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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Three months between error and correction is an awfully long time, and occasionally more than one issue passes before I discover my mistakes, so I’ve decided to use this blog entry to rectify some of the errors I’ve made in the quarterly printed issues of The Threepenny Review.

First, in my article “Great Performances“ in the Spring 2014 issue, I wrote that the opera Die Frau Ohne Schatten was “the final collaboration between Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstal.” It was not; it was the fourth.  (I’ve since corrected this in the online version, so if you’re not one of Threepenny‘s print readers, you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that the error was there.)  I discovered my mistake when I went last night to the Met’s current production of Arabella and found out that it was their last collaboration.  It’s true that Die Frah Ohne Schatten is a vastly better opera than Arabella, which in plot terms is little more than an operetta; it’s also true that Hofmannstahl died midway through that final collaboration, after completing only Act One of the libretto.  Still, none of this excuses my error, which appears to be the result of pure fantasy on my part.  I can find no evidence for it in the Met program for Die Frau, which in typical obsessive-compulsive fashion I appear to have saved; and Wikipedia tells me that they completed a fifth opera together, Die ägyptische Helena, in 1927, so I can’t even claim that Die Frau was the final completed one.  I was very sorry to discover my silly error last night. I was not at all sorry, though, that I went to see Arabella, despite the fact that it is basically a piece of fluff, because the performances were so fine—particularly that of Michael Volle, the baritone who played Mandryka, Arabella’s love interest.  If all good opera singers could act as well as Volle, every opera performance would be a delight: he lit up the stage with both his voice and his manner every time he appeared.

My second mistake appeared in the article “Smaller Spaces,” which ran in the Fall 2013 issue of The Threepenny Review.  In singling out the virtues of New York’s smaller performance spaces, I mentioned a dance concert I had seen in “the fourth-floor studio space” of the Mark Morris Dance Center.  The choreographer himself recently sent me a friendly note of correction.  The studio, as it turns out, is located on the fifth floor, not the fourth, and it is a fully outfitted 140-seat theater called the James and Martha Duffy Performance Space—not, as I had implied, simply a rehearsal studio with bleachers dragged in on special occasions.  I appreciate the gentleness of the correction (“for the future,” Morris’s note suggested) and apologize for the inaccuracies.

The third mistake is one I did not make personally, except insofar as the editor is responsible for all errors that appear in her magazine.  In Winter 2014 we ran a very intense article about homelessness by Howard Tharsing; then, in the Spring issue, we ran a letter that included a minor correction of it.  Now I find that the correction itself was wrong.  But let me offer the final clarification in the form it reached me—an email headlined “Third time’s the charm?” that ran, in full:

“In your Winter 2014 number, Howard Tharsing’s chilling account of underclass America, ‘The Visible and the Invisible,’ mentions a PBS NewsHour story reported by ‘Paul Solomon.’ Then, in the next issue, a letter to the editor laments your copy editing and notes that my name is actually spelled ‘Paul Solmon.’ But according to my birth certificate, the personalized pencils I got when I was seven and my Social Security checks, among other sources, I am,

Paul Solman”

Thanks, Paul, for your humorous understanding of our fallibility.  And now I hope that’s enough apologizing for one day.  Onward to the next error!



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Thrilling Television

I’ve just finished watching the first season of The Americans (okay, so I’m late to the party), and I can barely wait for Season Two to become available.  This is the most exciting new show I’ve seen since Breaking Bad ended.  It meets my Number One requirement for addictive serials:  I can’t watch less than the full disk the day it arrives from Netflix, so even if there are four episodes in a row, I am glued to the TV set for the duration.  It also meets my Number Two requirement:  I keep thinking about the characters between viewings, going over their dilemmas, wondering what’s going to happen to them next.

Set during the Reagan-era Cold War, the show features a pair of Russian spies who have been planted in America and instructed to blend in.  Elizabeth and Philip Jennings speak perfect American English, live in suburban Maryland (conveniently close to Washington, D.C.), have two lovely children, and officially run a travel agency together. Unofficially, they are two highly trained secret agents who as young people were assigned to each other by the KGB.  The conflict between the official and the unofficial—not only in terms of their concealed identities, but also in terms of the problems this “marriage” faces and overcomes—forms the heart of the show.

