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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One of the most rewarding things I’ve done in the past month is to see all three films in The Apu Trilogy for the first time in about forty years. They were showing at Film Forum in a beautifully restored version, and I saw them at roughly weekly intervals—the only way to do it, I think, since each film leaves you so filled with intense emotion that I can’t imagine going from one directly to the next.

Made in the 1950s on a shoestring budget by Satyajit Ray—then a young, untried director, working with a largely amateur cast and crew—Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar (this last generally translated as The World of Apu) must certainly be among the greatest movies ever made. They trace the life of the boy Apu from his birth in rural Bengal (prior to the division between West Bengal and East Pakistan) to his youth in a small village, his higher education in Calcutta, and beyond. At each phase, you think that the other movies cannot possibly top the one you are seeing, because each delves so deeply into the lives of the characters—not just their individual psychologies, but also their social class and environment, the way they eat and dress and move, the visual quality of the landscape around them. And each time, anew, you are surprised by how much Ray (a last name shared by Apu and his director) can elicit from the material. This is realism with a heightened, stylized quality, but realism nonetheless; by the end of the series, cheer and despair and every participatory emotion in between have been wrenched from you.

I remembered almost nothing from my college-student viewing, except for a few powerful visual elements:  a child running, an eye peeping through a cloth opening, rain falling on water, the transcendent beauty of a young bride, a father opening his arms to his son. But I retained a sense of foreboding that often proved, in relation to specific characters, to be correct. What I missed the first time around, because I had never been to India or Bangladesh then, was how true this portrait of a landscape and its culture was and would remain. And what I missed, because I was too young to know anything at all, really, was how fully these movies carried through on the promise inherent in film. At its best, film can be a medium that dives right into you and mixes with your own feelings and becomes one of your own experiences: in that sense it is not like reality, it is reality. And The Apu Trilogy is film at its best.


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Musically and dramatically, the production of The Rake’s Progress that I saw last night at the Met was practically perfect. From the moment Paul Appleby appeared onstage in the central role of Tom Rakewell—swinging his arms and shuffling his feet with casual grace, connecting viscerally with Layla Claire’s charming Anne Truelove, and singing Auden’s clever words in his strong, delightful, clear tenor—I knew we were in good hands. The good hands were those of Jonathan Miller, who developed this production nearly twenty years ago and is responsible for its overall intelligence. They were also the conducting hands of James Levine, who brought forth Stravinsky’s compelling music with verve and understanding. They were the designing hands of Peter J. Davison, who created the marvelous, understated yet beautiful sets, and Judy Levin, who oversaw the costumes, and Jennifer Tipton, who did the lighting. And some of these good hands were voices: the mellow hilarity of Stephanie Blythe as Baba the Turk, the eerie threat of Gerald Finley as Nick Shadow, and so on.  But to distinguish among these individual contributors seems false to the sense of the performance as a whole, which had that coherence which only the most truthful productions manage.

If I had a complaint, it was about the three- or four- or sometimes five-minute waits we had to sit through, often in complete silence, as the sets were changed between scenes.  Was there nothing to be done about this?  No, there was not, if we wanted to get the full effect of Davison’s great backdrops. And besides, I came to feel that those moments of curtain-falling black-out were like the spaces between the individual images in the Hogarth series that inspired this opera. Miller was certainly alluding to the Hogarths at times in this production—particularly in the madhouse Pietá, where Anne held the broken Tom in her arms—so it made sense for the opera scenes to exist separately yet also in combination, as they do in the original sequence of paintings. (An aside on those paintings: you can see Hogarth’s engravings of The Rake’s Progress just about anywhere, but to see the painted versions, you have to go to Sir John Soane’s house in London and ask the guard to open the special cabinet doors for you.  At least, that’s how it was done when I first saw them, and it was a rare and unforgettable treat.)

The silence during these breaks between scenes eventually became, for me, part of the sound of the opera. It was a particularly twentieth-century sound: neither atonal nor melodic, neither sung-through nor spoken, but somehow allowing everything that reached our ears—including speech, including silence, including the clatter of objects thrown on the ground—to attain the quality of music. This too is part of the show, and it is real, as this theater space with you in it is real, and not just imaginary: that is what the silent breaks were hinting to us. So we were ready to hear it explicitly, and were able by then to fully take it in, when the opera’s intelligent, moving epilogue told us exactly that.

