29 April 2016

26 April 2016

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

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a semi-staged performance of the Bernstein / Comden & Green musical, On the Town. Outside of Candide, I'm mostly indifferent to Bernstein and his works, but this production has several thing going for it: first, the semi-staging is by the very talented James Darrah, whose other local work, including the Symphony's stunning Peter Grimes and Merola's powerful and inventive Don Giovanni, has been, well, stunning, powerful, and inventive; second, there is a large and dazzling cast, which includes several members of the recent Broadway revival, including Alysha Umphress, and here comes the local angle: she grew up in this area, and for a while lived in Martinez, across the street from V and her children. Somewhere I have a cassette tape she recorded as a child, and even then she sang like a junior Ethel Merman, and as I listened to this pre-teen's powerful pipes unleashed I made some gloomy predictions as to how long she could continue to sing like that. I am very happy that once again I prove to be a poor prophet, as she is still singing like that, and on Broadway yet, and now in San Francisco: you can go On the Town from 25 to 29 May at Davies Hall.

San Francisco Playhouse presents Red Velvet, written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Margo Hall, based on the true story of Ira Aldridge, a young American in the early nineteenth century who became the first black man to perform on the British stage; that's 10 My to 25 June.

Shotgun Players present The Village Bike, written by Penelope Skinner and directed by Patrick Dooley, from 25 May to 26 June.

Cutting Ball Theater presents August Strindberg's A Dreamplay, in a translation by Paul Walsh, directed by Rob Melrose, from 20 May to 19 June.

Custom Made Theater presents John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Stuart Bousel, from 19 May to 18 June.

ACT presents Jason Robert Brown's cult musical The Last Five Years, from 11 May to 5 June at the Geary Theater.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents William Finn's A New Brain on 5 and 8 May. The performances are free.

Ars Minerva, a new group led by soprano Céline Ricci and dedicated to reviving forgotten operas from the great baroque days of the Venetian Carnival, returns for its second production, Carlo Pallavicino's Le Amazzoni nelle Isola Fortunate (The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles), unheard since its premiere in 1679. The group's premiere last year, with Daniele da Castrovillars's La Cleopatra, was a triumph and a delight, so I'm eager to hear this one. If you also are eager, you can check it out on 21 or 22 (matinee) May at the Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco.

San Francisco Opera starts the second half of its season with Bizet's Carmen; the big draw here is the American debut of director Calixto Bieito, though I feel obliged to point out that this production is described in the small print as "based on" Bieito's production; nonetheless, we are warned (in boldface type, suitable for boldface behavior) that the production contains nudity, violence and suggestive behavior, and while the nudity is an add-on, I think violence and suggestive behavior are pretty much what this opera has always been about. You can decide whether to be thrilled, shocked, or blasé on 27, 28, 29, 31 May or 1, 17, 23, 26, 30 June or 2, 3 July at the Opera House.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Jonathan Dove's adaptation of Austen's Mansfield Park on 4 and 6 May. The performance is free but you must make a reservation, which you can do here.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents the world premiere of Out of Darkness, an opera exploring the Holocaust, particularly as it affected homosexuals, with music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by Gene Scheer. That's 25 and 26 May.

Cal Performances presents countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and pianist Jérôme Ducros in a program featuring poems by Paul Verlaine set by Fauré, Debussy, Hahn, Poldowski, Bordes, Séverac, Chausson, and Chabrier; that's 12 May at First Congregational Church.

San Francisco Performances presents the American recital debut of soprano Rosa Feola, accompanied by pianist Fabio Centanni, in a program of Italian songs by Martucci, Liszt, Tosti, Verdi, Donizetti, and Rossini; that's 6 May at Herbst Theater.

San Francisco Performances presents tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Wenwen Du in an all-Schubert program on 21 May at Herbst Theater.

SFJazz presents Cassandra Wilson singing music associated with Billie Holiday on 19 - 22 May at the Jazz Center.

Modern / New Music
Cal Performances presents the Kronos Quartet in Terry Riley's Sun Rings on 1 May in Zellerbach Hall.

Old First Concerts presents ZOFO (pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi) playing music by Terry Riley, Dylan Mattingly, Gabriella Smith, Katherine Balch, Harold Shapero, Ryan Brown, and Paul Schoenfield. There are several world premieres in there. You can hear them 22 May at Old First Church on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco.

Curious Flights presents another interesting-sounding program on 28 May at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music concert hall: tenor Brian Thorsett sings several songs by Korngold, followed by a sextet by Aaron Copland; Stopwatch and an Ordance Map, a choral work by Samuel Barber; and the west coast premiere of Marc Blitzstein's The Airborne Symphony, conducted by Alasdair Neale, with vocal soloists Brian Thorsett (tenor), Efraín Solís (baritone), and David Latulippe (narrator).

New Century Chamber Orchestra closes out its season with Delight in Dancing, a concert featuring the world premiere of a dance suite commissioned from this year's featured composer, Jennifer Higdon, along with Richard Strauss's Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome, Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, and Stravinsky's ballet Apollon musagète (Apollo, Leader of the Muses). That's 5 May at First Congregational in Berkeley, 6 May at First United Methodist in Palo Alto, 7 May at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and 8 May at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael; there's also an open rehearsal at 10:00 AM on 4 May at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center.

The Berkeley Symphony closes its season with Joana Carneiro leading the west coast premiere of Mark Grey's Frankenstein Symphony and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with soloist Simone Porter. That's 5 May at Zellerbach Hall.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham joins Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in a program that includes Berlioz's La Mort de Cléopâtre, Schubert's Nachtgesang im Walde, the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Hadyn, and the Schumann 4; that's 19 - 22 May.

Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony in Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (with soprano soloist Nicole Joseph), John Adams's The Dharma at Big Sur (with Tracy Silverman on electric violin), and Ravel's La Valse, which apparently every local orchestra is legally obligated to schedule at least once a season. That's at the beauteous Paramount Theater on 20 May.

Chamber Music
Cal Performances presents cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han in a program of Richard Strauss, Messiaen, Albéniz, Glazunov, and Chopin on 7 May in First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

Ragnar Bohlin's Cappella SF ends its current season with a late afternoon concert of Norwegian music on 15 May at St Matthew's Lutheran Church in San Francisco (that's at 3281 16th Street – I think it's very near Mission Dolores).

Ragnar Bohlin also leads the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in their annual concert, held this year on 1 May and featuring (in addition to the chorus, of course) soprano Joanna Taber and baritone Hadleigh Adams, as well as Jonathan Dimmock on organ and Mason Bates doing electronic stuff. They will be performing Brahms's Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Mason Bates's Mass Transmission, and Fauré's Requiem.

Volti closes out its season with another offering of the latest in choral compositions: Bob Geary leads the group in a new piece by Tonio Ko based on Woolf's short story Monday and Tuesday, along with Kui Dong's Painted Lights (for which Volti is joined by guest artists from the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir), John Muehleisen's . . . is knowing . . . , Eric Banks's The Paths of Peace, and Paolo Longo's Quare fremuerunt gentes; that's 13 May at St John's Presbyterian in Berkeley and 14 May at the First Unitarian Universalist Center in San Francisco.

San Francisco Performances presents Sarah Cahill on 4 May in an all-Chaconne concert (featuring chaconnes by Gubaidulina, Nielsen, John Bull, Couperin, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and others) as the 6:30 Salon at the Rex at the Hotel Rex.

Chamber Music San Francisco presents Nelson Freire in a program of Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, and Chopin, on 12 May at Herbst Theater (the group's brochure lists the start time as 8:00 but the website says 6:00, so make sure you check the time if you decide to buy a ticket).

