/7

Sonnet 116

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken;
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
     If this be error and upon me proved,
     I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

William Shakespeare

All of Shakespeare's sonnets are somewhat mysterious; they were published without his involvement and were written under circumstances unknown to us. Much ingenuity has been expended over the centuries in trying to figure out the real identities of those involved and what exactly prompted the series. These efforts are mostly useless. Even a solid guess can't be verified at this late date. And it's unclear why the real identities and circumstances are (at this late date!) important to us, outside of idle though understandable and often well-meaning curiosity. The poems must stand as poems, and continue to engage readers or not on poetic grounds, and those include psychological grounds – you can analyze and argue over what the poet is saying and why he's saying it without getting too wrapped up in the particulars of whom, historically, he said it to and why – in short, you can analyze Shakespeare's sonnets the way you would analyze a speech in one of his plays.

This is by way of saying that I think this poem is a little stranger than it appears at first glance. Why is the poet arguing so vehemently about the true nature of love, and insisting that to be true it must be unchanging? I've always sensed a sort of rebuke implicit here – is he stepping aside for two people in love with each other, or insisting that he's the one who really knows what true love is? If you read the first line in regular iambic pentameter (that is, five beats of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one, the usual rhythm for a sonnet), then there is an emphasis on me, as if he's speaking in ironic deprecation ("God forbid that I should be the one to come between you two, and my explanation will show you that I am the one who truly understands what love is.")

Admit impediments is probably a reference to the marriage ceremony in the Book of Common Prayer and annotated as such in the edition I used (for which see below): "If any of you know cause or just impediment. . . " But the reference here is not to a regular (legal, physical, setting-up-housekeeping) kind of marriage; it's to a higher emotional and spiritual state: a marriage, a union, of true minds. But what exactly does admit mean here? Does it signify let me not acknowledge or confess that such things can exist in the marriage of true minds (that is, if I allow that such things are there, then this does not qualify as a marriage of true minds)? Or does it mean let me not allow these things to enter into the marriage of true minds (that is, you can do or say what you want, but I refuse to let these things into the unchanging love that is a marriage of true minds)? Is the speaker a party to this true-minds marriage, or a (possibly partial) onlooker?

The poem is structured in the classic English (or, as it's also called, Shakespearean) sonnet style: three quatrains and a concluding couplet, to make up fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. (The other major style, the Italian or Spenserian sonnet, is divided into an octave and a sestet.) The first quatrain starts out with a hint of official language (the echo of the marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer), but the poet is quickly swept up in the balances, paradoxes, and word-play beloved of Elizabethan writers: love / not love, alters / alteration, remover / remove. (Is alter a pun to remind us of the altar at which an official marriage would take place?) But he states his case fairly clearly and cleanly: true love is unchanging. In the second quatrain, he steps up the rhetoric. O, no, as the quatrain starts sounds to me as if he is arguing with someone (even if it's himself). He compares unchanging love to the North Star (the ever-fixèd mark) whose unvarying position in the night skies guided sailors in their navigation (the star to every wand'ring bark – a bark, also spelled barque, being a type of sailing ship). The position of the North Star is known (his height [that is, its location in the sky, is] taken), and that is why its value is unknown, which in this context means something like something that can't be quantified, the way we say that something of great value is priceless (though perhaps there's also a suggestion there that its true value is unknown in the sense of being not realized or thought of – another hint that one of the lovers is heedless). In this quatrain, the poet has moved beyond his general statements on the nature of love to compare it to life-and-death situations (a tempest at sea) in the physical world.

