Glass and Reich

Perhaps the most interesting thing about hearing the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich together—as last week’s three concerts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music allowed New Yorkers to do—is the discovery of how very different they are. It’s habitual to lump them together as Minimalists, as if that somehow defines them. But in fact they are as different from each other as any two artists who happen to share the same time, place, and (to a certain extent) materials.

Reich, whose music appeared first on the sole program I was able to attend, is a strict, subtle perfectionist. His music depends heavily on exactitude: the exact phasing in and out of rhythm on the part of different players, the exact descents and ascents of scales, the placement of a single melodic note or drumbeat at just the right place. He is the Bach, let us say, of this pair, and if his art contains emotion (which it does, in quantities), he achieves that through a submission to form. Last Thursday’s concert featured the always delightful Clapping Music (here performed by Reich himself and Russell Hartenberger); the sometimes tedious WTC 9/11 (though, admittedly, I hate all music that has a recorded speaking voice in it); the terrific Piano Phase/Video Phase, in which Reich’s original score for two pianos was performed by percussionist David Cossin, playing both live and in video; and the tremendous Sextet, which—in addition to his Music for 18 Musicians, which I missed on Tuesday night—is one of my favorite Reich pieces of all time.

Having had that satisfying first act, I couldn’t figure out how I would adapt to the very different mood required by Glass in the second half. But I needn’t have worried. Glass specializes in mood; he does it all for you. And if you think you are going to be able to stand apart and analyze his work and wonder what good it’s doing you—well, think again. The minute the strong undertones and sweeping orchestral effects come in, augmented by the high sound of a soprano voice, you are done for. It is all emotion washing over you. Glass is the Beethoven to Reich’s Bach (or, as a friend of mine said, he is a great global-music rock composer—which may just be a different way of putting the same thing).

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Up Close

I have always loved the Pacifica Quartet, but I have never before listened to them play from five feet away. Last night, sitting in the front row of the Cosentino Winery’s barrel room, I was practically as close to the violist, Masumi Per Rostad, as he was to Brandon Vamos, the cellist who sits next to him; I was nearer to him than he was to either of the violinists, Simin Ganatra and Sibbi Bernhardsson. And this meant that the music—Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet and Shostakovich’s Ninth Quartet (a great pairing of pizzicato-heavy, mutually reinforcing works)—came to life in a way I had never quite experienced, even with this terrific group. I was surrounded by the sound, and as the repeated themes of both pieces ran back and forth across the players, I could actually sense the patterns moving from side to side in space, and not just forward in time.

In this I was lucky, because the Cosentino Winery—a relatively new performance space in the excellent Music in the Vineyards series—did not yet offer the ideal acoustics for an intense concert like this. Those in the back rows, I imagine, were probably troubled by loud laughter drifting in from the tasting room, spurts of water-and-air noise from the cooling systems, and the occasional tinkle of glasses being restored  to their shelves. All this can be fixed, I presume, as the winery settles into its concert function.  And in any case none of these problems got to me, because I was enveloped in the music: I could hear every dramatically quiet note, every sudden transition from solo voice to vigorous unity, every quiver of vibrato or pluck of pizzicato.

As I listened to the Beethoven quartet played with such intense feeling and understanding (not to mention masterful dynamic control and tonal skill), I decided the performance couldn’t be topped.  And then, on the Shostakovich, I changed my mind, because that turned out to be the pinnacle of the evening. I have heard this piece dozens if not hundreds of times, several times played live by the Pacificas themselves, but it has never before spoken to me in so many ways: of Shostakovich’s wit, of his sorrow, of his patient endurance in times of distress, of his affection for all kinds of tonal and dissonant music (including klezmer and jazz), and, especially, of his anxiety, a permeating note throughout this and practically every other chamber piece of his. In the Pacifica Quartet’s performance, all these disparate things came together as if they were woven from a single thread—a thread that went back and forth among the players and looped around me as well, holding me spellbound in its startling, moving embrace.

The Pacificas are regulars at Music in the Vineyards, and many of the audience members in the packed room seem to know them personally, or at least know a lot about them. This, too, added to the intimacy of the occasion and gave it a warmth that is rarely found in larger concert settings. It was a funny feeling, the sense that I was in the midst of a Pacifica-loving crowd and at the same time alone with the musicians, smack in the center of the music. And it was a good feeling, in both respects.