SFJazz presents Keith Jarrett on 2 May (but in Davies Hall, not the Jazz Center).

Visual Arts
It's been three long years, but on 14 May the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art re-opens after a major expansion. I'm looking forward to spending many hours wandering the galleries. Check here for information on the opening exhibitions and information on memberships.

25 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/17

two enemy soldiers, mortal foes, join together

                            O Marcius, Marcius!
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy. If Jupiter
Should from yond cloud speak divine things,
And say, " 'Tis true," I'd not believe them more
Than thee, all noble Marcius. Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grainèd ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarred the moon with splinters. Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valor. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars, I tell thee,
We have a power on foot, and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose my arm for't. Thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me.
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat,
And waked half dead with nothing. Worthy Marcius,
Had we no other quarrel else to Rome but that
Thou art thence banished, we would muster all
From twelve to seventy, and pouring war
Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome,
Like a bold flood o'erbeat. O, come, go in,
And take our friendly senators by th' hands,
Who now are here, taking their leaves of me
Who am prepared against your territories,
Though not for Rome itself.

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act IV, scene 5, ll 105 - 139

Tullus Aufidius is the great soldier among the Volscians, as Caius Marcius (given the honorary name Coriolanus for the slaughter he made when caught alone behind the walls of the Volscian city Corioles) is among the Romans. Though each represents a society, he is also an individual, motivated by a sense of individual honor and glory. The tension between the individual and the society he fights for is one major theme of this complex and subtle play, in which every point has a counterpoint. It is based on a story well-known to the first audience: Coriolanus, a great soldier who cannot hide his arrogant contempt for the common people, is exiled from Rome, whereupon he joins with the enemy Volscians and leads a destructive path to the very gates of the city. There he is met by Volumnia, his formidable mother, who tells him that she is as proud and fierce as he is – he received those qualities from her – and if he invades Mother Rome, he will do so over the dead body of his actual mother. He gives in to her, and though peace is arranged he is killed by the Volscians for what their generals see as a betrayal of their cause. The identification of Rome with his mother is part of this theme of comparison and tension between the individual, seen as a body, and the larger state.

The play opens with a scene of social unrest, which Menenius, a genial and garrulous aristocrat, tries to quell by reciting the fable of the belly: the other body parts, finding the belly pampered, greedy, and useless (as the mob sees the Roman elite), rebels against it, only to find that without it they starve and cannot perform their own functions. So the body, which had broken down into individual and opposed parts, proves to be an indivisible unity after all, with benefits and dangers ultimately spread among the whole. The tension between the individual and the group also plays out on the bodies of soldiers, particularly that of Coriolanus himself. As part of the honors heaped on him for his great achievements in killing in Corioles, he is nominated for Consul, and though his election is considered a foregone conclusion he is not allowed to omit a crucial part of the ceremony of nomination, in which he must strip himself (either naked or mostly naked) and, while asking the common people for their votes (referred to as voices, emphasizing the physical reality of their power, the power of popular opinion), he must display to them the wounds received while fighting for Rome. His tactless reluctance to play this part, broadcast and manipulated by the Tribunes of the People, who hide their cynical contempt for the commoners with a great political show of zeal, is what leads to his exile. Coriolanus is surprised that Volumnia does not approve of his defiance: Would you have me / False to my nature? Rather say I play / The man I am (Act III, scene 2, ll 12 - 14). To play the man I am: there is a sense of manhood as not only something to be displayed, but something put on, an act, not something inherent in him. He represents Rome, but what he feels as the glory of his manhood, his soldiership, is an individual matter – yet he has been bred this way by his mother, and his actions are to please her, even more than his gentle wife; even an individual achievement is inextricably linked back to the crowd.

Inevitably, the soldier's body as the focus of social tensions (individual vs group, war vs peace, aristocratic generals vs plebian soldiers) becomes eroticized, or rather springs from eroticism, from lust and longing and admiration and jealousy, as we see in this strange speech by Aufidius welcoming the exiled Coriolanus, who has come to him in disguise and offered either to join him in league against Rome or to submit to execution by him (in the end, both offers are accepted). Aufidius, tactfully avoiding the name Coriolanus, which is a reminder of a great and still-fresh Volscian defeat, refers to his foe as Marcius. During this speech, the audience will remember that after their previous encounter, Aufidius has vowed that he will eventually best Caius Marcius, by fair means or foul: how sincere is he in this greeting? He certainly sounds sincere, but we've already seen that everyone (except for Coriolanus and, ironically enough, the commoners) is able to hide his or her true feelings to gain his or her private ends (that is, they can submerge the individual in order to persuade the group in order to achieve what the individual wants).

Aufidius mythologizes their battles, referring to gods like Jupiter and the warrior Mars, making their fights titanic enough so that splinters reached the moon. His immediate impulse is for the two of them to touch, for him to twine his arms about that body, as lovers do. Yet he also makes Marcius's body something both more and less than human, something like iron or rock rather than weak and wounded flesh: his grainèd ash (his spear) splinters against this body, scarring the moon rather than Marcius (yet we know that Marcius's body is full of scars received in battle; they are considered a sign of honor – is Aufidius subtly diminishing Coriolanus's scars by eliding them?). He refers to his former enemy as the anvil of his sword: that is, a block that has forged Aufidius's own sword; he must clip this anvil: clip means to embrace, but it also suggests to trim or shorten something. Again, the actual body and honorable wounds of Marcius are dismissed and disappeared by the very words meant to praise and magnify them.

Aufidius announces that he is happier to see Coriolanus on his hearth (and in his power?) than he was when he first slept with his beloved wife. I think the point of this passage is not some blustery assertion of heterosexuality, as it would be in a work contemporary with us, but rather to link Aufidius's feelings for Coriolanus with his deepest and most central social connection: to his wife, and through her to his home, his family, and by extension his city and his people. Yet the comparison has an inescapably sexual charge (as does, for these warriors, battle), and Aufidius describes his emotions towards Coriolanus in increasingly erotic terms. But it is an eroticism filled with violent struggle, down together, fisting throats, unbuckling, and he wakes from these dream encounters half dead with nothing, an exhaustion of frustrated dream-desires. He continues with another image of forced physical violation of the Roman body: pouring war / Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome, / Like a bold flood o'erbeat: the bowels were considered the seat of deep emotion, particularly compassion, but they're also the small intestine, reached through the anus: Aufidius is saying that the Volscian enemy will be an enema to Rome, poured relentlessly into its bowels (again, the polity is personified as a vulnerable body) until, like an overflowing river, the surrounding banks (the invaded body, Rome) are flooded (o'erbeat: the suggestion of beating is part of this speech's imagery of physical force tinged with sadism).

Aufidius ends by inviting Marcius in to meet the friendly senators – friendly only, we can presume, through the offices of Aufidius – and to take them by the hand, a gentler and more amiable sort of physical contact. He informs the former Roman, now expelled from that body, that the Volscian armies are even now heading into Roman territories (in violation of their treaties), though not for Rome itself: the presence of Marcius will change that; the Volscian armies, subdued to his singular revenge, will march to the walls of Rome, only to be stopped by his individual submission to the inescapable force of his ties to his mother and his motherland, a submission which will bring peace between the Romans and Volscians but death to the headstrong, overly complicated, and now unneeded soldier.

I used the Signet Classic edition of Coriolanus, edited by Reuben Brower.