The third quatrain heats up the rhetorical stakes still further, from the physical to the metaphysical, though in all three quatrains, the poet remains as unwavering in his position as Love itself: he is restating, not revising. In this quatrain, it is Time and Eternity that are the enemies of Love, not just tempests and creaking vessels: we are told that Love is not Time's Fool (fool in the sense of an entertainer, a plaything or possession, the licensed joker in an imperious monarch's court), though the beauties (rosy lips and cheeks) that might inspire love do fall victim to Time: but again, we are not talking about mere physical longing or lust, but about a union of true minds. True love moves beyond the body, as it must if it is to be constant (which, according to the poet, ir must by definition be): the body changes, love does not. Time is personified in the familiar way, as a figure with a sickle (the sharp and bending harvest tool with which we, like the grass, are cut down). Compass here means a circular sweep, but the word also hearkens back to Love as the North Star guiding mariners. Alters in this quatrain also is a reminder, this time of the first quatrain (that alters when it alteration finds). These insistent echoes reinforce the consistent message about the unchanging nature of Love.

When we reach the edge of doom with Love still unchanging, we have reached as far as we can go. Doom seems like a dreadful and fatalistic word to have here; more than just an end, even an apocalyptic end, it suggests destruction, fate, and the Day of Judgment (doomsday). Love survives and surpasses even the onslaught suggested by doom. Our poet has reached a fever pitch of emotion (or possibly hysteria). Having gone to the edges of the universe and Time, he concludes with what seems an oddly flat and formulaic couplet: If this be error and upon me proved, / I never writ, nor no man ever loved. (The rhyme proved / loved, like the earlier ones of love / remove and come / doom, would have been regular in Shakespeare's time.) The couplet at the end of this style of sonnet is usually a sort of summation or a final consolidating statement; this one sounds to me like the end of an affidavit, like the sort of legalese you'd use to sum up sworn testimony; proof is a legal term, and he's asking for proof of error – that is, I put this to the trial and dare you to convict me of error here. This echo of official language hearkens back to the use of the official marriage ceremony in the first two lines; though these lines might seem detached from the rest of the poem, they actually, through this echoing, remind us of its internal consistency. And they do so while continuing the argument in the only way possible after the poet has stated his position and expanded it to the physical and temporal worlds: they state that if what he has said is not true, then nothing is true: he has never written (and yet we've been reading what he's written), and no man was ever in love (and is not he in love? or at least describing the love he sees?)

I used the Signet Classic Shakespeare edition of The Sonnets, edited by William Burto. An additional appeal to this edition is the introduction by W H Auden. I hadn't read the intro in years so I glanced over the beginning and see that he starts the way I do, dismissing the attempts to identify the real people and events behind the sonnets. I am happy to be in agreement with Wystan. Opera fans will have recognized the influence of this sonnet in particular on the libretto for The Rake's Progress, which Auden and Chester Kallman wrote for Stravinsky. At the end of Act 1, when Ann Trulove decides to leave the country and search for Tom Rakewell in London (Love hears, Love knows / Love answers him across the silent miles, and goes) the cabaletta (the quick final section) of her aria is: I go to him. / Love cannot falter, / Cannot desert; / Though it be shunned / Or be forgotten, / Though it be hurt, / If love be love / It will not alter. / Though it be shunned / Or be forgotten, / Though it be hurt, / If love be love / It will not alter. / O should I see / My love in need / It shall not matter / What he may be. / I go to him. / Love cannot falter, / Cannot desert; / Time cannot alter / A loving heart, / An ever-loving heart. Again we have the use of alter, the repetition, the emphasis on the unchanging nature of true love, and the victory of love over Time. Sadly for Ann, hers is a case in which the unchanging truth of her love is one-sided, bestowed upon an unworthy object.

12 February 2016


I started this blog on 12 February 2006 (at 4:05 PM Pacific time, if you want to be exact), so . . . it's been ten years. That's a pretty large span of my life, and eons in tech-time. When I started, blogs were a new and strange phenomenon, and in a way they still are (strange, though not new), as other forms of social media have risen in prominence. The rise is partly due to the thirst for constant novelty that afflicts anything tech-related, and partly because blogs can be difficult and Facebook and Twitter can be easy. Both of those systems have their charms, though in the way of all things tech, those charms have been exaggerated. Facebook I find useful mostly for updates and photos from people I know – I follow lots of arts groups there, but can't say I really get too much out of their posts, which tend to be blandly promotional. Twitter is an enjoyable constant stream of possibly interesting items – things rise and sink there and life goes on; the beautiful and significant jostle shoulders with the trivial and offensive, and all are fleeting. Both systems tend to attract frenzies of faux (or maybe sometimes real) outrage around topics that are forgotten a week later. I don't find either system much use for discussions of the arts.