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Berlin Diary

I was in Berlin for nearly three weeks, so you’re not going to hear about everything I saw or heard. You won’t, for instance, hear about the Telemann Death of Jesus performed with a twenty-first-century Requiem, nor the piano recital accompanied by videos of the pianist’s artworks, nor the two Stabat Maters on one Kammermusiksaal program, nor the excellent modern program (including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time) presented by Spectrum, nor any of the great art collections and gallery shows I visited. And you won’t hear about my side-trip to Amsterdam to go to Mark Padmore’s version of the St. Matthew Passion at the Concertgebouw, because that will come up in a future issue of Threepenny. But believe me, there is plenty left over. If you get bored, you can just start skipping.

Monday, March 23: Angelin Preljocaj’s The Nights at the Deutsche Oper. Dance is usually not good in Berlin, but I never give up on it, because over the years I have seen a few highlights (my first sighting of Polina Semyonova, dancing with the Staatsoper Ballet; some good Sasha Waltz productions; and perhaps one or two other things). This Preljocaj ballet, though, might be the worst piece of dance I have ever seen in my life. It was filled with bare-breasted young woman (they looked about sixteen or seventeen at the curtain call) doing supposedly sexy things with a bunch of equally fit male dancers. The gestures were repetitive beyond belief, and apparently Preljocaj can’t think of anything for people to do at night but have sex:  there were no dreams or nightmares, no sleeping, no anxiety-filled insomnia, no early-dawn birdcalls—nothing but recycled Berlin-nightclub-style (but this is to insult Berlin nightclubs) sexual shenanigans. I would have left at the interval, except there was none; the concert was just over an hour, and it felt like three hours. I wanted to boo and hiss at the end, but since I was a foreigner, I just protested by keeping my hands firmly clasped in my lap while the rest of the audience applauded wildly.

Wednesday, March 25: Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. This visiting orchestra was performing under the supervision of the Korean conductor Myung-Wun Chung, and since it was not the fabled Berlin Philharmonic itself, we were able to buy tickets at the last minute; my friends and I even got to sit in the seats I had always looked at longingly, the ones located directly behind the stage. This turned out to be the perfect vantage point from which to listen to, and especially watch, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The soloist in the Tchaikovsky, Maxim Vengerov, was fine (you have to be very good just to play this piece at all), but the real person to watch in this show was the conductor, Chung. He is an elegant man with an impassive face, and he barely moves a muscle as he conducts: it is like watching someone do minimalist tai chi, with the tiniest of gestures producing big results. Under his command, the French orchestra was especially good on the Berlioz, and hearing it from behind—overlooking the brass and the drums directly, with the strings in the far distance—gave the piece a novel power I had never experienced before.

Friday, March 27: Daniel Barenboim conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. This too was at the Philharmonie, and it was again guest performers, though this time of such an audience-attracting nature that we had to buy tickets well in advance. Frankly, I enjoyed the French/Korean performance more. Barenboim and his players were good on the Pierre Boulez pieces that started the program; they were especially good when they played one of the Boulez pieces twice, in two different arrangements. And they did a lovely piece of spontaneous Bach at the beginning, in honor of the 149 passengers who had just died in the Germanwings crash; that was perhaps the most moving element of the concert. But the main feature, Schubert’s Ninth, was a bit of a slog, especially compared to the thrilling way Simon Rattle and his Berlin Philharmonic perform it. Barenboim’s and Vienna’s rendering of the symphony was too stately and heavy, not sprightly enough, so that its rom-pom-pom repetitiveness won out this time over its more usual virtues.

Saturday, April 4: Richard III at the Schaubühne Theater. A friend had an extra ticket to this and assured me there would be English subtitles, so I gladly accepted—and when my Berlin hosts learned I was getting to go, they practically gnashed their teeth in envy, because the play had been sold out for weeks. The draw here was Lars Eidinger, the actor playing Richard in this Thomas-Ostermeier-directed production. Eidinger is a phenomenon we don’t have here, a popular yet highly regarded stage star—as opposed to movie or television star—and when I saw him in action, I could understand why. His Richard was hardly Shakespeare’s (though most of the lines came directly from Schlegel’s translation); it was instead Richard as rock star, grabbing a dangling microphone to deliver his soliloquies, limping and loping about the stage like a hyena on the loose, baring his all (to the point of being stark naked at times, except for the strapped-on hump), and throwing a series of ad-lib challenges and insulting jokes at the audience. It was the kind of thing that in other hands might have annoyed me, but once I let go of the idea that it was supposed to be Shakespeare, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Eidinger is indeed a wonder, a charming, intensely physical actor who not only revels in his connection with his audience, but feels completely comfortable in his own skin—a rarity in this land where body-hatred is the dominant mode, in dance and even in opera.