The fact that it is set in the 1980s means that—as in great films like The Conversation, or great thrillers like Le Carré’s Smiley novels—the technology is not so advanced as to dwarf the human element.  There are implantable listening devices and coded transmitters, but there are no cellphones or Internet search engines, so all of the characters, both KGB and FBI, have to rely on a lot of personal and collective ingenuity.  Thus the level of tradecraft, like the level of plotting, is part of the fun of the show. But the interest goes deeper than this, for, perhaps to our surprise, we find ourselves identifying with the Russian characters and especially with our central couple.  It is they, and not the rather unpleasant FBI agents, whom we sympathize with in the cat-and-mouse games; we are always glad when Elizabeth and Philip escape unscathed and undetected.  And if they occasionally commit horrendous acts, well, these are generally less shocking than the equally cold and violent behavior of their American counterparts.  I have heard the show called “cynical,” but I would say it is the very opposite: a series that creates real feeling about people we wouldn’t necessarily expect to like.

Finally, and above all, this is a show about marriage, and an intimately fascinating one at that.  The thoughtfully written script helps make this possible, but what really does the trick is the acting, and in particular the performance of Matthew Rhys, who plays Philip.  Donning various wigs and costumes as part of his job, he can disguise himself so completely that he truly seems to be another person; yet in moments of silent communion with Elizabeth he can also convey, with the lift of an eyelid or the twitch of a lip, immensities of intimate feeling.  Rhys is one of those British actors (he is Welsh, originally) who have come over to enrich our television screens, as people like Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Clarke Peters did in The Wire—and, like them, he plays an American better than most Americans could.  He is performing, that is, exactly the same kind of role that his character is:  persuading us that he is just one of us, and getting away with it.

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Two Book Recommendations

One of the nice things about running a literary magazine is that you get advance copies of many books, arriving for free at your doorstep. I have always taken full advantage of this gift.  At the end of each workday, when I am in Berkeley, I habitually sit down in my most comfortable chair, a kir or a vodka tonic beside me, and read something for a couple of hours. It might be an old book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, but more often it’s something new off the review shelves.  This month, I was rewarded with two excellent books that are coming out soon.

One of them is not actually new, but a reissue—Geoff Dyer’s first novel, The Colour of Memory, which came out in England in 1989 but has never before appeared here. Graywolf is putting it out in May, bound together in an ingenious manner with his second novel, The Search, a strange book which will delight those drawn to the offbeat progeny of a marriage between Raymond Chandler and Italo Calvino. I myself, though, vastly prefer the first novel, where we can already hear Dyer’s characteristic voice and—even more surprisingly—find references to many of his lifetime obsessions.  Jazz, photography, slothfulness, travel, sport, drugs, drink, the English language, the effects of class, the pairings and conflicts of men and women:  all these things he was eventually to write essays and sometimes whole books about are packed into this little first novel. But the great thing about it is its tone, which is neither snide nor wistful, but sharply contemplative, with the typical (and typically pleasing) Dyer humor underlying it all. That the book happens to be about a group of mainly unemployed London friends is neither here nor there—plot is always the least of Dyer’s concerns—but its closeness to his own youthful autobiography perhaps helps lend The Colour of Memory its strong air of truth.

The second book that gave me great pleasure this month might even be a masterpiece: Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude, which is due out from Random House any day now. I am a longtime fan of Li’s work and have read all her books, which to date include her first novel, The Vagrants, and her two books of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. Though The Vagrants is a fine novel, I would have said, if asked any time before this past week, that she excelled at the short story. Now that I have read Kinder Than Solitude, however, I’ve changed my mind. It is a novel with the compression and psychological intensity of her stories, yet with an overarching structure—three central characters with different viewpoints on the same originating events—that is truly novelistic.