Twitter of course has a 140-character limit built in, which is its lure (though I had to make three or four attempts to get my first tweet under the character limit; my irritation was not eased by Twitter telling me repeatedly that I "needed to be more clever" – I can be clever at length, as any reader here knows; what they meant was I needed to be more concise). The character limit means that either you're posting a link to a longer piece (in, perhaps, a blog) or you're just posting a quip. And I love quips, but it's the nature of such things that you already have to know their context, otherwise your little jab or aperçu is merely confusing, and that does limit how much you can say that is original or that requires possibly lengthy explanations. Facebook has no such official limit, but there is a limit to how detailed an entry people will read, especially if not all of your "friends" have friended you because of a mutual love of certain arts. And that's another weakness of both systems when it comes to discussion of the arts: both require that people follow you, whereas with a blog anyone interested in the topic you're writing about can stumble on your entry via various search engines. And there's a certain permanence in that; on Facebook and Twitter – and this is part of their appeal – things disappear and are replaced by shiny new things with dizzying speed, and that's a deliberate feature, so that you'll keep going back and giving them those clicks they need so they can appeal to advertisers, and it's also what makes them so like life. But the reason many of us seek out art is to see and think about something that is, if not standing still itself (as our perceptions and reactions constantly shift), causing us to pause at least momentarily amid the noise and hubbub and to reflect.

So I still think there is a place for blogs, however uneasily they fit into the scene. I have the impression they're considered a bit old-fashioned in tech terms, which is kind of funny. Remember when e-mail was new? People were dazzled. Imagine, you could sit down and send a letter electronically to someone thousands of miles away and it would show up in minutes! And you could receive a reply with equal speed! That's an incredible thing. But people now shrug at it, find it a burden, claim that no one e-mails anymore and it's all about texting for the cool kids. But I still think e-mail is one of the greatest things ever. I try to take a mindful view of technology, which, these days (especially in the Bay Area, where tech companies exercise such powerful control over our economy and even our fantasies), leads some people to consider me a lunatic Luddite. (Which, clearly, I'm not – though not the first of the local bloggers, I was an early joiner. It's a matter of deciding which tech you need, and which tech is just stuff people – or profit-seeking corporations – claim you need.)

I think people have never quite known what to make of blogs. Some local arts groups have been extremely forthcoming and generous, others have never acknowledged my existence – which is fine, I'm not complaining, I have no sense that anyone owes me anything here. (I will admit to looking askance at one local group that pretty much ignores bloggers yet has "tweet seats" for certain dress rehearsals – I don't really want to go on here about why I find "tweet seats" ridiculous, but I'll just say that I do; to sum it up, if you're tweeting during a performance, you're not paying attention, and if you're not paying attention, what do I care what you are saying?). But the ambiguous position of blogs is exactly what makes them interesting: they can be anything, a point people don't always seem to grasp. I've always been surprised at how many people assume the journalistic model is the necessary and only one for blogs – I can see why, but bloggers are not constrained by deadlines or advertisers or considerations of length or of general appeal (or even, to be honest, grammar and coherence). I'm not really a journalist by nature, though; when I see BREAKING at the head of a story (or tweet or FB entry) I usually, literally, LOL, or at least chuckle. It seems silly and overblown to me. If someone asked me what was BREAKING!!!, I'd probably say thousands of unseen hearts and leave it at that. It just conveys such a false sense of urgency about what matters in our lives.