Sunday, April 5: Tannhäuser at the Staatsoper. As exemplified, for instance, in this Wagner production. I had never seen the opera live before, and this production came highly recommended, so I moved heaven and earth to get one of the rare tickets and was very glad I had.  But first, the dance. Even though it was directed by Sasha Waltz—perhaps even because it was directed by Sasha Waltz—the dancing was almost as atrocious as the Preljocaj crap I had seen at the Deutsche Oper, and in similar ways. Again we had the bare-breasted women and the mind-numbingly repetitive gestures. The opening Venusberg number, performed in a gigantic tilted funnel that caused everyone to scramble around like Bambi on the ice, was particularly awful, but there was not one moment in which the dance enriched the performance: in fact, I started using the woman’s head in front of me as a partial blockade whenever the dancers appeared onstage. Luckily this senselessness did not destroy the opera, even at the narrative level, because the plot (which is never the high point in Wagner) made almost no sense anyway. Everything depended on the musicians’ and the singers’ ability to put across the emotional intensity of the piece, and this they more than succeeded in doing. Barenboim, here conducting his usual Staatsoper orchestra, did a superb job musically, and the soloists were beyond excellent—particularly Christian Gerhaher, whose performance as Wolfram von Eschenbach had a tenderness and delicate pathos I will never forget. No one ever wished this four-hour opera longer (to paraphrase Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost), but if I could have heard Gerhaher sing his final beautiful aria at double or triple its length, I would have been happy.

Thursday, April 9: Mahagonny at the Staatsoper. This one, on the other hand, caused me to walk out, it was so deadly dull. Brecht/Weill collaborations need to be done with a somewhat louche, trashy, let’s-put-on-a-show manner if they are to succeed as intended. The opera was given high production values of the most obnoxious sort, and it featured singers who had good voices but couldn’t act. The funny parts weren’t funny and the sad parts weren’t sad.  Everyone was just going through the paces, being perfectly professional—which is exactly the wrong tone for this searingly self-undermining piece.

Saturday, April 11: Damnation of Faust at the Berlin Philharmonic. I had purposely prolonged my stay to this final weekend in order to see Simon Rattle conduct this concert-style piece (is it an opera? an oratorio? a thing-unto-itself?), and the experience was even better than I had hoped. I have seen several live Damnations before, including a very good one conducted by Gergiev in St. Petersburg and a very bad one staged by Robert LePage at the Met, but this was of a different order: I was on the edge of my seat at every moment, and the music seemed absolutely new in so many ways. Joyce Di Donato, in the Marguerite role, was her usual superb self (though there were loud coughers, damn them, in the audience, who sometimes got in her way), and the other soloists were terrific as well. The chorus, too, was hair-raisingly great. But it was the feeling of the performance as a whole that really got to me. I would not have said before that I loved Berlioz, but that evening I certainly did, and so did everyone else.

Sunday, April 12: Christian Tetzlaff with the Bundesjugend-Orchestre. This too was at the Philharmonie, and this was the other event that kept me in Berlin until the final weekend. To hear Tetzlaff, my favorite violinist, perform Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in the Philharmonic Hall would have been gift enough; to hear him against the background of the Youth Orchestra to which he belonged as concertmaster thirty years ago was moving beyond belief. Under the baton of Karl-Heinz Steffens, the young people did their revered soloist proud. And when Tetzlaff had left the stage, and the kids played Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, with all its drumrolls and cymbal-clashes and singlings-out of the various instrumental sections, the concert became moving in an entirely different way. It bore intense witness to the fact that classical music is still alive and well among the younger generation, at least in Germany. At the end of the performance, as these talented teenagers took their bows looking outward from the stage of the grand Philharmonic, they couldn’t help but break into excited grins; and when the conductor finally left the stage for the last time and the applause began to die down, the young musicians threw their arms around each other in delighted relief. I have to say, it moved me to tears.

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Apologies for the long gap between my last post, on January 19, and this one. My excuse, if you need one, is that there was not enough to write about in February, and far too much in March and early April. I will try to put together a lengthy posting in the next few days describing some of the marvelous things I saw and heard during the past three weeks, when I was staying in Berlin and going out almost every night. But for now let me just observe that this gap points out the way in which regular cultural blogs—or, for that matter, daily or weekly reviews in print format—are somewhat untrue to the way art actually works on us. Good art, art that is truly worth writing about, comes in spurts: nothing much for a very long time, and then such a profusion, such an intensity of experience, that it barely leaves room to put pen to paper (or, in this case, fingers to keyboard).