23 April 2016

Poem of the Week bonus: Shakespeare's birthday (and the 400th anniversary of his death)

The traditional date of Shakespeare's birth is 23 April, a date picked for a number of reasons: the record of his baptism a few days later, the nice coincidence of having England's Poet born on the feast of England's patron St George, and his death on that same date in 1616. In the 400 years since that death, he has become one of the most celebrated, analyzed, scrutinized, performed, and beloved writers in the world, a titanic figure in global culture. During this anniversary month, we've been looking at some passages from plays that can be considered comparatively little-known, at least by Shakespearean standards. But for the anniversary day I thought we'd have what is possibly the most famous speech ever written for the stage, by Shakespeare or anybody else: Hamlet's suicide soliloquy.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to! 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –
To sleep – perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. – Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! – Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, ll 56 - 89

This soliloquy comes from Act III, the center of the play, but its questions of identity and existence and how to live life are signaled in the very first line of the play: Who's there? Even before his father's ghost arises to order Hamlet to revenge him (an order that does not take him by complete surprise: O my prophetic soul!), the prince was struggling with deep melancholy and despair leading him to thoughts of suicide; in his first soliloquy (Act 1, scene 2, starting at l 129) he says: O that this too too solid flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew, / Or that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon 'gainst self-slaughter. . . . Solid is the most widely accepted reading there, though some editors go with sullied; even the text of Hamlet is indeterminate, filled with multiple possibilities based on various early copies, and of course either reading might contain a punning reference to the other, suitable for a character whose first two lines (A little more than kin, and less than kind and Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun) involve ambiguous playing with words. I do prefer solid in the first soliloquy, because it plays off melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew in a way that sullied does not. Already we see a certain disgust with the flesh and a desire for dissolution (dissolution in the sense of dissolving and breaking down; Hamlet, with his strictures on drinking and make-up and his revulsion against his mother's sexual appetites, fights against the dissipation kind of dissolution). Resolve itself into a dew: resolve can mean to break down into basic elements, but it also can mean to decide firmly on a course of action, and dew plays off of do: that is, on the surface Hamlet is wishing his body would simply dissolve into something like the morning dew (suggesting a wish for his tired self to turn into something of morning freshness), but below the surface he's saying he wishes he could make a firm decision to act: the action with which he is most comfortable is the not-quite-action of thinking, speculating, wondering (hence the importance of his soliloquies, which are Hamlet thinking out loud); for Hamlet, action is linked with the outside world and with the loss of self, yet action is necessary for him as both a prince and a man. Constant anxiety on both these questions troubles him throughout the duration – the action – of the play.

These themes surface again in this soliloquy. His analytical mind breaks the question of existence into two simple and opposite terms: to be / not to be. You can be, which is a state of existence that may or may not include action, but would include thought (Hamlet anticipates Descartes's I think, therefore I am), or you can not be in that state (so despite his reverence for the Everlasting and His prohibitions against self-slaughter – because to end your own life is to give in to despair, and to despair is to give up on God's grace, and, in the Christian tradition, despairing of grace is the ultimate sin against the Heavenly Father – Hamlet comes close here to atheism and denial of an eternal soul, though he will soon retreat from this particular way of despairing). Of course, Hamlet being, inevitably and inextricably, Hamlet, he immediately complicates the question he has so elegantly simplified. It's not a matter of mere existence, but what is nobler – not more pious or dutiful, not more conducive to contentment, not wiser, certainly not easier – but nobler, an interesting term that hearkens back to his anxieties about the proper and appropriate behavior for a prince and a man. And, again, Hamlet being Hamlet, he asks what is nobler in the mind, since the mind, not the outside world, is where, for him, the truly significant actions take place (the phrase the mind's eye comes from this play – Act I, scene 2, l 185). What he sees outside of his mind is mostly painful, an existence in a world filled with suffering, and he asks whether anyone should suffer (which includes the sense of allow) the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune – Fortune, the goddess spinning her wheel to determine who's up and who's down, who personifies the arbitrary and unjust chance that rules the world, as opposed to self-controlled thoughtfulness, the thinking that, Hamlet will declare, of itself and on its own makes things either good or evil.

The alternative to such suffering is to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them. The suggestion here seems to be that one actually can battle against troubles, and win just by fighting back – in this case, presumably by killing oneself, which is an odd way of fighting back. The phrase to take arms sounds very active, but given its place in the balanced expansion and examination of to be or not to be, this is the not to be part, so the recommended action is essentially a negation, one aimed at oneself, which Hamlet apparently sees as the only effective type of action, putting an end to the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to (again, we see the discomfort with the flesh, and Hamlet is haunted by the sense of being an heir, a son and a prince). But Hamlet's metaphor betrays itself: even the most heavily armored man cannot fight against the overwhelming ocean; the image brings to mind the famous tale of King Canute illustrating the limits of an earthly king's powers by ordering the rising and indifferent tide to roll back. A sense of the futility of action is built into even his urges towards resolution.

Hamlet tries to reassure himself that to die is the same as to sleep, but then his fertile and even fevered brain immediately expands on the possibilities inherent in his winding thoughts: if to die is to sleep, then to sleep is also to dream, and the unknown and indeterminate dreams of death might be more fearful than nightmares and also, unlike the dream that is life, everlasting. Action always brings unintended consequences, and to the troubled and depressed young prince that uncertainty is the only reason anyone puts up with the certainty of injustice, pain, rejection, and weariness in this mortal life. That is what puzzles the will (bewilders and confounds our strength and resolve): the mysteries of that undiscovered country, which is death: bear in mind that this play was written during a great age of European voyaging, and the thought of men setting out for "undiscovered" countries and never being seen or heard from again was a very real thing for the audience. Also, Hamlet, possibly led astray or wandering off as he follows his twisting path of speculation, is forgetting that he has in fact had a visitor from that country: the ghost of his Father, who has told him that though he is forbidden to describe the afterlife to the living, it is a scene of horror, at least for him. Hamlet repeatedly doubts and then believes in the Ghost; in this speech, filled with ennui and disgust at life and himself, he may have slipped back into thinking that the apparition was some evil spirit and not what remains of his admired Father.

He ends by rebuking himself again for his tendency to think rather than act: conscience makes us, not strong and resolute, but cowards; the native hue of resolution is made sickly and pale through overthinking. Cowardice, sickly, pale: these are in line with Hamlet's other scornful terms for himself. His great compliment to his Father is: he was a man (that is, a man, an ideal man, a "real" man); in denigrating his uncle he says that Claudius is no more like his Father than Hamlet is like Hercules (the demigod personification of masculine perseverance and, especially, strength), ranking himself with the despised Claudius as an unworthy man. He calls himself pigeon-livered and compares himself to a whore, a drab (also a whore), and a stallion (a male whore, though an alternate reading is scullion, that is, a low-class kitchen wench) – and those are just a few terms, and from only one speech (which begins with the self-loathing line O what a rogue and peasant slave am I) – further examples can be found throughout the play of Hamlet's denigration of his own masculinity and hence his suitability for playing the role he is fated to play in the world. (This strain in him may explain his fairly nasty treatment of the "waterfly" Osric at the end of the play; Osric is usually played as a flamboyantly effeminate man, though I think it would be more accurate to play him as affected and overly fashionable rather than stereotypically queeny; after all, he is made the judge of the fencing match, suggesting at least some traditionally masculine expertise.)

Hamlet's great strength is speculative thought, but his role as prince, as wronged son and heir, as revenger, calls for a very different type of man, one like the more resolute Laertes or the soldierly Fortinbras, who ends the play by marching in, taking over, and declaring, with a sublime sense of what needs to be said and an equally sublime indifference to what has actually taken place, that Hamlet should be carried off in state like a royal soldier: Hamlet, whose great strength proved to be a great weakness in the haunted court of Elsinore.

