It’s true that I’m writing a biography of the architect Louis Kahn, so I’ve been looking closely at a lot of good architecture (mainly his) over the past few years. But recently I had a series of architectural adventures that had nothing to do with my Kahn project—proving, if proof were needed, that architecture is in fact a part of daily life and not something set apart.

Two weeks ago my husband and I went down to Los Angeles for a few days to visit some friends, and it turned out to be an extended architectural tour. On one day we visited the new Broad Museum, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to house Eli Broad’s massively self-congratulatory, extremely expensive, and frequently atrocious collection of contemporary art. The building is better than the art, but it too has its self-aggrandizing aspects. The weirdly cavelike and at times intestinal corridors which funnel you around and upward are supposed to feel organic but instead struck me as imprisoning. The galleries themselves are mainly standard white boxes, unimaginatively designed. And the hole-punctured surrounding “skin,” which is supposed to let in natural light, does so in a frustrating and barely view-producing way. It was a relief to leave this imposing new structure and wander across the street, passing the chaste little MOCA building and its pleasant exterior courtyard, and head deeper into downtown LA, where we encountered the thrilling vertical tram called Angel’s Flight (now, alas, not in use), the lively Grand Central Market, and finally the Bradbury Building.

If you have watched TV or movies over the last forty years, you’ve probably seen the Bradbury Building’s interior—it appears in Blade Runner and elsewhere—but nothing can replace the experience of actually being inside it. An early twentieth century structure composed of nondescript brick on the outside, it features a glorious atrium where delicately carved terra cotta, elegant brickwork, ascending galleries bounded by wrought-iron railings, and a marvelous skylight at the roof level combine to produce a sensation that is like nothing else in Los Angeles. There are lovely old cage elevators, but only tenants of the building are allowed to use these, and only tenants can go above the second-floor landing of the staircase. Nonetheless, the building remains an attraction for casual visitors, locals and tourists alike, all gazing in quiet wonder at this preserved bit of LA history.

The next day we drove out to Pasadena to look at the Greene & Greene houses. These wonderful, mainly residential structures, built by the Greene brothers early in the twentieth century, are made of wood in a style that draws on Japanese and early Modernist elements, but with a craftsmanship that is all their own. Most of them can only be seen from the outside, but one of the best—The Gamble House, built for the man who was half of the founding pair of Procter & Gamble—offers hourly tours to groups of about a dozen at a time. Our group was led by a sprightly, fascinating man who knew a great deal and knew how to convey it, and his ability to point out which details we should be looking at, and what they signified to both the builders and their clients, made all the difference to our visit. When we got to the cunningly designed kitchen (where the extra leaves for the dining room table were cleverly stored in a vertical rack, and where the table cloth was kept on a roller so it never had to be folded), he said, “If you’ve seen Downton Abbey—well, of course you’ve seen Downton Abbey…” and proceeded to explain the differences between that period piece and this one. The house was a bit dark by modern standards, because it had been constructed to cool its inhabitants during the long Southern California summers without the aid of air-conditioning, but this relative darkness was countered by the presence of charming outdoor sleeping porches adjoining each large bedroom. I can’t possibly list every architectural virtue of the place—the beautiful joins in every carpentered element, the incised designs on the wooden walls, the unexpected interior windows, the indescribable curve of the ornamental fishpond, the delicate pattern of the stained glass in the front doorway, and on and on—so you will just have to go there sometime and see it yourself. If I had to tell visitors about one thing to see in the Los Angeles area, it would be the Gamble House.

Returning to Berkeley, I went the following week to the newly opened BAM/PFA, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives building recently completed by the same Diller Scofidio + Renfro who had done the Broad.  This too is a building that outshines its collection (though that is not hard to do at the University Art Museum) — in some ways delightfully, in some ways more irritatingly. There is a willfulness to the design, with its blood-red (or actually tomato-red) stairwells, its strangely angled and sometimes vertiginous views, its galleries that lead confusingly one into another and then end up in the central ground-floor space, that can be either fun-house amusing or annoyingly coy, depending on your mood. The building also repeats a standard Diller Scofidio motif — the amphitheater seating looking down at nothing in particular, which they used both in the Juilliard/Alice Tully remodel and on the High Line — and here it makes much less sense. I also deplore what they’ve done with the museum café, Babette’s: it used to be one of Berkeley’s best casual meeting places, with its outdoor seating area facing onto a pleasant, enclosed lawn; now it occupies a single long corridor on the second floor, with no outdoor space whatsoever. But the actual PFA theater, renamed to honor the donor Barbro Osher, is a pleasure in every respect, with wonderful sightlines, comfortable seats, and a sense of expansiveness that enhances any film you might happen to see there. (My choice, in that first week of the theater’s opening, was Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels—but that’s another story entirely.)