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Perfect Programming

One of the reasons to attend summer musical festivals is that the work of deciding what’s likely to be worth hearing has already been intelligently done for you. In the case of Music@Menlo this is especially true, since the deciders (artistic directors Wu Han and David Finckel, assisted by Edward Sweeney and the rest of their talented staff) always find wonderful new things to combine with favorite old ones. I don’t have the stamina to festivize all day long, so I tend to choose just a few of the offerings, sometimes on the basis of performers and other times for the music, and then my husband and I drive down to Menlo Park for one concert at a time.

This year we went twice: first to hear the Danish String Quartet play a mainly Beethoven program on Saturday, July 26, and then last night to the final concert of the season, a mixed program of Czech and Hungarian composers (this year’s “theme” was Dvorak) played by a mixed group  of performers. The Danes, who were introduced to us Bay Areans by Music@Menlo last year, are a remarkable group, and I will always make an effort to hear them play. Last year they debuted with Haydn and Mozart, at whom they excelled. There was one Haydn quartet on this year’s program, and that was predictably great. I felt their Beethoven fell a little short of that level, not for any technical reasons (these guys are perfect players), but because—if I don’t sound too ridiculous saying this—they don’t really understand Beethoven yet. It’s not just a matter of age or nationality. I’m not sure what it is, though the absent element may have something to do with passion, with angst, with negative capability. They are playing the music perfectly well, but it doesn’t seem to alter them: they play Beethoven’s quartets as they would anything else, and that is the problem.  Still, I have to allow for the fact that it could have been I and not the players who were off that night.

Last night’s concert, though, made me remember why I go to concerts. Looking at the program, I realized I had chosen it because it included Dvorak’s Piano Quintet with Anne-Marie McDermott at the piano. Every time I have heard this gifted player, I have been delighted and amazed:  it’s not just that she is extraordinarily talented herself, but that she is one of the great musical collaborators of all time, and this makes it a constant pleasure to hear her in chamber pieces. I first heard her performing in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet as part of a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center event, and it was a life-changing experience.  This time she started and ended the program (beginning with Smetana, ending with Dvorak) and left space for two all-string pieces in between, one by Dohnanyi and one by Schulhoff.

The Smetana “Bohemian Fantasy” was a light, amusing piece, played with charm and virtuosity by McDermott and a young Russian violinist, Alexander Sitkovetsky. I was happy enough to hear it but forgot it the second it was over. Then came Erno Dohnanyi’s “Serenade for String Trio,” a piece I had never heard before, featuring Sitkovetsky on the violin, Paul Neubauer on the viola, and Narek Hakhnazaryan on the cello. Composed in 1902, it was a fascinating and compelling mixture of modernism and something else—folk music? romanticism? classicism?—that in its inventive combinations anticipated Bartok and everyone else who followed.  I was delighted to be introduced to it, and already feeling grateful to Han and Finckel, when the third piece on the program simply knocked me out.  Erwin Schulhoff’s String Sextet (performed here by violinists Nicolas Dautricort and Benjamin Beilman, violists Yura Lee and Paul Neubauer, and cellists Dmitri Atapine and Narek Hakhnazaryan) is one of the most terrifying, moving pieces of music I’ve ever encountered. Filled with silences and near-silences, combining quietly frenzied drones and brief searing melodies, calling forth eloquent solos (especially on the viola), and, toward the end, an eerie slide on the cello that literally raised the hair on the back of my neck, it speaks of the twentieth century and all its horrors. I checked my program for the dates of composition—1920 to 1924—and realized that this young Czech-Jewish composer (he was born in 1894 and died in 1942, a victim of the Nazis) had anticipated Shostakovich by about forty or fifty years.

The Schulhoff piece was so intense that the audience remained silent for a full ten seconds at the end, and I had no idea how we were going to get from there to the rollicking Dvorak, even with an intermission in between. But I should have trusted McDermott and her companions. When the Piano Quintet began, I could immediately sense its kindly, restorative qualities, especially in these highly capable hands. I own the recording of Menahem Pressler’s version of this piece, and I love it, but I think last night’s performance was even better. The Schulhoff had towed us far out to sea and left us nearly drowned; the Dvorak brought us in and restored us to life. I was grateful, and satisfied, and pleased beyond words to be there.