18 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/16

a bereft queen mourns her lost child

You are as fond of grief as of your child.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief!
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head [she unlooses her hair]
When there is such disorder in my wit!
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! [Exit]

William Shakespeare, King John, Act III, scene 3, ll 92 - 105

Last week we had a father reunited with his daughter; this week we have a mother grieving for her lost son.

Read on its own, the speech stands as a powerful lyric poem, an examination of deep and all-devouring grief. It begins as a response to a censure from Constance's sometime ally and sympathizer, the king of France. Her first line suggests not only that grief is taking the place (fills the room up) of her absent child, but also that grief is filling up and taking over the room in which he lived: the space in which he lived his daily life is now filled to the brim with grief at his absence. For several lines she develops the thought of grief taking the place of her child – lying in his empty bed, but also walking up and down with her, looking and speaking to her as he did, "stuffing out" his vacant garments, as if grief is now displacing the missing boy. These lines are the more moving for a certain restraint in them. But then, overcome, Constance starts to leave, first rebuking the king for failing to comfort her appropriately. And then she breaks down, feels herself starting to lose her hold on things (there is such disorder in my wit), tearing her hair loose, exclaiming not to the king but to her absent boy, in abrupt yet wide-ranging terms: he is everything to her, and her life is doubtful without his, her daily food and her sustaining world.

But this is an excerpt from a play, and the speech does not stand on its own. And that's the endless fascination of Shakespeare: this is part of an on-going and ambiguous action, and in its context we can't see this simply as the deeply moving expression of a mother's justifiable grief. For one thing, Constance's son Arthur is a rival claimant for the English throne, and everyone in the drama, including his uncle King John and John's mother Elinor (better known to us as Eleanor of Aquitaine), admits (openly or not), that his claim is indeed better than John's. So Arthur is not only her child, he is a powerful piece to hold in the struggle for dominion. Elinor has already accused Constance of loving Arthur only as a means to power, and though Constance throws the charge right back at her, we have no real reason to distrust Elinor's insights, for though she, like everyone else in the play to varying degrees, is also motivated by the desire for power, she comes across as tough-minded and shrewd, seeming clear-headed and intelligent in a way that makes her more appealing than the weak and vacillating John or the changeable and self-interested King and court of France. When she makes a charge against a character, it tends to stick.

Furthermore, there is some justice in the French king's criticism of Constance's emotional self-indulgence (that is, it is in line with what we've experienced of her so far). Earlier in the scene (which takes place after a battle in which King John's forces overcome those of Arthur's allies, including the King of France), Constance delivers this speech:

No, I defy all counsel, all redress,
But that which ends all counsel, true redress:
Death, death, O amiable, lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones,
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,
And ring these fingers with thy household worms,
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,
And be a carrion monster like thyself:
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smil'st
And buss thee as thy wife! Misery's love,
O come to me!

King John, Act III, scene 3, ll 23 - 34

The Elizabethan age liked to mourn in more elaborate rhetoric than we do, and for them the paradoxes (lovely death, odoriferous stench, sound rottenness) and spun-out grotesqueries (as when Constance outfits herself as the bride of death) indicated heightened and intense emotion, whereas for us, who tend to see a struggle towards articulation as a guarantee of truth, these lines are not a natural or normal expression of grief. But even by Elizabethan standards, they're not meant to be, as we can see by the reactions of those around Constance, even those friendly to her: these erotically charged lines are clearly meant to be extreme, even unbalanced, and as with Richard II's similar verbal effusions in extremity, it's impossible not to feel that in addition to genuine sorrow we're also hearing a certain narcissistic pleasure in issuing a gushing tumult of extravagantly dancing words. You'll note that Constance's speech about grief taking the place of her child is mostly about how his loss affects her, and also that although she's speaking to a group that is also suffering his loss (though, granted, not on the deep and personal level of a mother), she makes the loss of this claimant to the throne purely hers, not one of general or national significance.

You'll also note that I keep referring to Arthur's loss or absence rather than his death: at this juncture, he is, in fact, still living. He has been captured by John and his forces, and though he is clearly in great danger (in the scene preceding this one John has made it very clear to Arthur's keeper that he – John, but also by implication the keeper, if he would do the desired deed – would sleep easier if the boy were in his grave), given the rapid on-going changes we see in the political and military situation, there's no solid reason for Constance or her supporters to give up hope yet. She seems to be rushing headlong into a premature luxuriousness of sorrowing. (Premature, but not pointless: Arthur does end up dead, but not through John's orders; he dies from a fall while trying to leap to freedom from the castle in which he's captive. In one of the play's ironies, John feared the living youth, but it's his death which, instead of freeing John from his rival, displaces and discredits him: the nobility, assuming that John and Arthur's keeper are lying about the cause of Arthur's death, abandon the unloved and mercurial king, who soon dies himself, poisoned by a monk angry at his treatment of the Church.)

King John is another Shakespeare play that is comparatively obscure in our time; decades ago a theater in Rhode Island performed it and though I did not get to see the production, I remember the witty ad, which I saw in the Boston Globe: a scowling King John glares out at us over the slogan "He's never heard of you, either." The play famously does not mention Magna Carta, which is one of two things we tend to know about John's reign (the other is the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood, also not mentioned in this play). The sense of what is worth noting tends to shift back and forth over time – as does the stature and popularity of Shakespeare's plays; I think this one was more popular in the Victorian era, and the first film (as far as I know) based on Shakespeare is a few minutes shot in 1899 showing Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree as the dying King John (he gets the cover shot on this DVD collection of early Shakespearean silent films).

I used the Signet Classic edition of King John, edited by William H. Matchett, which now seems to be available only joined with Henry VIII – a reasonable combination of the two bookends in Shakespeare's cycle of history plays. I added the stage direction about unloosing the hair, which is part of a running motif in the scene of Constance tying up / letting down her hair, which, characteristically, she turns to elaborate and heart-breaking metaphors of her suffering.

11 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/15

Pericles is reunited with his lost daughter Marina

O Helicanus, strike me, honored sir!
Give me a gash, put me to present pain;
Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me
O'erbear the shores of my mortality,
And drown me with their sweetness. O, come hither,
Thou that beget'st him that did thee beget;
Thou that wast born at sea, buried at Tharsus,
And found at sea again! O Helicanus,
Down on thy knees; thank the holy gods as loud
As thunder threatens us: this is Marina!
What was thy mother's name? Tell me but that,
For truth can never be confirmed enough,
Though doubts did ever sleep.

William Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Act V, scene 1, ll 193 - 205

While The Tempest's reputation has always been high, those of Shakespeare's other late-period romances – this week's play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Cymbeline; and particularly The Winter's Tale –have lately been rising to meet it. These often convoluted and deliberately fanastical plays have an obvious appeal to an age of Magic Realism and of continuing interest in stories playing off of folk and fairy tales. But Pericles has some particular difficulties; until the recent interest in collaboration among early modern dramatists, it has been held against it that the first two acts are clearly written by someone else. This may have led to a doubtful status even in its own time, as the play was omitted from the famous First Folio of 1623 that is the only source for about half of Shakespeare's plays, though other collaborative plays, like Henry VIII, were included. The play survived in quarto editions, which, according to editors, are riddled with errors. The play must have been fairly popular, though, as there were six quartos (all reprinting the same text) and finally inclusion in the Third Folio of 1664. (A quarto is a book size that results from folding a sheet of paper into four leaves, equaling eight pages, as opposed to a folio, which is a larger size resulting from folding the sheet of paper once, forming two leaves, equaling four pages. The exact size of the resulting book will depend on the original size of the sheet of paper, which might vary a bit. Generally a quarto is a smaller, less expensive and impressive book than a folio.)