As the last item in our impromptu architectural tour, my husband and I sought out the Hearst Memorial Mining Building on the UC Berkeley campus. Our Los Angeles friends had brought it up in connection to the Bradbury Building and were surprised we knew nothing about it. To my shame, I have been living within a mile of this marvelous structure for nearly forty years now, but last Saturday was the first time I had ever seen it, and I was frankly amazed. Its entrance atrium makes the Bradbury’s look like a toy:  it is stately and wide and thrillingly illuminated, and it rises to the full height of the four-story building.  Like the Bradbury’s, this atrium has wrought-iron-railed galleries and connecting staircases, but here you can actually climb them up to the roof level, where a canopy of Guastavino tiles set within their characteristic ceiling arches curves above your head, touchably close in places. Light pours into the whole space from tall side windows, and the adjoining lab space (which we peeked at through an interior window) is lit by an old-fashioned skylight held up with iron girders. A 1907 monument to the silver-mine-derived fortune of the Hearsts — the Broads of old, as it were—this building was originally constructed to teach Berkeley students the art and science of mining. (An architect friend tells me that it used to connect with a sample training mine, tunneled into the hillside.) Now devoted to more modern forms of science and engineering, the structure has been restored with great delicacy and skill; it even rests on an earthquake-proof base, having been lifted up wholesale and put back in its place. Walking through it, I wondered if Louis Kahn, who visited the Berkeley campus for three days in 1958, had ever been inside it. It certainly felt like one of his buildings — the Yale Center for British Art, say, or the Exeter Library, both of which have wonderful central atriums. And yet it also felt like the buildings of antiquity that had directly influenced him, so the parallel could have been just that: a result of parallel developments from a similar source. In any case, it was wonderful to think that something so grand, beautiful, and inspiring had arisen on the campus of a California public university, and even more wonderful to find that it had been so lovingly preserved.





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Biss Bliss

There are certain performers whose concerts I will try to attend no matter what they are playing, and Jonathan Biss is definitely on the list. Last June I heard him in a Beethoven marathon with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Hall; this past Sunday, at the same venue, he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Granted, my allegiance has caused me no pain thus far: anyone would want to hear Beethoven and Mozart well played. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that I decided to attend last night’s concert—cutting short a lovely and informative trip to Los Angeles—for the sole purpose of hearing this talented young pianist set off his magic once again. And the decision paid off handsomely.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is so great about Biss. Yes, he seems to know the music through and through (I have only seen him play by heart). Yes, he modulates each phrase intelligently and sensitively, so his emphases and dynamics seem singularly his and yet utterly suitable to the score. Yes, he can do the challengingly fast runs and trills and flourishes without making any of it seem like a challenge: he is never a show-off, though his fingers seem able to do anything. None of this, though, accounts for why audiences (myself included) find themselves filled with such wild zeal at the end of one of his performances. It is a feeling of connection, I think—a sense that the player and the composer and the people listening to their collaborative work have all merged, temporarily, into a single sensibility. It is a great gift, and I am always glad to receive it.


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Making a Murderer

Not since I watched Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, eons ago in a theater, have I been as powerfully affected by a documentary about the miscarriage of U.S. justice. And this time it came right into my house, courtesy of Netflix streaming.  Over the course of ten scrupulously filmed and even more scrupulously edited hours, Making a Murderer, by the incredibly talented duo Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, tracks the encounters of two members of the Avery clan—Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey—with the criminal justice apparatus of Manitowoc County and the wider Wisconsin courts. I can’t say much without giving away the plot, and believe me, you don’t want me to do that: the ins and outs of who did what to whom, and whether to believe this person or that, and what order the events occurred in, and whether they actually occurred, form an essential part of one’s motive for watching this show. So do the character portrayals, which are extensive and complicated and deeply revealing. Suffice to say that some people (particularly Steven Avery’s lawyers) come off as true heroes, while others (particularly some of the D.A.s and investigators and cops) come off as despicable, self-justifying monsters. It is a frightening portrayal of one kind of horribly American small-town “justice,” and when you reach the end of it, you will only be able to turn off the TV, not the constantly playing episodes in your mind. May this haunt all of us for a long time.

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Bountiful Beethoven

Last week the Berlin Philharmoniker came to Carnegie Hall and played all nine Beethoven symphonies in the course of five nights. Two of the Times’s critics—Anthony Tommasini at the beginning of the cycle, and David Allen in his review at the end—announced their feeling that this was, essentially, a boring and uninstructive program to inflict on New York audiences, that we had no need to hear yet another Beethoven cycle, and that they expected more interesting programming from Simon Rattle, the Philharmoniker’s charismatic conductor.