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The Old Woman is many things, but a linear narrative in dramatic form it is not. Adapted from a Daniil Kharms story by Darryl Pinckney and staged by Robert Wilson, this astonishingly inventive production, now playing at BAM, is faithful to its Russian avant-garde roots. Disconnections, flirtations with meaninglessness, and gestures toward chaos are strewn throughout it. Yet every moment is so beautifully choreographed and composed—like a dance, but also like a picture—that one feels a rigorous sense of purpose behind the whole venture.

You cannot hope to follow the plot unless you scrutinize the brief synopsis of the twelve scenes beforehand, and even then, what are you to make of summaries like “Hunger poem” or “The writer comes home to find the old woman crawling on the floor. He wants to kill her with a mallet” or “Dream poem 2″? They will hardly help you toward an understanding of events. Nor will the dialogue give you a great deal of assistance, especially since most of it is repeated at least five or six times, with the two actors exchanging, stealing, and mimicking each other’s lines. It’s best if you just give up and look at the stage picture, and meanwhile listen to the music the actors produce with their voices. To the extent it is about anything, The Old Woman is about how absurdity and reality are two sides of the same coin. This means it is also about the theater—which, among other things, relentlessly but also movingly repeats itself, over and over—and about human life, in which the mingling of joy and pain, fascination and boredom, is unavoidable and ever-present, especially if you are an avant-garde artist in Soviet Russia.

There are many heroes behind this production, most notably Wilson himself (who is responsible for the gorgeous set design and “lighting concept” as well as the precise direction) and his masterful lighting designer, A. J. Weissbard. Every scene is a delight to look at, in ways that never tire despite the eternal repetitions. But the whole thing would have foundered without the heroes out front—namely, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe. I can’t think of any two other actor-dancers who could have carried it off in this way, alternately mirroring and assaulting each other, defining themselves either as two halves of one person or a fully separate pair. The surprise here is that they are absolutely equal. It would take a lunatic, one would think, to go up against Baryshnikov in the dance department, or to measure oneself against Dafoe in the vocal department. And yet it turns out that Dafoe moves beautifully, while Baryshnikov has a striking stage voice (often deployed in Russian, and sometimes even in song). Because they are costumed alike—except that the extended single curls in their wigs point in different directions—it can almost be hard to tell them apart, with their painted mask faces and their agile black-and-white-clad bodies. But that is part of the pleasure of this show, just as the gradual exposition of their distinctive voices and movement styles is. They are truly an amazing pair, and the audience that gave them five ovations at the performance last night (clapping in unison, Russian-style) obviously felt privileged to watch them.

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I might be wrong, but I think it was Alan Ayckbourn who said that when he was very young and first going to the theater, he always hoped that something would go wrong, because that would lend any performance an aura of the exciting and unexpected.

Last night, I went to a new Ayckbourn play called Arrivals and Departures at 59E59—part of the theater’s Brits Off Broadway series—and something went wrong. We were about an hour into the first act (the play was scheduled to last over two and a half hours, including a brief intermission), and we in the audience had managed to take in that this play was set in a train station, where the British army was attempting to capture a terrorist by placing a lot of trained “bystanders” around in the waiting area. The officious major in charge of this operation kept having to rehearse his incompetent soldier-actors in their performances as bystanders, so there was a strong play-within-a-play element. Meanwhile, through a series of flashbacks, we were learning a lot about the female soldier Ez Swain (officially named Esmé), played in this production by a very talented actress named Elizabeth Boag.

There had been a lot of background noise of the sort one usually gets at train stations, and we had just reached a rather tense scene involving Ez and her soldier boyfriend Rob (this was in one of the flashbacks), when a beeping ring started sounding. All of us in the audience assumed this was just another train-station sound effect. After about 20 seconds of it, though, Rob turned to the audience and said, “I guess we should stop now.”  At first we thought this too was part of the play-within-a-play, but then Ez said, “Yes, I guess we should,” and they turned into themselves (you can actually see actors do this, even when they are still in costume) and shrugged in a discouraged manner.