In the excerpt above, we see part of the scene in which Pericles is reunited with his lost daughter, Marina. Before we reach this point we've gone through many adventures, some of which – her birth at sea (hence her name), her apparent death at Tharsus while in the care of the country's rulers – are helpfully recapped in this speech. The medieval poet John Gower shows up as Chorus to guide us through the play, which opens with Pericles attempting to win the hand of the daughter of the King of Antioch by answering a riddle. In good folk-tale form, failure to answer correctly will result in his death. The riddle hints pretty directly at the true state of affairs in Antioch: the King and his daughter are involved in an incestuous love. Death lies in a correct answer as well as an incorrect one. Pericles, realizing both the truth and the danger knowing the truth exposes him to, flees. I won't recap the rest of the elaborate plot (which would probably take longer than just reading the play), except to note that along the way he marries Thaisa, who seems to die while giving birth to their daughter. A storm is raging during the birth and the superstitious sailors insist the dead body must go overboard. The widower Pericles must continue his wandering and leaves his infant daughter with Cleon and Dionyza, the rulers of Tharsus, whose subjects he relieved from a severe famine. As years pass so does their sense of gratitude and Dionyza, as a sort of evil stepmother, decides that lovely and intelligent Marina overshadows her own daughter and therefore must be got out of the way. She arranges a murder, and as far as she knows her orders are obeyed. So Pericles, thinking that both his wife and daughter are dead, goes into a deep and unyielding state of mourning, refusing to cut his hair or beard, withdrawing almost entirely from life: a living corpse, mourning the loved and lost.

When the ship holding the nearly catatonic king floats into Mytilene, someone suggests that he might perhaps be roused by the remarkable and mysterious young woman who has recently appeared in that city. Though forced to work in a brothel, she remains untouched through her persuasive powers and sheer force of personality, much to the frustration of the couple that runs the place. In one of my favorite funny moments in this play, or maybe any other, two of the regular customers are so moved by her words that they are "out of the road of rutting forever", one suggesting to the other that they go hear the vestal virgins sing instead (Act IV, scene 5). The reference to singing is important, as an indication of the key role music plays throughout the work – Shakespeare connects even a passing little joke with the play's larger themes, which is one way of bringing some unity to a rambling story-line.

As Marina recites her history, hoping her endurance of her own sufferings will show him a healing example, Pericles slowly rouses himself to listen, his attention caught first by her resemblance to his dead wife: "I will believe thee, / And make my senses credit thy relation / To points that seem impossible; for thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed" – I find the last part of that line deeply moving. Notice that it is his senses, not his rational intellect, that will credit [her] relation, that is, believe the story she is relating, and relation here may also remind us that, though these two haven't realized it yet, they are related.

The excerpt comes from the moment when Pericles becomes certain, or almost certain, that this young woman is his lost daughter, whom he has not seen since she was an infant. The Helicanus referred to is a nobleman from Tyre who is accompanying him, though for many years he has been in Tyre, faithfully ruling on behalf of the wandering king. Pericles reaches out, in his first attempt in many years at a human connection, to an old and loyal friend (considering the brevity of his time with wife and daughter before they were separated, his relationship with Helicanus is probably his oldest and in some ways deepest). So used to suffering has he become that he calls on Helicanus to inflict some physical pain on him, lest the inrush of astounding joy be too much for his mortal body to bear. We see, concentrated in this brief speech, some of the major motifs of the play: the sea, thunder and storm, inundation, dangerous abundance, drowning. There is a sense that the very intensity of these joys makes them hazardous; as we have seen throughout the course of Pericles's adventures, despite the occasional presence of miraculous joys, life is perilous, fragile, filled with sorrows.

The mourning father is recalled to life, reborn, through reunion with his daughter: she beget'st him that did thee beget. Note the use of thee, which to us sounds formal and archaic but in Shakespeare's time was an intimate, singular second person similar to the French tu: although they have never really met, there is immediate intimacy and love between them. The great sea of joys rushing upon Pericles do not kill him, but do lead him to the brink: first he hears the music of the spheres (the music made by celestial bodies as they orbit, a sign of due and appropriate proportion, harmony in every sense, normally unheard by mortal ears). Enraptured, he receives a vision of Diana, who orders him to her temple at Ephesus, where, finally, he and his daughter will be reunited with Thaisa, his wife and her mother. Throughout the play we see many examples of troubled or broken families: Antiochus and his incestuous liaison with his own daughter; Cleon and Dionyza, the faithless rulers of Tharsus who tried to kill Marina; the sleazy couple that runs the Mytilene whorehouse: in the reunion of this suffering family we see love and amity restored to this world in intimate family form.

Though Pericles is a comparative rarity, I've seen it twice. The first time was many years ago in Boston when Peter Sellars was (briefly) running the Boston Shakespeare Company. The production was uneven and maybe overly stately (run time was at least four hours), with some ideas that sounded intriguing but didn't really work that well in performance, like the casting of a local street storyteller named Brother Blue as Gower – there was an interesting connection there between the functions of the ancient storyteller and the modern one, but Brother Blue was used to improvising his own lines and had some trouble with Shakespeare's, and he was used to smallish crowds gathering around him in Harvard Square where he could speak in conversational tones, rather than projecting into a theater. He was often barely audible. But the reunion of Pericles and Marina was striking: Pericles was in dirty clothes and matted hair, living in a large, partially broken down cardboard box like a street person. Marina was an attractive, neatly dressed young woman. And when Pericles starts to hear the music of the spheres, Craig Smith, Sellars' frequent collaborator in musical adventures, walked out in standard concert dress of black tie, at a normal pace, sat at a grand piano that was at the back of the stage, and began playing one of Beethoven's piano sonatas. As if to illustrate the play's continuing insistence on the vital power of music, the Beethoven, so simply and directly performed, raised the whole scene into one of my indelible moments in the theater.

The reunion of father and daughter provided inspiration to another poet: here is a link to my previous discussion of T S Eliot's Marina.

I've used the Signet Classic edition of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, edited by Ernest Schanzer (which now seems to be available new only in a volume with Cymbeline and The Two Noble Kinsmen – a bargain, but I do like having the plays in individual volumes).

09 April 2016

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

Again with the BART Warnings
Many of these monthly previews last year started off with a warning about BART's shifting dates for track closures between West Oakland and the Transbay Tube, and at one point I mentioned that there were sure to be more of these closures affecting Bay Area travel in the future. Well, the future is now. Travel between San Leandro and Bayfair is via bus for certain weekends, starting with Easter weekend, because why would anyone need to get anyplace on Easter, and the bus bridge will continue into June (see here for more information and current closure dates). This is obviously not as major a shut-down as cutting off access between San Francisco and the east bay, but it will undoubtedly have some sort of effect on the train schedule, so leave yourself plenty of time to get where you want to go.