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Dramatic Music

Two different kinds of dramatic music were paired at last weekend’s San Francisco Symphony concerts, and both were a success, though in very different ways. One had plot, characters, words, even narration—a veritable orgy of theatrical elements. The other, though it had vocalists, was dramatic in almost entirely musical terms. It allowed us to experience the whole arc of a theatrical event, culminating in an intense and accessible climax. It gave us the theatrical satisfactions of motion, of conflict, of change. And yet it did so without a single comprehensible word.

That wordless piece was John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, conducted on the Davies Hall stage by the man who composed it thirty-two years ago. It featured two grand pianos (grandly played by Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham), three vocalists (a trio of two sopranos and an alto who call themselves Synergy Vocalists), and a range of background instruments—including tuba, glockenspiel, piccolo, tambourine, and a number of other brass, woodwinds, and percussion—that veered forward into solos at unexpected moments. The sensibility was, to begin with, Minimalist, with a lot of repetition and near-repetition, especially on the pianos and in the vocalists’ non-meaningful syllables. But it eventually modulated into something more complicated and overpowering than that. Its thirty-minute length seemed like no time and all time: we had clearly been somewhere, by the time we got to the end, but the visit we paid was to no country any of us had ever seen before—at once melodic and dissonant, harsh and tender, archaic and new. It felt to me like the work of a brilliant young man who was putting everything he had into a single piece and hoping it would work.  It did.

The second and last piece on the program was a concert version of Stravinsky’s 1918 L’histoire du soldat, rendered into English so that it could be taken in like a musical play—something like Peter and the Wolf, say, though without Prokofiev’s obsessively instrumentalized characters. The Stravinsky was a party piece in every sense of the word, part of the Symphony’s weeks-long celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas’s 70th birthday. MTT, who conducted the whole performance, also briefly played the role of The King; the other parts were spoken by Elvis Costello (The Narrator), Malcolm McDowell (The Devil), and a talented young Bay Area actor named Nick Gabriel (The Soldier). The band was small but lively, with only seven musicians making enough good music, both incidental and pointedly lyrical, to carry the whole show, even had there not been a complicated folktale plot to follow.

Everyone’s performance was both casual and professional—a difficult feat to pull off, and one that made the audience feel as if we too had been brought into the small circle of this work’s early performances, in nightclubs during the First World War. The sound was jazz transmuted through some alien sensibility, somewhat as if a multi-talented Martian had come down to earth, decided become a jazz musician and, amazingly, pulled it off. This phenomenon was well explained by the program note, in which Stravinsky himself was quoted as saying that at the time he composed this piece, “My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written.” A curiosity, perhaps, but one well worth reviving, as the delightful SFS performance amply proved.

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There’s a wonderful new place to listen to music in San Francisco, and it’s called SoundBox. Formerly an acoustically dead rehearsal area at the back of Davies Hall, it has been transformed through the miracles of deconstructed architecture, rock-concert lighting, bartenders-in-attendance, and the remarkable Meyer Sound Constellation system into a terrific setting for the San Francisco Symphony’s most experimental evenings.

I missed the December opening of this novelty, but I caught the January program on Saturday night, and it was fun from beginning to end. In order to get a seat (because at only $25 a ticket you are not guaranteed one), my companions and I arrived when the doors opened at 8:00 and had an hour to sit admiring the setting as we drank the cunningly curated cocktails. This is one of the great innovations:  as at Le Poisson Rouge and Subculture in New York, SoundBox allows you to drink while you listen to classical music.

But SoundBox dwarfs those New York spaces. A massive, bare-bones, concrete-reinforced elongated cube, multiple stories in height, it has the feel of one of those converted Berlin warehouses devoted to art. Tables with adjoining stools and a series of round padded benches are sprinkled across the floor, leaving ample space in between for those who come late and have to stand with their drinks. The bar is at the back of the room and remains pleasingly inert during the actual performances. One stage is along the side and the other at the front, and the audience can turn to face them as they’re alternately used for the evening’s chamber-sized performances. Behind each stage are several screens on which images, light-shows, and words can be projected.