This does bring up something that has always been a thorn in my side (though to some extent it's mostly one I keep jabbing myself with, I don't know that it matters to anyone else), which is the timeliness of posting. I perpetually feel like the White Rabbit, always running and always running behind. I would love to post entries right after seeing something – but first thoughts are not always best thoughts, and sometimes things need to sit inside you for a while, developing. It's all memory once the curtain goes down anyway. And if I were a performer, I would be flattered that someone cared enough about what I did to write about it days or even weeks later – an artist's life is cumulative, and so is a viewer's. But at what point do things slip into irrelevance (and at what point do they resume their "relevance", becoming an interesting light into a now-vanished scene)? It's interesting to see what details survive in the mind, but even with my fairly accurate memory there's bound to be some blurring and forgetting. But quite honestly, I just don't have the time to write things up in more or less timely manner, even if I didn't have semi-serious philosophical objections to a journalism-style mode of deadlines (what are deadlines in the Memory Palace?). I was aware from the start, though, that this might be a problem; the one thing I decided before beginning this site was that I would never apologize or be sheepish about posting "late" – I understood at least that much of my life.

I have to work for a living, and as we all know American workers are burdened with excessive time demands from their jobs. I have a house and garden to take care of. There's laundry and cooking and cleaning and the mundane maintenance of a life. And, obviously, I'm out a lot, going to various performances. And, again obviously, I'm ten years older than I was – my energy has diminished a bit; I find it more difficult than I used to when I don't get enough sleep, and I sleep poorly anyway. Things pile up. And I'm perhaps not the swiftest writer around – even when I write something quickly, I tend to go back and revise obsessively. Years ago I read the Borges story about a man with total recall; the narrator is taken to meet him, and he spends the entire visit reciting every detail of their last visit (so, presumably, if they meet again, he will recall recalling the earlier visit). Sometimes I feel like that: trapped among details and memories of details that I need to get out, only I don't have the time. And of course I'm always fighting against the pressing conviction that I have nothing to say and no one is interested in hearing me say it anyway (I should point out I'm not fishing for compliments here, so there's no need to reassure me; I'm just trying to offer an honest view of my inner life). Unwritten entries pile up in my head, and sometimes I barely realize I haven't actually written and posted them. There's a ghost-blog of such entries that, for me at least, haunts this blog.

So this blog hasn't quite taken the shape I had first intended. For one thing, it's a lot more about poetry now than I thought it would be (and I'm fine with that, though I do sometimes wonder if a more limited focus isn't what people prefer). That seems like a good development to me. But I frequently intend to write about books and movies and recordings and seldom find the time. I keep on with it because blogging is one of the few outlets I've ever found for expressing myself on the things that interest me most in life. So I guess it has been like my life in that it's mostly about a more or less desperate and perpetually failing attempt to carve out enough time for Art.

Friday photo 2016/7

back alley near Civic Center, San Francisco

10 February 2016

Elsewhere (Dryden for American Bach Soloists)

Many thanks to American Bach Soloists for asking me to talk about John Dryden as background for their upcoming performances of the Handel / Dryden oratorio Alexander's Feast; you can read my thoughts here.

And you can go here to get tickets to the upcoming performances; Jeffrey Thomas conducts, with soloists Anna Gorbachyova (soprano), Aaron Sheehan (tenor), William Sharp (baritone), and Maria Christina Cleary on harp. That's 26 February at St Stephen's Church in Belvedere, 27 February at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, 28 February at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco (4:00 start time for that one), and 29 February at Davis Community Church in Davis (7:00 start).