BART recently got some press attention for social media posts pointing out that the system is "at the end of its useful life" and that the trains are unbearably and even dangerously crowded (that's my description, not theirs) because they had no way of knowing there would be a tech-induced spike in employment. The usual angle to these stories was Wow, look at BART laying down some truth but in fact they're just softening the crowd up for an upcoming bond initiative, which is the sort of thing I used to vote for automatically because I not only rely on public transportation, I genuinely believe in it as a social, economic, and environmental good. Now it's the kind of thing I will automatically vote against because I am not voting another dime towards anything BART-related until (1) transit strikes are made illegal – it's ridiculous that the notoriously unhelpful and incompetent BART employees can hold an entire region hostage when their wages and benefits already are far better than those of most of their riders – and (2) BART shows itself more responsible with public money. To take just one fairly random example, BART employees get bonuses when ridership increases – uh, why? Ridership increases are due to employment and job location patterns, and have nothing to do with anything BART employees do. If anything, the ridership increases make BART an even worse experience. BART's spokespeople like to talk about "people who aren't happy if they don't get seats" but this isn't about getting seats, it's about trains that are so jampacked it is physically impossible to get on them and platforms that are dangerously overcrowded (I pray that in the event of a disaster, natural or otherwise, I am far from BART). Yet we still don't get full-length trains (that would be ten cars) on most lines during peak commute hours. Unbelievable. The whole "we had no way of knowing about the tech boom" argument is specious. because while BART was initially designed as a high-end commuter train it has been obvious for decades that that is not how it is used and that is not what the Bay Area needs. They should have started working years ago on getting longer trains and running them more often. Instead their already exorbitant ticket prices keep going up and the trains keep breaking down and necessary repairs are delayed until they have to shut down the system to get them done. Why would I vote to give this manifestly mismanaged system more taxpayer money?

I suppose I could wait until after this evening to post this, when I will have experienced what travel into San Francisco is like on a bus-bridge weekend, but I'm late enough with this as it is. I'm afraid some of the events I've listed have already past, but in the interests of just getting this done I'm going to leave them in. I've had some changes to my work schedule that I'm still adjusting to, but it does seem in general that it takes more running in life just to stay in place. So if you too feel you are slipping beneath the waves, take a look at Wild Rumpus's new offering, which is based on Roy Lichtenstein's famous painting Drowning Girl – more exactly, it's based on a poem by Kenka Lèkovich which is based on the Lichtenstein, and uses video by Paolo Pachini and Leonardo Romoli with music by the late Italian composer Fausto Romitelli (continue reading below). . .

Modern / Contemporary Music
Wild Rumpus New Music Collective presents the California premiere of Fausto Romitelli's final multi-media composition, An Index of Metals: A Video-Opera, on 20 April at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. See here for more information.

Not sure where to put this one, exactly, but Theater is a capacious enough term to hold it: Cal Performances presents poet Billy Collins and singer-songwriter Aimee Mann in what is described as "an evening of poetry, acoustic music, and conversation about the creative process" – I could skip the last item, but poetry and acoustic music sound appealing enough to overcome the awkwardness and inevitable disappointment of artists trying to explain how they do what they do. That's 24 April in Zellerbach Hall.

Aurora Theater presents The Heir Apparent by David Ives (based on a French play from 1708 by Jean-François Regnard), directed by Josh Costello; it runs 15 April to 15 May.

Shotgun Players presents Hamlet, directed by Mark Jackson. Right before each performance, each actor will pull character names out of (according to the website) Yorick's skull, and he or she will perform whatever name he or she pulls that night. I'm going to confess to mixed feelings about this – sounds as if it could be crazy fun, but I'm not sure that's what I really want from Hamlet, and it's maybe the kind of thing that is more exciting for the performers than the audience. Most of us are unlikely to see the production more than once or, for the dedicated and enamored, twice – so we're just seeing whatever we get that night, we're not seeing last night's Gertrude now playing Hamlet or vice versa. Also, given the length and complexity of the play, if each actor is learning each part, as we're told they are, the play is surely extremely condensed – again, I'm not sure that's what I really want from Hamlet. Sounds thrilling and high-wire for the actors, but for the audience? . . . I plan to go, nonetheless. If you'd like to as well, it's playing at the Ashby Stage from 31 March to 8 May. OK, update here, since I've now seen the show: while it's not perfect (what Hamlet could be?), and there was a weak link in the cast when I saw it, on the whole it is absolutely riveting and not at all gimmicky – in fact I can't wait to go back at least once. But even if you can only make it to one performance, you're going to see a fascinating, fresh, and thoughtful take on one of the most familiar works in the repertory. I'm leaving my initial thoughts here in case anyone else shares them and needs to be persuaded otherwise by a former skeptic who now speaks of this show with the zeal of a convert.

Berkeley Rep presents Mary Zimmerman's production of Treasure Island from 22 April to 5 June.

The San Francisco Opera's Merola Opera Program presents the fourth and final Schwabacher Debut recital for this year: baritone Kihun Yoon and pianist Mark Morash perform on 24 April at the Wilsey Center.

San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco recital debut of soprano Christiane Karg, joined by pianist Malcolm Martineau in a program of songs by Berlioz, Debussy, Respighi, Hahn, Poulenc, Ravel, and De Falla; that's 8 April in Herbst Theater.

San Francisco Performances presents tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis in a program of songs by Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, and Wolf, on 14 April.

Hilary Hahn is joined by pianist Cory Smythe in a program of Bach, Mozart, Copland, Antón Garcia Abríl, and Tina Davidson on 26 April in Davies Hall.

I'm often dubious about music accompanied by visuals, but hope springs eternal in the human breast and this looks intriguing: Cal Performances presents Gil Shaham playing the complete solo violin works of J S Bach, with specially designed videos by David Michalek. That's 14 April in Zellerbach Hall.

Cal Performances presents Murray Perahia in a program of Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Beethoven, on 17 April in Zellerbach Hall.

Old First Concerts presents Sarah Cahill in an exciting program of contemporary music written for her by Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, John Adams, Pauline Oliveros, Paul Dresher, Maggi Payne, Kyle Gann, and Annea Lockwood; that's 8 April at Old First Church on Van Ness Avenue.

Chamber Music
San Francisco Performances presents violinist Jennifer Koh and pianist Shai Wosner in the fourth and final concert in their Bridge to Beethoven series, pairing musical responses with Beethoven's sonatas for violin and piano; this one features new work by Anthony Cheung along with Beethoven's Sonata Op 12 No 3 in E-flat Major and Op 96 in G Major; that's 2 April in Herbst Theater.

San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco recital debut of the Duo Parnas (Madalyn Parnas on violin and Cicely Parnas on cello), in a program featuring works by Honegger, Ysâye, Tcherepnin, Cassado, and Ravel, on 10 April.

Cal Performances presents the Brentano String Quartet playing works by Bach, Haydn, and Shostakovich, at Hertz Hall on 10 April.

Old First Concerts presents the Ives Collective in A Samuel Barber Celebration, featuring chamber works written by Barber before he received the Prix de Rome at age 25. That's 24 April at Old First Church on Van Ness Avenue.

Early / Baroque Music
Having performed Bach's Christmas Oratorio last December, American Bach Soloists completes the cycle with his Easter and Ascension Oratorios, along with Buxtehude's Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn (Today God's Son Triumphs) and Kuhnau's Ihr Himmel jubiliert von oben (Heaven above rejoices). Jeffrey Thomas leads the orchestra, chorus, and soloists Clara Rottsolk (soprano), Eric Jurenas (countertenor), Zachary Wilder (tenor), and Joshua Copeland (bass). That's 22 April at St Stephen's in Belvedere, 23 April at First Congregational in Berkeley, 24 April at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, and 25 April at Davis Community Church in Davis.

The San Francisco Early Music Society presents the Bay Area debut of the much-praised new vocal group Stile Antico, in a program exploring the intersection between sacred and worldly music. That's on 10 April at First Congregational in Berkeley.

See also Gil Shaham playing Bach's solo violin works listed above under Violin.