The house manager of 59E59 came onto the stage and assured us that even though the fire alarm seemed to be going off, there was absolutely no fire and we should just remain in our seats. My companions, however, remembered that similar instructions had been issued to people in their offices on 9/11. Given that the theater was below ground, and that the problem could have been, say, carbon monoxide rather than fire, we decided that the better part of valor was to go up to the lobby, or at least the staircase, and wait there. Many other people used the opportunity to go to the bathroom or check in with their voicemail. In other words, the audience turned this unexpected break into our own little intermission, and we had high hopes of continuing without a further one, once the pesky alarm got silenced.

It took them about fifteen minutes to quiet the damn thing, and we all returned to our seats. But when we got back into the theater, the house manager announced that though the sound was gone, the fire panel that connected the theater to the fire station had completely gone out, so we could not legally continue the play.  Everyone, he assured us, would get refunds.

“But,” we asked, “what about the rest of the plot?  What happens in the play? Couldn’t you get someone from the company to come out and tell us?” So Elizabeth Boag came out in her street clothes, looking somehow entirely different from Ez even though she had the same hair and build, and told us—in a London accent that was not at all the same as Ez’s—what happened in the rest of the play. About half the audience had stayed to hear this, and we were like avid children being told a tale for the five or ten minutes before bed. When Boag reached the point where she was describing the end of the play, which involved a moment of catharsis between Ez and an old geezer named Barry (performed with consummate skill by Kim Wall), she burst into tears: not acting tears, but real tears that for a moment overwhelmed her speech. You could sense that the tiny audience was very much moved by this, perhaps even more than we would have been by the actual moment of catharsis in the play. It was the kind of theater one always hopes for and rarely gets: unexpected and exciting and real.


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Four Nights of Music

The Bay Area has been a hotbed of concerts recently, and I’ve been out four nights in a row to something good. This would be a record of sorts even for New York, and in my part of California it’s almost unheard of.

On Wednesday, I went to Yoshi’s (our local Oakland jazz-club-cum-Japanese-restaurant) to hear the Billy Hart Quartet. What brought me there was the pianist, Ethan Iverson, whose career I’ve been following since before he helped found his other jazz group, The Bad Plus.  Ethan was, as usual, superb. Billy Hart himself is still a terrific drummer (he has been famous in jazz circles for over forty years: the friends I went with had heard him in college in the early 1970s), and the bass player, Ben Street, was also great. But the surprise of the evening, for me, was the persistently dour, beanpole thin, brilliantly thoughtful saxophonist, Mark Turner. Not only is Turner a wonderful saxophone player; he is also a very unusual jazz composer, at least to judge by the one piece of his that the Quartet played.

Thursday was the Northern California premiere, at Cal Performances‘ Ojai North, of Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky’s opera The Classical Style, based on Charles Rosen’s book of the same name. (The actual premiere was in Ojai the week before. Ojai North is an outgrowth of Tom Morris’s original Ojai Festival, bringing the best of their events up to Berkeley, and Denk was this year’s guest artistic director.) No one I knew believed you could really write an opera based on a book of music criticism, and we all showed up just to be supportive—of Matías Tarnopolsky, of Jeremy Denk, of The Knights and everyone else involved in the show. To our collective surprise, it was not only a lot of fun; it was also rather entrancing musically, and the music (by Stucky) went perfectly with every word of the libretto (by Denk) in a way that seemed quite hard to do. My favorite section was the long middle part, where the characters Dominant, Tonic, and Subdominant (you had to be there) met up at a bar and then got intruded upon by a pretentious musicologist who claimed to be a PhD student of Richard Taruskin’s at UC Berkeley. This last line brought the house down, but so did all the performances, which were at once witty and pleasing, with good acting to match the good voices. The short opera was preceded, incidentally, by Brooklyn Rider‘s stunning rendition of Haydn’s “Rider” quartet—a suitable match in every way.