08 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/6

one for old snaggle-tooth

I know a woman
who keeps buying puzzles
pieces that finally fit
into some order.
she works it out
she solves all her
lives down by the sea
puts sugar out for the ants
and believes
in a better world.
her hair is white
she seldom combs it
her teeth are snaggled
and she wears loose shapeless
coveralls over a body most
women would wish they had.
for many years she irritated me
with what I considered her
eccentricities –
like soaking eggshells in water
(to feed the plants so that
they'd get calcium).
but finally when I think of her
and compare it to other lives
more dazzling, original
and beautiful
I realize that she has hurt fewer
people than anybody I know
(and by hurt I simply mean hurt).
she has had some terrible times,
times when maybe I should have
helped her more
for she is the mother of my only
and we were once great lovers,
but she has come through
like I said
she has hurt fewer people than
anybody I know,
and if you look at it like that,
she has created a better world.
she has won.

Frances, this poem is for

Charles Bukowski

Snaggle-tooth in the title suggests a number of possibilities concerning both the woman who is the subject of the poem and the narrator's relationship with her: that she isn't quite conventionally beautiful in her appearance, and that she maybe doesn't care that much about that anyway; she's perhaps a bit eccentric, with a hint of a witch's powers about her; and the narrator has a complicated view of her (is old snaggle-tooth affectionate, a bit disparaging, some combination of both?). The word is also a clever redirect by the poet, because whatever its use suggests about her or him, it doesn't sound like the start of a love poem, which is what this poem turns out to be: a profound evocation of mature love.

But we don't know this at the start of the poem; we just know the narrator is talking about some woman he knows. She keeps buying puzzles, mostly ones involving interlocking pieces (the Chinese puzzles) that she works out methodically, logically: it's sort of an introspective amusement, but suggests a way of relating to the world that is thoughtful and determined to "solve" it into some kind of pleasing order (does she see our narrator as himself a puzzle? is he aware of this, and is that why he spends so much time talking about her approach to puzzles? is that part of his apparent frustration with her? – people who think of themselves as puzzles generally don't like to feel that they've been "solved").

He follows this with some seemingly random details about her that actually give us a pretty good picture of what she's like: she lives by the sea, she feeds ants whereas most people would poison them. So she likes nature, not only in its magnificence (the sea) but in its tiny and for humans often annoying manifestations (the ants). She maybe doesn't care that much about people; you don't get the sense that she's trying to be different or shocking, she's just going her own way. The narrator talks about her appearance, which seems to matter more to him than it does to her. She's an older woman, since her hair is already white, and she seldom combs it. He again mentions her snaggle tooth. She still has a shapely body – it's the one thing he mentions about her appearance that is conventionally "beautiful" – but she doesn't really display it, so his knowledge of its shapeliness is our first indication of an intimacy and an erotic element in their relationship, though at this point it doesn't really go beyond things a man might notice about even a casual acquaintance.

It also says something about him that his way of describing her body's beauty is to say that it's the body most women would wish they had – he's thinking along social lines, conventional lines, seeing her in relation to and compared with other women, a subject to which she is apparently indifferent. And perhaps this is part of the irritation he's felt towards her: when you're a poet, particularly a poet who writes free verse, avoiding capital letters, dwelling on your drinking and loving, there has to be a bit of a needle in realizing that you care about these conventional things. Her indifference to them seems like an indirect rebuke to him, though not an intentional one, which probably adds to the sting. He mentions another of her "eccentricities": soaking eggshells in water so the plants would get calcium (not her plants, but the plants, as if she claimed no ownership and just wanted to look after growing things in the right way). As with the sugar for the ants, she's taking a thoughtful, nurturing approach to the world living around her. These things are "eccentricities" only when seen in the context of what other people do: once again, the narrator is viewing things from a social and even conventional viewpoint, while this woman is pursuing her own course.

And then the poet says that finally when I think of her life, and finally suggests not only a summing up of his thoughts but also that he's been a long time in grappling with those thoughts. They must have known each other for many years. Finally, he says, when he thinks of her life – and again he automatically compares it to other lives, lives more dazzling, original and beautiful – he realizes that, on a basic level, showing the same thoughtfulness to people that she does to ants and plants (which is not always the case with nature lovers), she has hurt fewer people than anyone else he knows. Fewer people, so she has hurt some, but that seems to be unavoidable. The achievement is to limit the hurt you cause others, which means she must have deliberately refrained many times from wounding those around her.