My conclusion is that professional music critics should hereafter be excused from covering Beethoven cycles. For them, it is merely an onerous occupational chore, yet one more tedious hill to climb. But for the rest of us, it is—and especially was, in this particular case—an opportunity for startling, repeated experiences of life-transforming transcendence.

Music is not a piece of knowledge you acquire once and possess forever. It is an experience that you need to and, luckily, can undergo over and over, with new layers adding themselves in every time. And the better the music, the more complicated and varied will be the spectrum of one’s experiences. Beethoven, like Shakespeare, potentially offers us something new each time—not only new to each generation that hears him, but also new to each individual listener, and even to each separate encounter an individual may have with these works over a lifetime. To me, saying that we have collectively heard enough Beethoven cycles seems akin to saying we have already seen enough Shakespeare plays—a self-evidently silly remark.

But then, I have never attended a full Beethoven cycle before.  That too tells me something: they cannot be all that thick on the ground, for I am a fan of full cycles and attend them frequently. I have been to one or two full Ring Cycles and had the opportunity to attend many more. I have been to at least five full cycles of Shostakovich’s string quartets (in which, admittedly, I take a professional interest) and at least three full cycles of Beethoven’s.  I have twice heard the same great violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, play all of Bach’s partitas and sonatas for solo violin in a single long concert, and have also heard Yo Yo Ma perform all of Bach’s unaccompanied suites for cello in the course of a single day. I have been to the Philharmoniker’s own cycles of Brahms symphonies (immensely satisfying) and Schumann symphonies (somewhat less so). But I have never before had a chance to hear a world-class orchestra, and particularly this world-class orchestra, play all nine Beethoven symphonies at once.

One facet of great orchestras—I might broaden this and say great musicians—is that they are only as good as the music they play. Because they are honest performers and not tricky prestidigitators, they cannot transcend what is given to them. As a result, some of the Philharmoniker’s Beethoven symphony performances were naturally better than others. Both the Fifth and the Seventh were absolutely outstanding; if I ever get to hear a better performance of either, I will be amazed. The Ninth was great, too, but it was also delightfully strange:  as a friend said to me when it was over, “I never realized what a demented piece this is!” The Sixth was weird too, in ways I had forgotten, and it fully earned its “Pastoral” title in the slowness and quietness of its unfolding. (If I was mildly bored at times, I suppose that can be attributed to my feelings about the pastoral in general—the countryside is really not for me.) Everything else had its moments and also its longeurs. The last movement of the First Symphony stood out as especially fine; the repeated excitements of the Fourth foreshadowed some of the even greater excitements in the Seventh, with which it had been paired; and the Eighth formed an appealing, frothy introduction to the more pensive moments of the Sixth. If the Third struck me this time as excessively bombastic, that seemed more attributable to the music than to the players. And in any case, the next time I hear it, I will probably feel differently about it. That is the nature of Beethoven, if he is well enough played.

Part of what a conductor does is to select a program, and even here, with all nine symphonies available, choices had to be made about the order in which they were played and whether anything else should be played with them. But a large part of what he or she does, with an orchestra this good, is to steer extremely competent, massively experienced players—musicians who have played the symphonies hundreds of times before—toward a performance that is something other than routine. The danger may lie in pushing this interpretive capacity beyond the bounds of the reasonable, but Simon Rattle didn’t do that. We did not feel (or at least I did not) that the sudden shifts in dynamics were excessive, the silences too prolonged or dramatic, the drumrolls and bass notes too emphatic. In every case, Rattle’s aesthetic decisions, transmitted through the magic of rehearsal to his dozens of performers, helped us make sense of Beethoven.

But never complete sense. David Allen praised Barenboim’s relatively recent Beethoven cycle for its “didactic” quality, but this is the last thing I want in my conductors, especially when they are dealing with material as rich and strange as Beethoven’s symphonies. Despite their evident power, these are delicate works, easily ruined by excessive force. Rattle and his players gave them their heads and let them run, with only the most gentle guidance exerted on the reins, and the result was one of the deepest, most sustained musical pleasures I’ve had in years.


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Leila Josefowicz at Zankel

I first learned about Leila Josefowicz eight years ago, shortly before she won her MacArthur award, and because I was working on Shostakovich at the time, I acquired her recording of his notoriously difficult Violin Concerto No. 1.  It was a knockout, and I resolved from then on to keep my eye (and ear) on her. More recently, I saw her do the complicated first-violin role in Schoenberg’s First String Quartet, with Fred Sherry on the cello and two other great players on the viola and second violin. This too was an eye-opener. But not until I heard her in a whole program of her own devising, last Tuesday night at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, did I fully realize what a tremendously accomplished musician she is.