Friday night I went to the San Francisco Symphony, where I heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the orchestra in beautiful performances of, first, Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and then, after the intermission, Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony. (Aaron Copland’s brief Danzón Cubano preceded the Britten. I would have cut this Hollywoodish period piece from the program, myself, but I guess they felt they needed to round out the length of the evening.) The tenor in the Britten was Toby Spence, whom I have loved ever since I saw him do a star turn in Alcina years ago; the horn player was the symphony’s own excellent Robert Ward. Britten brilliantly combined these two voices, brass and human, to evoke a kind of gentle, haunting feeling that modulated between pleasure and melancholy. It was interesting to compare that emotion to the gripping, moving anxiety that was then produced by Shostakovich’s final symphony. Britten and Shostakovich were friends and mutual admirers, and this program, in addition to showcasing that relationship, also pointed out the differences between them in a very satisfying way.

Finally, on Saturday, came the culmination of Ojai North, the final concert of the festival. (Earlier in the day there had been other Ojai gems — like Jeremy Denk’s astute combination of Janacek fragments and Schubert dances, or Timo Andres’s reimaginings of Mozart and Ives pieces — but I am limiting myself to nights here.) First Denk played both Book I and Book II of Ligeti’s Piano Études, an astonishing feat of pure virtuosity that in his hands became much more. It was really a wonder, an event, the kind of thing that made you feel privileged to be present. At the intermission, I said to a pianist friend who had been in the audience, “I was thinking it must be strange to be a pianist watching him do that,” and she said, “You mean, a mortal pianist?”

And then, in the second half of the show, after a nicely presented Ives Psalm, came the powerhouse conclusion: Beethoven’s Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, performed by The Knights and the Ojai Festival Chorus, with Jeremy Denk on the piano and Eric Jacobsen conducting. That the festival started with Haydn, featured Mozart in the middle, and ended with Beethoven seemed only fitting, since these were the three chief characters in The Classical Style (both the opera and, I gathered, the book). But the Fantasy was more than just a nice conclusion to a good program: it was a thrilling Mini-Ninth, an outpouring of Beethoven’s most joyous side, made even more joyous by the way the exuberant, charmingly boyish Eric Jacobsen conducted his young musical companions. At the end they all gathered together in a scraggly line at the front of the stage—singers, musicians, famous and unknown—to take their final bows before us, and we Berkeleyites clapped our hearts out.

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Tetzlaff in San Francisco

There could be no finer way to spend a Sunday evening than listening to Christian Tetzlaff perform Bach’s solo pieces for the violin, and Sunday, May 11 was no exception to this. Davies Hall did not fill up completely, but that simply showed that people do not know a good thing when they see it, and those who might have feared that a lone soloist couldn’t play satisfyingly in a space that large were definitely proven wrong.  This great German player—the finest violinist alive, if you ask me—took possession of the stage and the auditorium, reducing the enormous space to something that felt, for the moment, like a recital hall. To quiet the rustling audience before he started, Tetzlaff simply removed his instrument from under his chin and held it by his side; this worked, and he was able to commence against a background of silence. They grew more attentive as they listened, and you could actually feel people leaning in toward him as his playing became quieter and more intimate.

The program began spectacularly and got better. In the first half, Tetzlaff played an early partita sandwiched between two early sonatas; in the second half, a slightly later sonata sandwiched between two slightly later partitas. The works got progressively more complicated as he went on—in a way, progressively weirder and more modern-sounding, with intense contrapuntal patterns that made it seem as if more than one violin were playing at a time. And, from start to finish, we in the audience had the sense of being drawn directly into the music.  It was like mainlining Bach, with the sensation going directly from the music to our brains, without stopping anywhere in between for the usual performance trappings like specific interpretations, decisions about performance style, considerations of skill, or whatever. None of this matters with Tetzlaff. He is so good that despite his entrancing physical manner of dancing slightly to the music as he plays the fast parts, or leaning tenderly over his violin as he performs the slow ones, he never gets between you and the music. Instead, he becomes the music.