The performance I attended was led by Joshua Gersen, a young conductor who recently finished a stint as MTT’s assistant at the New World Symphony. His introductions were lively, intelligent, and to the point, as were those of the individual performers (and, in one case, composer) featured during the evening.  There was a clear effort to connect with the audience, but it was never condescending; the conversation was simply part of the whole friendly atmosphere. The musical program, in order of appearance, consisted of selections from John Adams’s Shaker Loops; two movements from Mark Volkert’s Serenade (Volkert is an SFS violinist and was there to introduce as well as play in his composition); the whole of Heinrich Biber’s Battalia; part of Bach’s glorious First Cello Suite, plus a very recent Irish-inflected cello solo by Mark Summer (both gorgeously performed by SFS cellist Amos Yang); a sequence of songs from Britten’s Les Illuminations, with the Rimbaud words sung by visiting tenor Nicholas Phan; and the whole of Milhaud’s Le Boef sur le Toit, originally intended as the soundtrack for a Charlie Chaplin movie but hijacked by Jean Cocteau for a ballet.

The evening was labeled “Curiosities,” and both the twentieth-century Milhaud and the seventeenth-century Biber fell squarely into this category; the others pieces were just, to one degree or another, appealing and in some cases great pieces of music. My only real complaint is about the excerpting (it was painful to hear the Bach cut off in its prime), but I fear it is necessary to the kind of wide-ranging program SoundBox envisions—that is, you can’t cover this amount of new ground without cutting out length. And even with the cuts, the evening lasted until well after eleven, which lent it part of its excitement in this otherwise early-closing town.

Far from diluting my ability to listen, I found that the drinks, the talk (both from the stage and, during the intermissions, with my companions), and the lighting effects all enhanced the musical experience. It was great to be attending a classical concert with the kind of crowd—a young, attentive, but not overly serious crowd—that could afford the $25 tickets. Being in that huge space was marvelous, and getting to hear acoustically perfect music in it was amazing: a gift to concert-goers everywhere provided by Helen and John Meyer and their stunning invention. If this is the future of classical music, I am all for it.

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Shostakovich Redux

When you spend years writing a biography of a creative figure and thinking about everything he did, you might expect to be sick of him once the job is over. I thought I might be done with Shostakovich when I finished Music for Silenced Voices. But I was wrong. Whenever I hear his great music again, the love for him that got me to write the book in the first place surges back, and I feel I will never reach the end of him.

This realization struck home twice in this past month: once at the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Metropolitan Opera, and once at a concert titled “Shostakovich Reflected” that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center put on in Alice Tully Hall. In each case, I was reminded how much Shostakovich is and always will be my guy: how proud I am of him, how much I sympathize with the conflicts that wracked him, and how little I will ever fully come to grips with the extent of his genius.

I had only seen a filmed performance of Lady Macbeth before, so this live production, though it had its shortcomings, was a revelation. The cast was superb, as actors as well as singers, and the Met orchestra couldn’t have been better. Musically, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. If Graham Vick’s direction left me cold—not to mention confused, with its achronological intrusions and overdone gestures—that was a minor problem compared to the strength of the opera itself. I could easily have watched the whole thing two or three times, despite the nonsensically Magritte-like sets and the distractingly silly costumes, which were especially harmful to the serious emotions of the second act. Vick appeared to have read the killing Pravda review of the 1936 Moscow performance (which alleged that “love was smeared all over everything in the most vulgar manner possible”) and to have taken this message to heart as a kind of directorial instruction. But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t ruin the opera, for at every moment Shostakovich came to the rescue. There was not a single inert moment in the entire score; the excitingly dissonant, profoundly melodic, utterly surprising music was doing something new and fascinating at every turn. It only made me the sadder that this, Shostakovich’s second opera, was also his last—finished when he was less than thirty, and doomed to remain the final symbol of a powerfully original path not taken.

The Chamber Music Society concert later in the month featured two pieces by Shostakovich: a relative rarity, the “Seven Romances” (a 1967 song cycle that signaled a late return to his writing for the human voice), and the incomparably beautiful Second Piano Trio of 1944. I was happy to hear the “Seven Romances” —this, too, was something I had never heard in a concert hall before—but it was not, I felt, vintage Shostakovich. The piano trio was and is. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is one of my favorite pieces of twentieth-century music:  every time I hear it, and especially when I hear it live, it seems even more wonderful to me, with its strange combinations of pathos and humor, brilliance and simplicity, vigor and silence. The three young musicians who played it this time—Soyean Kate Lee on the piano, Yura Lee on the violin, and Jakob Koranyi on the cello—did it as well as I have ever heard it done, and that is saying a great deal. Shostakovich himself was the work’s first pianist, and I own that recording, which I treasure. But a recording can never be more than a frozen object, and so I was exceedingly grateful to the CMS performers for bringing the piece to life yet again.


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