The program, which paired Josefowicz with the pianist John Novacek, began with Manuel de Falla’s showy Suite populaire espagnole, which let her strut her fast-fingering stuff in a folksy, romantic mode. Well done, but hardly the kind of composition that would have drawn the avid music audience who had come to hear her that night. She satisfied the more modernist contingent with the next piece, Olivier Messaien’s Theme and Variations, which allowed her to convey a more stringent, harsh, rigorous world of sound. But it was only when she and Novacek entered onto the third work of the evening, Schumann’s Violin Sonata No. 1, that their partnership became profound. This is to Schumann’s credit, of course, as well as to theirs: he knew how to make the voices of the two instruments meld fully together. But he was extraordinarily well-served by this particular violinist and pianist in tandem, because they both understood how his work defined that strange nineteenth-century moment when music was at once fixed in a tradition and potentially open to change.

The period after the intermission was entirely late-twentieth-century, featuring two composers that are still very much alive. Josefowicz ended with John Adams’s Road Movies, a thrilling piece that premiered in 1995 and that I could listen to a thousand times. But in part because I have listened to it a thousand times (one San Francisco friend has playing it on his household soundtrack practically every time I come over), I was more moved and impressed by the other work on the program, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Conversio. This too dates from the 1990s, but no one in the audience, to my knowledge, had ever heard it before (last Tuesday was its Carnegie Hall premiere), and we went wild with enthusiasm for it. The music draws from a range of modernist strategies—harsh shrieking, low thrumming, antic pizzicato, intensely propulsive chords, and above all suspenseful pauses—but it sounds like nothing else I have ever encountered, and it made me want to hear more of this Estonian composer’s work. It also displayed to the fullest Josefowicz’s intelligent musicality: she understood exactly the ways in which it was connected to both the Messiaen and the Adams (and even the Schumann, in terms of emotional register), but she also understood that this twelve-minute composition was triumphantly a thing-in-itself, a fitting pinnacle to the program she had so beautifully designed and presented.

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A Full October

Once again I have been so frantically attending things that I’ve neglected the blog. Here, in summary form, is my attempt to catch up. A few of these items may reappear later in longer, printed essays.

October 10 and 11: I have been following John Heginbotham’s choreography career since he first started doing his own work after leaving the Mark Morris Dance Group, so I was especially glad to be able to witness the triumph of Dance Heginbotham’s performances at the Joyce.  One piece on this program, Easy Win, which was choreographed to Ethan Iverson’s music of that name, is the best thing Heginbotham has ever done. The highest compliment I can pay it is to say it lives up to its wonderful score, which ranges all across jazz piano history, from cakewalk and rags to the latest contemporary style. (Iverson is, among other things, a member of the jazz trio The Bad Plus.) The rhythms are extremely complicated, the moods vary intensely from one moment to the next, and it was great to see a dance that captured those felicities so thoroughly.  After hearing Iverson play about 10 minutes of the piece at San Francisco’s Jazz Center last summer, I immediately went online and bought a ticket to the Joyce performance this fall; after seeing the dance once, I bought another ticket and went back the next day.

October 14, 15, and 17: Hearing the tenor Mark Padmore sing is always a delight. Hearing him sing three separate nights of Schubert songs, with the piano scores played by the brilliant Kristian Bezuidenhout on the fortepiano, was beyond delightful: it was wrenching, exhilarating, and satisfying all at once. Thanks to Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, those of us who could squish into Alice Tully Hall (and there were many, many repeat audience members among us) took a journey that progressed from Die schöne Müllerin to Schwanengesang to Winterreise, with each evening conveying a completely different emotional experience, though all were heartbreaking in their own ways.  Padmore is an unusually straightforward singer—he puts on no airs, makes no self-dramatizing gestures—but, perhaps for this reason, his ability to grasp and transmit feeling is unparalleled. One of my fellow three-nighters said after the last performance, “I’m afraid we’re in for a post-Padmore letdown,” and she was right: full of events as New York still is, it feels emptier now that we can’t go hear him sing Schubert every night.