Nicholas McGegan leads Philharmonia Baroque in works by Beethoven – Leonore 3, Elegischer Gesang (Elegiac Song), Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) – along with Mendelssohn's Symphony 2, Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise). Soprano Dominque Labelle and tenor Thomas Cooley are the soloists, and the Philharmonia Chorale led by Bruce Lamott is joined by guest choruses from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, UC Berkeley, and Stanford. You may hear all the praisesongs on 27 April at Bing Hall at Stanford, 28 April at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, or 30 April and 1 May at First Congregational in Berkeley.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas leads Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde with soloists Simon O'Neill and Sasha Cooke, 6 - 10 April; Pablo Heras-Casado conducts Rameau, Biber, Haydn (a piano concerto with soloist Ingrid Filter), and the Beethoven 2 on 20 - 23 April and Bartók, Ravel, Mason Bates, and the Shostakovich 9 on 27 - 29 April.

Opera Parallèle presents The Lighthouse by the late Peter Maxwell Davies, conducted by Nicole Paiement and staged by Brian Staufenbiel. That's 29 - 30 April and 1 May (matinee) at Z Space.

San Francisco Opera's Wilsey Center presents Ana Sokolović's Svadba-Wedding on 2 -3, 5 - 6, and 8 - 10 April. I thought about going to this, but tickets are around $80 yet it's general admission – sorry, no, general admission is what you do when you're a black-box theater in the Tenderloin and your top ticket price is $25 (well, maybe I'm showing my age there . . . how about $30?), and even then, you offer to reserve seats for subscribers and donors because sparing them the pain of open seating is one way of luring them to subscribe or donate. The Opera has sent out some discount offers for this event, but that's not really enough for me, as I've skipped free concerts because I didn't feel like dealing with general admission. You want to see how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is? Tell a bunch of elderly opera fans that a concert they want to hear is general admission. The jockeying for rights of first entrance and the struggle for favored seats will make the Lord of the Flies boys look like courtiers at Versailles attending the Sun King as he receives the latest ambassador. I'm not claiming any moral superiority here – at a recent event I practically vaulted over a feeble, white-haired old man in a walker who was, I will say in my defense, blocking the aisle during the initial rush for seats. Cue up Vissi d'arte – I'm very particular about how I experience my performances.

I have to say, my initial excitement over the Wilsey Center has diminished. I am put off that the feature mentioned most prominently and often in official descriptions of this new venue is that the seats have cup-holders and we can bring into the auditorium the (over-priced) booze and snacks they're selling. With what the Wilsey administrators would apparently consider a monastic severity unexampled since the austerities of the Desert Fathers, I can manage to go a whole hour – even two – without drinking alcohol or eating, and I'm not too thrilled at the prospect of buying an expensive ticket, dealing with general admission, and then having someone chewing or slurping in my ear throughout the performance. I also find it annoying that the Wilsey Center has reverted to the automatic 8:00 start time, even during the work week, that the Opera itself wisely abandoned a few years ago. There's the eternal question: will the potential interest and enjoyment of this performance outweigh the inconvenience, expense, and always attendant irritations? I'm afraid the Wilsey folks are throwing too much onto the bad side of the balance.

04 April 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/14

Timon of Athens denounces the commercial universe

We cannot live on grass, on berries, water,
As beasts and birds and fishes.

Nor on the beasts themselves, on birds and fishes;
You must eat men. Yet thanks I must you con
That you are thieves professed, that you work not
In holier shapes; for there is boundless theft
In limited professions. Rascal thieves,
Here's gold. Go, suck the subtle blood o' th' grape,
Till the high fever seethe your blood to froth,
And so 'scape hanging. Trust not the physician;
His antidotes are poison, and he slays
Moe than you rob. Take wealth and lives together,
Do, villain, do, since you protest to do't.
Like workmen, I'll example you with thievery:
The sun's a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea. The moon's an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
The sea's a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears. The earth's a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol'n
From gen'ral excrement. Each thing's a thief.
The laws, your curb and whip, in their rough power
Has unchecked theft. Love not yourselves; away,
Rob one another. There's more gold; cut throats,
All that you meet are thieves. To Athens go,
Break open shops; nothing can you steal
But thieves do lose it. Steal less for this I give you,
And gold confound you howsoe'er. Amen.

Has almost charmed me from my profession by persuading me to it.

William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, Act IV, scene 3, ll 429 - 457

As we are approaching the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on April 23, I've decided to do an all-Shakespeare month here at Poem of the Week, concentrating on some of his more obscure plays – which raises the question of what is actually "obscure" in the works of one of the world's most celebrated writers. For example, above is a selection from one of his least-known and least-performed plays, and right in the middle we have a phrase – pale fire – that Nabokov borrowed as the title of one of his most famous novels. If you read the collected volume of Shaw's writings on Shakespeare, you will see that though he speaks admiringly of The Winter's Tale he never had a chance to review a production of it; now it seems like one of the more popular plays, rivaling the ever-classic Tempest as the most highly regarded of the late romances. Even Titus Andronicus, once critically seen as a youthful aberration and abomination (assuming it was even by The Master, which many tried to deny), has come into its own in our time, appreciated by the same audiences that can appreciate the films of Quentin Tarantino.

There are theories about the play and its problematic state. Years ago, it was generally considered unfinished, making it into the First Folio only to fill up blank pages caused by temporary difficulties getting the rights to or a good text of other plays. The more popular current theory seems to be that the play is actually a collaboration, probably with Thomas Middleton (it's even included in the recent Oxford collection of The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton). An emphasis on collaboration among early modern playwrights is much more prominent than it used to be. Whatever your theory, the play has some obvious difficulties: there are plot strands that are not worked out; it's never clear whom Alcibiades is pleading for in Act III scene 5, pleading which leads to his banishment; or why, when he invades Athens seeking revenge, he claims to be acting on behalf of Timon, who has by then turned his back on the city; varying sums are given for the money Timon tries to borrow; there are two epitaphs for Timon at the end – these things make the play fascinating if you're fascinated by theater history, but difficult to stage for ordinary theaters.

It doesn't help that we are no longer as familiar with the basic story as the original audience would have been. The misanthropic Timon was well known, and is cited as a byword for that personality type in an earlier Shakespeare play, Love's Labor's Lost, when Berowne sneers at the loss of dignity love has caused among his fellows:

O me, with what strict patience I have sat,
To see a king transformèd to a gnat!
To see great Hercules whipping a gig,
And profound Solomon to tune a jig,
And Nestor play at push-pin with the boys,
And critic Timon laugh at idle toys!

Love's Labor's Lost, Act IV, scene 3, ll 164 - 169

(A gig is a top, which you make spin by whipping; push-pin was a children's game, critic means savagely critical, misanthropic.)

When the play opens, Timon is a rich and absurdly magnanimous host in Athens, lavishing expensive gifts and fancy meals on his already rich and powerful friends, despite his steward Flavius's attempts to warn him that his generosity has already eaten up all of his wealth and credit and when those go, so will his so-called friends (feast-won, fast-lost is his incisive summation, with fast meaning both quickly and to abstain from food). There is a corrosive philosopher/street-person named Apemantus who hangs around denouncing everyone (Thersites in Troilus and Cressida is another example of this type in Shakespeare). The crash comes and Timon discovers that his friends suddenly can't spare him either their time or money. Timon becomes as unmeasured in his rage as in his bounty, eventually retreating to a cave outside of town where he can avoid the hateful sight of humanity. Apemantus, who feels that his own behavior is motivated by philosophy, finds Timon a merely circumstantial hater, as extreme and unbalanced in his fury and disgust as in his bounty.