And yet it struck me last Sunday that there was something slightly wrong with Tetzlaff—not Tetzlaff the musician, but Tetzlaff the person (if I can be so bold as to comment on this human being I don’t know at all). And this strange feeling was only reinforced when I heard him perform the Bartok Violin Concerto No. 2 on Friday night with the full San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas by his side. Tetzlaff played his agonizingly difficult part beautifully, unexceptionably, better than anyone else in the world could have done it. As always, I couldn’t take my eyes off him for the duration of the performance, and I felt once again as if I were getting Bartok whole. But even more than when he had occupied the stage alone, I had the sense that he was somehow in retreat. The way I put it to myself was that he seemed to be a man in hiding. It was not just the small beard and mustache he had recently grown to mask the lower part of his handsome face. It was not just that he looked somewhat tired, or worried, or less than fully delighted to be there in front of us. It was not just that he kept his eyes closed throughout most of the performance—more, even, than he usually does when sinking himself into the music. It was as if this time he were trying to escape into the music, and in doing so escape not just us, but himself as well. It seems strange to say this of someone so graceful, so expressive, and so physically involved in his playing, but what I felt on Friday night was that he was uncomfortable in his own skin.

None of this, of course, is any of my business. It did not affect his playing one whit. If anything, his aura of distress or discomfort (or whatever it was that I was perceiving, truly or falsely) intensified the moments of deep feeling in the slow, quiet parts of the Bach and the plaintive, anxious parts of the Bartok. Tetzlaff can still play like Tetzlaff, and that is all that should matter to me as a critic. But if you love a musician’s work as much as I love his, you can’t help but begin to think of him as a member of your own family, even if you are complete strangers to each other. And it is because of this—this technically distant, formally unconnected, but nonetheless profoundly interested relationship—that I find myself worrying about him.

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Heavenly Handel

First, I just want to crow about the fact that I spotted the baritone Douglas Williams nearly a year ago, when he appeared briefly on the multi-faceted Ojai North! program dreamed up by that year’s artistic director, Mark Morris.  In a public conversation I had with Morris that fell on the final day of the three-day event, I remember singling out the young baritone as one of the festival’s great discoveries.

And now, with Williams’s triumphant appearance in Morris’s new Acis and Galatea, which premiered this past weekend at Cal Performances, I am proven more correct than I ever could have imagined. His voice, his charisma, his grace and wit and grandeur onstage, are all of a piece. If Williams is not the very best thing about the production, that is only because there are so many good things in it to celebrate.

For this voyage into directing and choreographing a Handel opera, Mark Morris has chosen uniquely able collaborators; Mozart, first of all, who orchestrated the Handel and gave it not only a richer musical texture, but also a more accessible pathos; Nicholas McGegan, who conducted his terrific Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra so as to bring out every nuance of the Mozart/Handel mix; Adrienne Lobel, creator of the evocative yet simple sets; Michael Chybowski, Morris’s brilliant lighting designer; and Isaac Mizrahi, who did the splendid costumes.  Each of these people was working at his or her highest level for this production, as were the eighteen Mark Morris dancers who performed (in varying sets of one to sixteen) in almost every minute of the program.  This was not so much an opera with dance as a danced opera, with movement doing as much to express the content of the text as the singing itself did.  As with Morris’s other evening-length vocal works—the oratorio L’Allegro comes instantly to mind, and so do the operas Platée and King Arthur—the experience of listening to wonderful music and watching delightful dance was seamless and satisfying. It was a nearly perfect production.

The problem lay in the onstage performances of the two leads, Acis (sung by tenor Thomas Cooley) and Galatea (sung by soprano Sherezade Panthaki). They both have fine voices.  But I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that these singers had the movement quality of tree stumps.  Rarely since the heyday of Lotfi Mansouri’s reign at the San Francisco Opera have I witnessed opera singers who had so little dramatic ability or so little capacity to move their bodies in a natural, human way.  Watching them, I wondered why Morris, if he wanted these particular voices, hadn’t simply chosen to put them in the pit, replacing them onstage with dancers who could perform the two romantic roles—Sam Black and Jenn Weddel, say, or Billy Smith and Laurel Lynch, or Noah Vinson and Maile Okamura, or for that matter any of the pairs from his superb existing company.