October 18: I dropped in on the Archibald Motley show at the new Whitney, and was amazed that I had never even heard of this great twentieth-century painter before. An African-American who spent most of his life in Chicago (his active painting years were mainly the 1930s through the 1950s), he had a style all his own. It was a style, I suspect, that put him out of favor in the emerging Black Power world of the 1960s and 1970s: his black figures, for instance, sometimes have giant red lips, and much else in his work is exaggerated and dreamlike. But he captures as no other painter I know a sense of movement and connection among human bodies, whether they are dancing, arguing, standing around, or just sitting and playing cards. If you are going to be in or near New York this fall, don’t miss this show — and it will give you a chance to visit the new Whitney, which in itself is tremendously exciting, both architecturally and in terms of its public ambitions.

October 23 and 27: I wanted to see the new Mark Morris ballet, After You, that he composed for ABT to music by Johann Hummel, so I got tickets to two different programs. Both (purposely) contained performances of The Green Table, one of my favorite twentieth-century dances; one also contained Frederick Ashton’s Monotones, which I had heard about and wanted to see.  The Ashton was the biggest revelation: set to Satie’s Trois Gnossiennes and Trois Gymnopédies, each is more beautiful than the next — literally so, in that I thought Monotones I was the absolute height of grace and intelligence in dance until I saw Monotones II, which instantly took its place. The Green Table was slightly disappointing when Death was danced by Roman Zhurbin, better when danced by Marcelo Gomes, though neither knocked me out the way David Hallberg did in the role a few years ago. Still, I am always glad to see this dance and hear its intense piano score. The Morris was elegant and graceful and is, I think, my favorite of the ballets he has done (I tend to prefer his work for his own company). It got even better the second time, when it was danced by a cast that knew how to echo the Hummel rhythms perfectly. (Why do ballet companies even have inferior casts?  Surely at this level they should all be good.)  My only complaint about the dance has to do with its name: by emphasizing a single repeated gesture that occurs throughout the dance (the extended arm uncurling forward), the title makes it seem as if this gesture only has one meaning—”after you”—whereas really it could and does have many.

October 24: Sandwiched between my two nights at the ballet was a much more experimental performance put on at BAM.  This was William Kentridge’s small-scale opera Refuse the Hour (not to be confused with his large-scale Lulu, which I will be attending in a few weeks at the Met). “Opera” is not quite the right word for this performance, but there is no other that will do—it certainly includes singing of a very high order (and a very strange order, including singing a melody backwards, as in a reversed tape), but it also includes dance, speech, visual projections, and a variety of musical accompaniments and solos. The piece, which is essentially about time, was conceived collaboratively with the historian of science Peter Galison, and both Kentridge and Galison appeared on a panel, the afternoon before I saw the show, that was immensely helpful in untangling what subsequently appeared onstage.  In their talk, they touched on the Greenwich Observatory, the forced-air tubes that set clocks throughout nineteenth-century Paris, the playing-backwards of film and recorded music, and all sorts of other things that I was alerted to watch out for in the performance. The piece itself raises many more questions than it could possibly answer, but always in an appealing way, and it seemed to speak to its audience: the startlingly young and hip crowd that attended it greeted the actors at the end with wild whoops of approval.

October 31: I had heard from friends that the Kongo show at the Met Museum was worth attending, so on Halloween my husband and I escaped from our Greenwich Village neighborhood (always overrun by millions during the parade) and headed up to the Met. The Kongo show was indeed interesting, though mainly in an anthropological way—it was a slight violation, I felt, to class most of these religious and otherwise functional things as art, despite their intense visual attributes. But then, having had our fill of the new and previously unknown, we wandered into the old European rooms. The combination of Halloween and the Mets’ (the other Mets, in this city that calls everything that) World Series game meant that the Saturday-night galleries were practically empty, and at one point we had four Vermeers and a Pieter de Hooch all to ourselves. It was like being in our own private palace.  And then there was the ride back downtown on the subway, with devils, witches, Spidermen, goths, fake celebrities, and tinseled princesses mingling with the usual crowd of tourists, locals, and homeless people.  The whole thing was echt-New York — yet another version of the ever-recurring Metropolitanism.


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Pacifica Perfection

It’s no secret that the Pacifica Quartet is my favorite string quartet in the world, and this means I take every opportunity to see and hear them play. Yet as their September 30 date at Rockefeller University approached, I had my doubts. I had been flat on my back with a bad cold for the better part of a week, and even though I was starting to recover, venturing out to the far eastern realms of uptown Manhattan did not seem advisable. But then I saw the program—Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E Minor, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Quartet, and (with pianist Orion Weiss) Schumann’s Piano Quintet—and I was a goner. For these three pieces, I would have overcome pneumonia.