This discussion of refraining from hurting others as perhaps the ultimate good in life darkens and deepens the mood: we've left the world of puzzles with logical solutions and gone into one where the only solution to the unsolvable world is to cause as little pain as possible. We've been given details of the everyday things she does that the narrator finds eccentric or annoying, but we're not told what exactly made the terrible times she has gone through so terrible, and perhaps that very vagueness allows us to feel part of the uncertainty and paranoia of emotional pain; the word terrible strikes me forcefully. Perhaps the narrator doesn't go into detail because he has been involved in or even caused some of those terrible times. First he confesses that he feels he's failed her, and maybe he should have helped her more, and then, in an outburst of intimacy – the description of her so far has been close, but also fairly detached – he confesses that she is the mother of his only child, and they were once great lovers.

It's interesting that he puts their shared parenthood first, and only then mentions their apparently wonderful sexual relationship. For a poet like Bukowski, whose work builds on his reputation for bohemian, anti-bourgeois living, it's a sweetly domestic order of things – but then, we've seen that our narrator here is keenly aware of how he and his loved ones are viewed by society. And all along that's been part of his internal struggle in how he sees this woman – old snaggle-tooth, the mother of his only child, his former lover. As they've both aged, other considerations – the dazzling, original and beautiful lives of others, their own once great love, his irritation at her habits and what others would see as her eccentricities – drop away; in the long view of a life, with its terrible times and forgotten great loves, the question that remains is: of course you were hurt, but did you hurt others, or did you refrain from hurting?

From this point of view, the narrator must give way in his long internal struggle with this former lover. There's a bit of a sheepish admission in the ambiguous exclamation well, emphasized by its isolation on its own line, with an underlying tone of another meaning of this slippery word, something done in a good or satisfactory manner. Well, this woman who believes / ultimately / in a better world has, in fact, helped create a better world. Ultimately is also emphasized by being put on its own line, and we may initially read that as some time in distant future, but this acknowledgement that she has improved the world, or at least the world around her, suggests that ultimately is really to be measured as the span of a human life. The poet gives us the resolution of his struggle with her: she has won. It's a measure of how much we've learned about both of them that it seems completely logical that he would see things this way, as a matter of winning and losing, but she would be indifferent to the victory he finally admits she has had over him: that's part of her refusal to hurt others – part of her withdrawal, whether it was deliberate or not, from some of the social relations and comparisons that haunt the narrator.

So far we've had flowing text, so the gap before the final lines brings us up short. For the first time, the poet uses the woman's name, Frances. After thinking of her (what other name did we have?) as old snaggle-tooth, she suddenly is vividly evoked and seen in a new light through the most simple and basic thing: her name. In this envoi, the poet has stopped addressing himself, or us, and speaks directly to her. He offers her, in the shape of the poem we've just read, a final admission of how she has altered him and of what he now understands about her and their life. He offers her the poem as a sign of and tribute to enduring compassionate love.

This is from Love Is a Dog from Hell by Charles Bukowski.

06 February 2016

New Century Chamber Orchestra: Daniel Hope's tribute to Yehudi Menuhin

Last Thursday I was at First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear New Century Chamber Orchestra. Violinist Daniel Hope was the guest concertmaster, and he had put together an interesting and varied program in tribute to his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, who would have turned 100 this coming April 22. Hope has a new CD out called My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin whose program is a bit different from the one I heard Thursday, a difference which shows the wide range of Menuhin's musical interests and influences. All of the pieces had some association with Menuhin; some were commissioned by him or written in his honor, others he played frequently.