That’s what I thought during the first act.  And then, when Douglas Williams came on in the second act and masterfully embodied the role of the monster Polyphemus, I understood.  This is what Morris was after.  This merging of singer and dancers, movement and song, was essential to his version of the opera.  It brought everything to a new level—emotionally, aesthetically, visually, musically.  What Williams proved was that the choreographer’s ambitious vision was actually possible: it was something real, something reachable, and there was a point in trying for it.  I hope Mark Morris can eventually find other lead singers who are able to attain that Williamsesque level of performance.  Then perfection awaits us.


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Sigmar Polke

The Sigmar Polke retrospective that just opened at the Museum of Modern Art is enormous, filling ten galleries plus the second-floor atrium, and covering the German artist’s entire career, from 1963 (twenty-two years after his birth) to 2010 (the year of his death). So any response to it, especially after a single visit, can only be partial. But the work and the show are both so intense that I nonetheless feel compelled to respond.

Polke was an obdurate and willfully challenging artist who expressed his aggressive vision in many media: painting, sculpture, photographs, film, collage, stained glass, and various combinations of the above, plus new forms that he invented on the spot. He combined kitsch with tragedy, critiques of communist propaganda with critiques of capitalist consumerism. He was very German and very dubious about Germany’s past. His films are largely without dialogue, while his drawings and paintings often rely on words, though in ways that confuse or complicate meaning rather than clarify it.   He had an excellent sense of humor (as shown in the little piece titled Telepathic Session: William Blake–Sigmar Polke, where catenary strings link thought-bubbles labeled “ja” and “nein” in the separate regions assigned to these two visually unlike but visionarily connected artists). Yet his wit often took a mordant turn—as, for instance, in the sculpture Potato House, a life-sized see-through allotment shed made of wooden poles, each of which has a rotten potato stuck to the end of it.

As an artist, he was not particularly interested in beauty; whenever it appears in his work, it seems almost a by-product of the ideas and inventions swirling around in the stew of his mind. And yet it does appear, in works that are as affecting as they are strange. For me, the standouts in this regard are the three panels titled Negative Value (which hang along one wall of Gallery Seven, a room that covers the very productive years 1981–1983) and the four untitled “soot paintings” on glass that he made in 1990. The Negative Value paintings are like something Rothko might have done if he had a less orderly and more fiendishly playful mind. Made almost entirely with the kind of purple ink used in butcher’s meat stamps and government mimeograph machines, they have been burnished, enameled, and treated with chemicals in a way that produces a largely black surface with occasional purple highlights, small shards of paleness, and swirls of texture that shimmer and shift as you move from side to side.  These three large panels (each about eight-and-a-half feet high and six-and-a-half feet wide) are simultaneously entrancing and frightening; one could stand in front of them for hours and still never penetrate them.

The soot panels are a different matter entirely. Four elongated rectangles of glass, each over a yard wide and nearly twelve feet tall, project toward us on metal rods, so that they hang in the air in front of us and stretch far above our heads. On their surfaces are varying patterns in lines and curls and smudges, of different degrees of thickness and opacity. It is a bit as if Cy Twombly had merged with Jackson Pollock and decide to renounce orderly pencil squiggles for something much harsher and messier, though that comparison doesn’t begin to do justice to the novelty of what Polke has produced here. These panels are light (both in the sense of humorous—we are amused by those squiggles—and also in the sense of luminous, because we can see through the glass) and at the same time very dark, because we feel something fiery and dangerous in that residue of a smoky oil-lamp even if we do not know how the pictures were made. We can also detect the human hand here, in occasional finger strokes and even written graffiti that have been overlaid on the sooty originals. Some of these actually are graffiti (Polke insisted that the fragile soot side should face outward, inviting easy destruction), but some might be the tinkerings of the artist’s own hand. Because he is dead—and because, even in life, he rarely gave explanations or made firm pronouncements about his work—we will never know.

That is true not only of the soot paintings, but of every other item in the show. They are all open questions. The curators of the MOMA show have intelligently honored Polke’s characteristic obduracy by refusing to put wall descriptions next to each work of art. As you travel through the rooms, you have to look first at the thing itself, and then, if you wish, consult your exhibition guide to find out a little about it (but only a very little: the name, the date, the materials, the owner—and none of these will answer your real queries). One can almost hear Polke’s mordant laughter in the background.