As it turned out, a little cough suppressant saw me through, and the concert was, if anything, even better than I could have imagined. I have a recording of the Pacificas playing the complete Mendelssohn quartets, and I have always wondered how they manage to infuse so much life, strength, and variety into pieces that in other hands sometimes reek of sickly-sweet Romanticism. Hearing them live doesn’t exactly provide an answer to this—it remains, in other words, an alluring mystery—but it does make the point even more clearly. The Mendelssohn was a triumph. And then to have it followed immediately by the Shostakovich, which is one of the scariest, eeriest, most unusual things he ever wrote—what an intense pleasure that was! “How many times have you heard us play this?” I was asked afterward by Masumi Per Rostad, the great violist who is featured in this quartet dedicated to a violist. I estimated five or six times (some of them in full cycles, some on mixed programs), but assured Masumi that I could happily hear them do it every week.  “Happily” might not be exactly the right word for the pleasure Shostakovich brings—it is always mixed with sorrow, pain, regret, and a host of other melancholy feelings—but whatever it is, the Pacificas always know how to deliver it.

As for the Schumann, I have loved it ever since I heard it as the setting for Mark Morris’s marvelous dance V, which does full justice to it. But getting to hear Weiss and the Pacifica Quartet perform their magic on it was thrilling in a different way. The quiet parts were incredibly intimate, and the vigorous moments of swinging, dance-worthy rhythm were enough to make us all want to leap out of our seats.  (I saw Simin Ganatra, the amazing first violinist, sponstaneously tapping both her feet at once during an exciting passage toward the end, and she was simply echoing what we were all feeling.) I had forgotten I ever had a cold:  the music itself had given me back my health.

And even the journey out to this strange new concert venue turned out to be exciting, in its own way. The Peggy Rockefeller concert series, of which this Pacifica evening was a part, takes place in the Caspary Auditorium, a small-scale, acoustically delightful, geodesically-shaped room that is the perfect setting for chamber music. The only real oddity is that the hall has no wings: the performers had to enter and leave by the same steep staircase that led us to our seats in the audience, which meant that at the end we had to remain seated until they were safely offstage. But even this added to the sense of collective pleasure, making us all feel as if we were at some slightly oversized and rather remarkable house concert, informally gathered together (though with perfect sightlines) to see and hear the finest, best played, and most restorative music available.




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Orientalism on the Stage

By pure chance, I suppose, the first three performances I saw in New York this season were all afflicted with Orientalism, that hokey variety of East-West fusion which Edward Said brought to our collective attention a number of years ago. This Euro-American take on things Asian invariably includes a strange mixture of aesthetic admiration and moral disdain, seasoned with equal parts of fear and delight. That the mode continues to attract audiences, despite its increasing datedness, says something about its power. Whether or not we approve of it, it clearly has a kind of grip on us.

The most successful of these faux Far Eastern ventures was also the oldest of the three. Puccini’s 1926 opera, Turandot, is so over the top that a little simpleminded anti-Chinese sentiment is hardly noticeable; it seems to match all the other craziness that prevails in this bizarre plot. Opera as a form tends to be unreal anyway, and in this opera—which comes complete with a demonically dangerous Ice Princess and three riddles that lead to her suitors’ deaths—we don’t expect verisimilitude. My sanguine reaction to it may also have been helped by the fact that I don’t know Italian, so if characters named Ping, Pang, and Pong were speaking in pidgin, my ear wasn’t offended. And Puccini did benefit enormously from his attempt to integrate Chinese dissonances and rhythms into his regular Italian mode: the music shows him at the peak of his abilities, reaching modernist and Romantic heights almost simultaneously. For that alone, I was willing to forgive it a lot.

In this Met production, the title role was sung by the incomparable Christine Goerke, a soprano who can do just about anything with her voice (and in this opera just about had to). But though Goerke was excellent in her part, the show was stolen on opening night by a smaller player, the Georgian soprano Hibla Gerzmava, who had the role of the slave-girl Liu. This was not Goerke’s fault, but Puccini’s: he never really liked Turandot much as a character, so although he gave her the most difficult and impressive arias, he saved the melodic heart of the opera for Liu, who sacrifices herself in high Romantic mode, bringing tears to the eyes of all but Oscar Wilde–like cynics. Calaf, the man who inspires both this sacrifice and Turandot’s ultimate capitulation, was played here by Marcelo Alvarez, who did a beautiful, unselfconscious job with his “Nessun dorma,” making it seem like a normal piece of singing rather than the To-be-or-not-to-be of opera. The production, an old one by Franco Zeffirelli, was typically yet suitably excessive: the audience actually applauded the most extravagant of the three sets, thereby proving that their Orientalism and Zeffirelli’s were perfectly in sync.