Hope's mother was Menuhin's secretary and then manager, and Hope grew up in close association with the great violinist. Though I'm not a big fan of musicians talking from the stage rather than playing, I make an exception in certain cases, as when an artist is talking about his or her own work or a performer is giving some personal insight into a great composer or older musician. I have to say I found Hope's comments a bit disappointing in this regard; too often they were general remarks about the music, which could speak for itself. We did get some more personal anecdotes and insights, but I would have preferred more, with comments on the music left for the program book. That was really my only disappointment with the concert, though.

Each half began with a substantial baroque work; in the first half it was Bach's Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, Strings and Basso Continuo, BWV 1043. Hope and Dawn Harms were the titular two violins. I've heard New Century fairly often, but each time I'm impressed by the richness and precision of sound they produce. Hope obviously has a great rapport with the group, and there was much generous and genial back-and-forth in the playing and during the bows after each piece. After the Bach we heard some more recent pieces, Arvo Pärt's Darf ich . . . (May I . . .)  – Hope said that when Menuhin received the piece, which was written for him, he looked at the title and said, "May I what?" That suggests some of the open-endedness of the piece. As is typical for Pärt, haunting effects were created through seemingly simple means. It's an interesting piece to have written for a virtuoso, suggesting spiritual substance rather than flash. The same was true of the next piece, Philip Glass's Echorus for 2 Violins and Strings. Echorus is meant to evoke echo rather than e-commerce; the echoing violin was played by Iris Stone. The music had that undercurrent of melancholy that I frequently hear in Glass. The first half closed with a youthful Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn – not the famous one, but one written when he was thirteen and only rediscovered in the 1950s, when Menuhin gave the modern premiere. It's an inventive, bubbling piece and provided a flashing end to the first half.

The audience had been impeccable so far, but apparently several people came down with a severe cough during intermission, and the two women behind me felt that it was very important to whisper during one of the pieces. I suppose the general audience impeccability had been too good to last, but I enjoyed it while it did. Our big baroque opener for this half was Vivaldi's Concerto for 2 Violins in A Minor, RV 522. Then, again duplicating the structure of the first half, we had two fairly brief and meditative modern pieces: first Unfinished Journey, which borrows the title of Menuhin's autobiography. It was written by Bechara El-Khoury for the tenth anniversary of Menuhin's death and was premiered by Hope. The next piece, Toru Takemitsu's Nostalghia: In Memory of Andrei Tarkovskij, though written in memory of someone else (the great Russian film director Tarkovsky), was composed for Menuhin. Both these pieces, as well as the Pärt and Glass in the first half, suggested an interesting portrait of Menuhin as a searching and spiritual man and artist. Other than that they were not similar pieces, but had a pleasing variety of effect. The concert ended with a lively rendition of Béla Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances. Hope told an interesting story at this point about Menuhin's deep connection with this composer: he played him one of his violin and piano sonatas, and Bartók responded that he thought a composer had to be dead for years before his music could be played like that. It was another indication of the deep commitment and searching artistry of the older violinist. I never had a chance to hear Menuhin live, but after this concert I felt I understood what he was about. What a beautiful tribute to a great man.

05 February 2016

Friday photo 2016/6

Sutro Tower in the distance; Mission District, San Francisco, November 2015

01 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/5

First we'll have the French original (this is sixteenth-century French, so don't panic if it looks different from your remembered high school textbooks or even what you picked up in that university year abroad).

Sonnet XIX

Diane estant en l'espesseur d'un bois,
Apres avoir mainte beste assenee,
Prenoit le frais, de Nynfes couronnee:
J'allois resvant comme fay maintefois.

Sans y penser: quand j'ouy une vois,
Qui m'apela, disant, Nynfe estonnee,
Que ne t'es tu vers Diane tournee!
Et me voyant sans arc & sans carquois,

Qu'as tu trouvé, o compagne, en ta voye,
Qui de ton arc & flesches ait fait proye!
Je m'animay, respons je, à un passant,

Et lui getay en vain toutes mes flesches
Et l'arc apres: mais lui les ramassant
Et les tirant me fit cent & cent bresches.