Digging for roots near his cave in the woods, Timon stumbles on a hidden cache of gold coins. Instead of springing back to his former ways, Timon is only confirmed in his contempt for humanity, as word gets out that he's rich again and he suddenly has visitors in the wilds. Some of those who spread the word are the bandits who come across him in the scene excerpted here. After they reject his counsel to live off what they can forage, Timon erupts with this lengthy curse, a view of a world devouring itself, an entire universe living off theft. He concludes his long rant with Amen, as he often does, suggesting a metaphysical finality and a religious-prophetic aura around his speech.

Some vocabulary notes: in the second line of Timon's speech, con means admit to, confess; limited professions are the higher-ranking, more restricted professions, such as doctor or lawyer; like workmen, I'll example you with thievery means I'll give you practical examples of your profession, as one shows workmen what one wants done; composture is compost; the laws, . . . in their rough power, / Has unchecked theft suggests both that the laws have failed to check (stop) theft and also that they have given themselves unlimited power of theft.

The reference to the limited professions is crucial to Timon's speech; his loathing, like his lavishness, was all spent on the leaders of society, what today we might call the 1%, the powerful and connected and those who live off them (like the sycophantic Poet and the obsequious Painter who come in for some especially cutting satire). Timon's rage is fueled by a society based on profit and exploitation, in which all social relations are commodities and personal interest is paramount – this is the world of unchecked capitalism, and Timon cannot see beyond the limited class of successful capitalists. Some might see models of mutual cooperation and sacrifice in the complex interactions among sun, moon, and sea, and renewal in the way earth is continually enriched with decaying matter; Timon sees only theft and self-advantage, a thieving world that feeds off others, ultimately devouring itself. In his final lines he adjures the bandits to steal from merchants (the rising commercial class), since they are no better than thieves themselves, and there is no honor among thieves.

There's truth in what Timon says, but it's a narrow and ultimately self-serving truth – Timon excuses his own foolish, heedless behavior by blaming the foul and false nature of mankind. He does not see that his heedless extravagance and superficial relationships encouraged the self-interested and hypocritical behavior of those he favored. He does not see and cannot comprehend the generosity and mutual support among his former servants, and when he grudgingly has to admit to himself that Flavius is still faithful and true, he insists that Flavius is a unique exception to the general run of humanity, and he makes a point of noting his lowly status: and he's a steward (Act IV, scene 3, l 507). He doesn't even notice that even the bandits are almost persuaded to give up their thieving ways, after his vehement, hate-filled exhortations.  Timon is a comedy, of a caustic and satirical kind, and its strange hero is as much the subject of comedy as the rest of the cast.

I used the Signet Classic edition of Timon of Athens, edited by Maurice Charney, which now seems available only in a volume with Titus Andronicus – two strange, blackly tragicomic works set in the classical past.

01 April 2016

Poem of the Week bonus: #whanthataprilleday16

Welcome to the third annual Whan That Aprille Day, a celebration of all languages called Middle, Old, Ancient, Archaic, or even Dead. Go here to read a full statement on the celebration by the founder of the feast, the Internet's own Geoffrey Chaucer. You know it's official because the day has its own hashtag: #WhanthatAprilleday16.

You may go here to read the 2014 entry, here to read the 2015 entry, and I'm surprised to realize this is the first year I've used an excerpt from Chaucer (though he has been featured twice before in Poem of the Week; go here to read an excerpt from The Second Nun's Prologue and here for the opening of The Canterbury Tales; the latter entry also has a link to a Middle English pronunciation guide.)

This is an excerpt from the Nun's Priest's tale in The Canterbury Tales. He starts with a description of the small farm of a poor widow (the she of the first line of the excerpt), to which the richly jewel-like appearance of her glamorous rooster provides an ironic contrast. This charming and gently satirical beast fable has always been one of the most popular of the variegated Tales of Canterbury. In an amusing touch in this excerpt, you'll note that the justifiably smug rooster among his harem of hens displays his swete acord by singing a song about how his love has gone away. (Perhaps the rooster surrounded by his hens is a gently self-mocking image by the Nun's Priest himself?)

I've put a crib in italic black text below each of the Middle English lines.* As for the lines about the celestial equator, I have to admit that, in a shameful and unscholarly way, when it comes to technical descriptions of medieval science I am sometimes content with comprehension that is "vague but close enough". The basic sense is that the rooster knew exactly when it was the moment to crow, more precisely than any timepiece. Speaking of timepieces, they were fairly new and expensive technology when Chaucer wrote these lines – an abbey clock-tower might be the only clock for miles around.

The text I used is the Penguin Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales (which they call, rather oddly, an "original spelling" edition), edited by Jill Mann, whose notes bravely explain all about the celestial equator as well as medieval clocks.

* For some reason the Google Machine is unable to handle the text colors I've now carefully put in at least three times; either that, or it's playing an April Fool's joke on me. Apologies for the way this looks but I think it's clear which lines are Middle English and which are not.

The rooster Chauntecleer & his beloved Pertelote

. . . 
A yeerd she hadde, enclosed al aboute
She had a yard, enclosed all around
With stikkes, and a drye dich withoute,
With stakes, and a dry ditch around it,
In which she hadde a cok heet Chauntecleer.
In which she had a cock named Chauntecleer;
In al the land, of crowing nas his peer;
In all the land, he had no peer for crowing;
His vois was murier than the mirye orgon
His voice was merrier [happier, sweeter] than the merry organ [music]
On masse-days that in the chirche gon.
That went on in the church during a feast-day.
Wel sikerer was his crowing in his logge
More certain [reliable] was his crowing in his coop
Than is a clokke or an abbey orlogge.
Than is a clock or an abbey clock-tower.
By nature he knew ech ascencioun
By nature [instinctively] he knew each ascension
Of th'equinoxial in thilke toun;
Of the celestial equator in that town;
For whan degrees fiftene were ascended,
For when fifteen degrees were ascended,
Thanne krew he, that it mighte nat ben amended.
Then he knew [to crow], so that it could not be improved upon.
His comb was redder than the fin coral,
His comb was redder than the finest coral,
And batailled as it were a castel wal.
And crenelated like a castle wall.
His bile was blak, and as the jeet it shoon;
His bill was black, and shone like jet;
Lik asure were hise legges and his toon;
Like azure [lapis lazuli] were his legs and his toes;
Hise nailes whitter than the lilye flour,
His claws whiter than the lily;
And like the burned gold was his colour.
And like burnished gold was his color [the color of his feathers];
This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
This gentle [noble and refined] cock had in his care
Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,
Seven hens, to obey his commands [do his pleasure],
Whiche were hise sustres and his paramours,
Which were his sisters and his paramours,
And wonder like to him, as of colours;
Wondrously like him as to colors;
Of whiche the faireste hewed on hire throte
Of which the fairest hued on her throat
Was cleped faire damoisele Pertelote.
Was called the fair lady Pertelote.
Curteis she was, discreet, and debonaire,
Courteous she was, discreet, and gentle and refined,
And compaignable, and bar hirself so faire
And sociable, and carried herself so beautifully
Sin thilke day that she was seven night oold,
Since that day that she was seven nights old,
That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
That truly she held fast the heart
Of Chauntecleer, loken in every lith.
Of Chauntecleer, locked in every limb.
He loved hire so that wel was him therwith.
He loved her so much that all was well with him because of it.
But swich a joye was it to here hem singe,
But it was such a joy  to hear him sing,
Whan that the brighte sonne gan to springe,
When the bright sun began to rise,
In swete acord, "My leef is faren in londe".
In sweet accord [harmony], "My love has gone away".
– For thilke time, as I have understonde,
– For at this time, as I am given to understand,
Beestes and briddes kouden speke and singe.
Beasts and birds could speak and sing.
. . . 

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, from The Nun's Priests's Tale, ll 2847 - 2881