More dated than Turandot but still within the realm of enjoyability was the Lincoln Center production of The King and I, which has already been going for months. Here the pidgin English (as exemplified in famous songs like “Is a Puzzlement”) was truly embarrassing, and though this production has probably provided employment to half the Asian singer/dancers in New York, it still gives one a queasy feeling to see them bowing and scraping in the manner demanded here. On the star-performer front, Kelli O’Hara was terrific in the central role of Anna—I don’t think any actress could do that part better—but I’m afraid I sorely missed Yul Brynner as the King, especially in the polka of “Shall We Dance.” For a mid-century-born American, there can be no pretense of objectivity about this musical. The songs are so catchy and so memorable that I felt myself internally humming along (with complete internal lyrics) on most of them.  And though the movement is at times stereotypical, Jerome Robbins’s ballet for the “Small House of Uncle Tom” sequence remains gripping and novel; as a choreographer, he really seems to have used the possibilities of dance cross-fertilization sooner and more intelligently than anyone else in his field.

The least successful of the three performances I saw was, oddly enough, the only truly Asian one. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan was appearing at BAM last weekend, and I took this opportunity to see a dance group I’d heard much about over the years. I was not exactly disappointed—the skill of the dancers alone was worth showing up for—but I found myself slightly bored.  The evening-long piece was called Rice, and it dealt with all the tropes familiar to me from Pearl Buck: watery green fields, men threshing with sticks, women giving birth in the midst of work. I longed to see something novel, but what choreographer Lin Hwai-Min gave me instead were mainly recycled movements from Asian martial art and Western modern dance. So I consoled myself with the details. In particular, I couldn’t take my eyes off the female dancers’ marvelously prehensile toes, which seemed to have the agility, the flexibility, and the unnatural length of a skilled pianist’s hands. The men were slightly less impressive, but only because they were rarely allowed to do anything unaggressive; they were trapped in Bruce Lee mode. The failure here, it seemed to me, was largely one of choreographic imagination—as if the desire to bring the true Asia to an American audience had foundered on the clichés imposed by the least subtle forms of both Eastern and Western art.


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The Power of Performance

Last Saturday I attended yet another musical marathon, this one devoted to Schubert’s final year. He died in 1828 at the age of only thirty-one, in terrible health but with all his musical faculties working overtime. This I had learned, along with much else, at Ara Guzelimian’s wonderful lecture, delivered the previous Monday as part of Music@Menlo’s “Encounter” series. Out of the three solid weeks devoted to Schubert at this year’s Music@Menlo festival, I heard only the Guzelimian lecture and the final concert, but the festival regulars who had been immersed for 20 days seemed, if anything, avid to hear more. It was as if the composer’s desperation to continue against all odds had somehow transmitted itself to his eager listeners nearly two centuries later.

The Saturday marathon began at 5:00 with two string quartets that Schubert apparently loved, Haydn’s op. 103 and Beethoven’s op. 131. I don’t know the Haydn well, but the Beethoven is one of my very favorite pieces of music, and it was part of the reason I had decided to drive an hour south to attend this concert. Yet the performance by the young Dover Quartet left me completely cold. It was not that they were actively bad—they hit all the proper notes, there was nothing wrong that one could point to—and yet the music completely failed to come alive. Oh, dear, I thought, and we have hours still to go. I should have stayed in Berkeley and gone to my friends’ cocktail party instead.

Things perked up somewhat in the middle section of the program, which featured late Schubert songs accompanied by Wu Han on the piano (joined in one case by a French horn player and in another by a very able clarinetist). Nikolay Borchev, the baritone who sang three of the four songs, had already strutted his stuff during Guzelimian’s lecture, so I knew he was good, and on Saturday I especially liked the way he performed the dark, creepy Der Doppelgänger. But the real surprise of this segment was the soprano Joélle Harvey. Hearing her beautiful, expressive voice intertwined with José Gonzalez Granero’s clarinet in Der Hirt auf dem Felsen was only part of the joy; the rest lay in Harvey’s profound evocation of the music’s emotion, which arose from her combination of intense dramatic ability and complete lack of pretense. Okay, I thought, things are looking up.