Louise Labé

Next we have two contemporary American translations:

Diana, retired in the depth of the woods,
Having just hunted down many a stag,
Was taking the air, her Nymphs at her back:
I wandered by in my usual dreamy mood,

When I heard a voice call out to me, now
Saying: O Nymph who looks so astonished,
Why did you not turn to glimpse the goddess?
Seeing me without quiver, without bow:

Whom did you meet, dear friend, upon your way,
Who took your bow & arrow as their prey?
I took aim, said I, at some passerby,

And hurled my arrows at him, all in vain,
And then my bow; but gathering these to his side,
He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain.

Louise Labé, translated by Richard Sieburth


[A Meeting with Diana]

Diana, standing in the clearing of a wood
after she had hunted her prey and shot it down,
breathed deep. Her nymphs had woven her a green crown.
I walked, as I often do, in a distracted mood,
not thinking – when I heard a voice, subdued
and quiet, call, "Astonished nymph, don't frown,
have you lost your way to Diana's sacred ground?"
Since I had no quiver, no arrows, it pursued,
"Dear friend, who were you meeting with today?
Who has taken your bow and arrows away?"
I said, "I found an enemy on the path,
and hurled my arrows at him, but in vain –
and then my bow – but he picked them up in wrath,
and with my arrows shot back hundreds of kinds of pain."

Louise Labé, translated by Annie Finch

In her brief (twenty-four poem) sonnet sequence, Labé is both playing in a sophisticated way with classical and Petrarchean traditions of love poetry and writing emotionally direct poetry. This sonnet has in its background the classical myth, extremely popular in the Renaissance, of Diana and Actaeon. He was a princely young hunter who inadvertently stumbled on Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, and her nymphs bathing naked. Though he was innocent of any voyeuristic intent, Diana (in the arbitrary way of the gods) punished him by turning him into a stag. His own dogs tore him to pieces.

In this poem, the innocent human wanderer is intruded upon by Diana, who has been out hunting when she stumbles upon the poet. The goddess plaintively asks why she is no longer seeking Diana's company, and further, why she no longer has her bow and arrows. Wandering from the company of the virgin huntress is our hint that the poet has fallen in love. And indeed, the poet came across a passerby and, in the style of Cupid, shot her arrows at him, though with less success than the ruthless little god; the untouched youth gathered her arrows and bow and used them to shoot back at her, causing her the endless pains of love. In a witty reversal of Actaeon's punishment, in this case it is the mortal man who has destroyed the votary of the goddess.

Both translations gesture towards preserving the original rhyme scheme. And both have the poet hurling her arrows at the youth, which may be faithful to the original but reads oddly in English. You can hurl a javelin or a rock, but you shoot arrows. Finch preserves the cumulative effect of the and / and / and at the beginning of the last three lines, but oddly makes the encounter between lover and love-object much more violent than seems warranted by the original: Sieburth translates un passant as some passerby, which seems closer than Finch's an enemy. I also don't see where she's getting that he picked up the bow and arrows in wrath. The poet's pain is more likely caused by indifference or uncertainty; the images of lover / beloved as hunter / hunted and of love as a physical wounding are tropes that don't need to be justified by some alleged enmity. Sieburth's He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain loses the specificity and closer translation of Finch's hundreds of kinds of pain, but fired brings with it a nice sense of the flames of love, and welcoming me to a world of pain conveys the nice ambiguity of the onset of love here, which is both welcoming and a cause of immense pain. I do love Finch's green crown woven by the nymphs; green seems like a reasonable clarification of what type of crown was made by these nymphs wandering the woods.

The first translation is from Louise Labé: Love Sonnets & Elegies, translated by Richard Sieburth with a preface by Karin Lessing, in the NYRB Poets series. The second translation is from Louise Labé: Complete Poetry and Prose, edited with critical introductions and prose translations by Deborah Lesko Baker and poetry translations by Annie Finch, in the University of Chicago Press series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Both editions are bilingual.