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Three Carnegie Nights

And it would have been four, except that I couldn’t face going out to the same concert venue four nights in a row; even I have my limits.  So I skipped the very tempting Ensemble ACJW performance that was scheduled for Friday night and just went to Mitsuko Uchida on Wednesday, Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford on Thursday, and the Heath Quartet on Saturday. It was quite a week. Of the three events, only one—the performance by the young countertenor Iestyn Davies and even younger lutenist Thomas Dunford—featured the human voice. Yet it is voice that I came away thinking about after all three of these concerts.

Mitsuko Uchida doesn’t speak at all onstage; she just plays the piano. And yet she plays so individually that it is as if she is speaking to us at every moment. Her Schubert Piano Sonata in G Major is like no one else’s, and her Diabelli Variations is even less like anyone else’s.  I had recently heard Andras Schiff play the strenuous Beethoven series (officially called “Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli”) and I thought I knew how it would go.  I did not.  As performed by Uchida, it is a far more interior piece, with a great deal more self-questioning, some occasional violence, and a modicum of humor. In Schiff’s hands, it was an impressive achievement; in Uchida’s, it was a human document, surprisingly moving and appealing. I had thought I didn’t need to hear the Diabelli again (I was going just because I never miss Uchida when she is in town), but to my surprise, I did.

The Mitsuko Uchida concert filled Stern, Carnegie’s largest auditorium, because people already know how good she is. The other two concerts were in Weill, Carnegie’s smallest and most intimate hall, but Iestyn Davies’s reputation had no doubt grown since the booking, so his concert had been sold out for weeks. I had seen Davies twice before: in the 2012 Met production of Thomas Ades’s The Tempest and, at around the same time, in an evening of song at Le Poisson Rouge. He was captivating, especially in the smaller setting, so I looked forward to hearing him at Weill. And I was not disappointed. But it took me a while to settle into the sixteenth-century mode that began the concert. Those quiet lute-accompanied songs by the likes of Johnson, Danyel, and Campion can be hard to absorb after a day spent in frenzied New York. And though I was hearing Davies’s incomparable countertenor voice in the songs, I somehow felt he was at a remove.

This remoteness dissolved completely in the second half of the program, in part because Davies introduced the later pieces in his casual, endearing speaking-voice, and in part because the music he sang in the second half clearly meant a great deal to him. He began with a recent piece by Nico Muhly (who was seated in the audience and took a bow afterward), a charming, amusing song about the discovery of Richard III’s bones in a parking lot. Hearing “Old Bones,” of which every word was instantly comprehensible to me, I realized how much we miss when we listen to old songs:  the music may be beautiful and the words poetic, but the diction is not ours. The struggle to overcome the gap is worth it, but it is nice occasionally to be spoken to in one’s own language. Oddly, the Dowland songs that came after the Muhly, though as archaic in diction as the Campion and Danyel had been, seemed to partake of some of this clarity, perhaps because Davies has thought about them so much. He made “In darkness let me dwell,” in particular, come to life by singing it to us in complete darkness—an especial challenge, I thought, for the lutenist. It was clear that Davies could not have given us these excellent performances without the enormously skilled playing of the twenty-six-year Dunford, who seems to understand Dowland from the inside out. It is Dunford’s fingers which speak for him (he uttered not a word throughout the evening), and they do so eloquently.

The final performance of my week was a Saturday concert by the Heath Quartet, a young English group I’ve never heard before. They were obviously good, even in the first half of the program, but the Beethoven quartet they chose (Opus 18, No. 6) felt like something they had studied, not something they had fully internalized, while the Bartok (Quartet No. 2), though impressively played, was not quite as thrilling as it should be. After the intermission, though, when they performed Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, it was as if they had woken up:  they entered into every fluctuation of the music with verve and understanding, as if they had been born to play just this. Perhaps there was a psychological match between the young composer—Mendelssohn was only eighteen when he wrote this masterpiece—and the performers; perhaps the Heaths are simply at their best performing Romantic music (though they also did a lovely Tippett encore).  I can’t say what made the difference.  I can only say that I did not begin to hear their true voice until it mingled with that of Felix Mendelssohn, bringing both to life at once.

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