But I really had no idea how high they could go. The final section of the program consisted entirely of Schubert’s 55-minute String Quintet in C Major, performed by Arnaud Sussman and Benjamin Beilman on the violins, Lawrence Lesser (no relation, at least that I know of) and Keith Robinson on the cellos, and Paul Neubauer on the viola. These musicians do not form a regular group, so any practicing they did came about purely for the purposes of this performance. Yet I have never heard such perfection in terms of vivid, mutually reinforcing, delicately complementary collaboration. Every moment was alive with feeling—a feeling which could shift on a dime, as assertive vigor gave way to pensiveness and melancholy and then to a thrilling resurgence of delight. The mood shifts happened over and over again in what seemed, because of the intensity of the performance, to be a single moment of time, even as it also, miraculously, managed to cover every possible span of narrative and musical experience.  I don’t think I have ever heard a performance quite like it. Under no circumstances would I have said, before last Saturday night, that Schubert’s Quintet was a better piece of music than Beethoven’s op. 131—and yet that marvelous performance forced me to feel that it was. Nothing can compare to having one’s ears opened in this way. It brings you to life not only for the duration of the performance, but for hours afterward, long past the point when the music itself has faded from your mind. Cocktail party, shmocktail party, I thought. This time I definitely made the right choice.





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Translating the Past

Before we get to the end of July, I want to acknowledge the two most compelling art events I took in during the month of June.  One was a concert, the other a book, and both raised some interesting ideas about translation, re-interpretation, and our present connection with the past.

The first was a Beethoven concert at Davies Hall, accurately described by the San Francisco Symphony as a “Beethoven Marathon.” It lasted from 7:00 p.m. to nearly midnight on Saturday, June 20, and purported to be (and, for all I know, was) an exact recreation of Beethoven’s Akademie concert held on December 22, 1808, in Vienna. MTT and his excellent orchestra were joined on this occasion by some illustrious guests, including the soprano Karita Mattila and the pianist Jonathan Biss.  The program included both Symphony 5 and Symphony 6, plus three lengthy choral pieces (the final one of which was the crazy, fun Choral Fantasy), plus the Piano Concerto No. 4.

Having set themselves this imitative task, the SFS were stuck with Beethoven’s order and length, and that restriction had minor disadvantages. I could have done, for instance, without at least one of the choral pieces. But set against this were the brio and skill with which the whole program was performed, not to mention the increasing enthusiasm—laced with an unavoidable element of self-congratulation—on the part of the hardy, devoted audience members who lasted the full distance. I did not feel I was getting Beethoven as people of his time would have heard it, but I felt I might be getting something even better: a version of his (apparently very unsuccessful) evening that turned all the old failures into triumphs. There is something amazing about hearing those two great symphonies in one evening, each one filling a very deep musical need which Beethoven himself both created and answered. And then to have, on top of that, Jonathan Biss’s transcendent interpretation of the Fourth Piano Concerto, which seemed to make of it an entirely new and yet faithfully old piece of music—well, it was heaven.  Heaven, as I understand it, is supposed to go on forever, and this concert certainly did, but that was one of the good things about it.

My other noteworthy event was Alessandro Manzoni’s novel I promessi sposi, translated into English as The Betrothed. Manzoni wrote and published the novel in the  early nineteenth century, but he set it much earlier, in the romantic vagabond-and-troubadour era of seventeenth-century northern Italy. His main characters are two peasant-class lovers who are kept apart by the machinations of an upper-class villain and his henchmen, who include a cowardly priest, a casually sinful cousin, and a gaggle of house-trained criminals. The events of the tale are entertaining enough in a picaresque kind of way, but what really keeps the story moving along is the voice of the narrator. Like Cervantes in Don Quixote, Manzoni purports to be copying much of this material from a scribe who came before him, with equally witty results. He is tied, he keeps insisting, to the tale as it was given him, and can’t therefore explain things fully; he is stuck, that is, with the written record.  This results in formulations like “But what else he did we cannot tell, as he was alone; and history can only guess. Luckily, it is quite used to doing so.”

As you can tell from just those sentences, the translation is a dream. Fortunately for English-speakers, this Italian masterpiece was brought into our language by Archibald Colquhoun, the same genius who gave us the one and only translation of Lampedusa’s The Leopard. To witness Colquhoun faithfully following Manzoni as he faithfully offers up his (wholly made up) historian’s tale is to be launched into the vertiginous regions that Borges liked to occupy.

As with the Beethoven Marathon, The Betrothed had its longeurs:  I wasn’t sure, for instance, that I really needed to hear every available detail about the plague that struck Italy in the 1600s, decimating its cities and towns. But sticking with the program as it had been laid down by the long-dead creator was part of the pleasure of this adventure, just as it had been with the concert. And whereas you may wait quite a while before Beethoven’s Akademie concert appears on a stage near you, you can rush right out and get the Manzoni/Colquhoun novel right now—and I highly recommend that you do.  I don’t know how I managed to get this far in life without reading this major Italian work of literature, but certain books have a habit of lying in wait for us until we are finally ready for them. The Betrothed, for me, was one of them.




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