This is the kind of book you have to read slowly. I, who generally zoom through things, found myself going back and rereading individual sentences at the rate of about one per page.  This is not because the sentences are beautifully poetic (though occasionally they are), but because they are actually expressing new ideas in word combinations that are unexpected, so you have to reread them to understand exactly what they mean.  There is nothing ungrammatical or unidiomatic about this book—its English is perfect—and there is nothing blatantly “experimental” about its use of language.  This is novelty carried on at the highest level, where experiences most of us have had in some form or other have been re-examined and re-described in ways that make them new. The book does have a plot, but any attempt to convey it would be a radical simplification.  For instance, I thought of describing those three central characters as friends since high school, and then I realized that neither “friends” nor “high school” nor even “since” was quite the right word. You will have to read Kinder Than Solitude (great title, too!) to see what I mean, and you will be grateful to me, I know, for having recommended it.


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Why I Read

This is just to let you know that my new book, Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, is out today from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. I feel a bit abashed at tooting my own horn, but if I don’t do it, then who will?  Nothing much happens to an author on the official pub date:  the reviews have already started (good ones came in last Sunday from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and the Dallas Morning News), and the readings have yet to commence.  So I am celebrating January 7 in my own way, by telling you about this new book, my tenth, which happens to be on a favorite subject of mine.  You can sample the introductory chapter at today’s Huffington Post, and maybe you’ll want to buy the whole thing—at your local bookstore, I hope, if such a thing still exists near you, and otherwise from one of the many online sources.  Enjoy!

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A Japanese Novelist

Why are we not all reading Natsume Soseki?

Last year I was introduced to his best-known novel, Kokoro, by a professor of Japanese literature at Berkeley. It was terrific and I was grateful, though not so grateful as to immediately seek out more of Soseki’s novels. I can’t explain why, except that the experience of reading that one was completely satisfying in itself, and also sufficiently odd (Soseki is a master of tiny gestures and inconclusive endings) that I didn’t feel the experience could be duplicated.

Now, however, Columbia University Press has issued Light and Dark, his final, unfinished novel—he died when he was in the midst of publishing it serially, in 1916—and surely his masterpiece.  Because of Soseki’s habitual inconclusiveness, the unfinished bit doesn’t matter that much:  it is not like being dropped cold at the abrupt termination of Edwin Drood, but more like being let down gently at the end of a Chekhov story. Yet the Russian writer whom Soseki most closely resembles here is not Chekhov, but Dostoyevsky.  Like Dostoyevsky (and like Jane Austen, whom Soseki apparently loved), he has learned how to create obnoxious characters that grab you by the throat and won’t let go. Like Dostoyevsky (and also like Henry James, another English-language influence on Soseki), he can stretch every emotional confrontation between two people into a seemingly endless encounter, a psychological endurance test for readers and characters alike. Yet unlike these more familiar writers, he does so in the startlingly modern context of early-twentieth-century Japan, against a background in which Freud, Cubism, and revolutionary politics vaguely figure. The novel explores the young married life of a couple named Tsuda and O-Nobu, each of whom is self-centered and somewhat despicable but also strangely sympathetic, even—or especially—when they find themselves at odds with each other.  It is something like Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, but without the excessive melodrama, and with far more interiority on the part of the two main characters.  I have never read another book like it, and I don’t expect I ever will, but it has made me a Soseki convert for life.

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Perfect Beckett

It’s been over two weeks since I saw the British production of All That Fall at 59E59, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Rarely have I seen a Beckett play performed so movingly or so delicately.

What Trevor Nunn’s production has going for it is that it both honors and transcends the script’s origins as a radio play. First performed in 1957, All That Fall is in many ways more naturalistic than the more familiar Beckett stage works. It features smalltown Irish voices essentially going about their daily business.  Mrs. Rooney, an elderly, perhaps overweight, certainly rheumatism-ridden woman, makes her way to the local railway station, where she meets the incoming train of her blind husband, Mr. Rooney, and brings him home. Nothing much, and nothing terribly shocking or surreal. But the bite of the sorrow, when it enters in, is severe, and the pain of existence ever-present.

The Beckett estate has held closely to this work, refusing to allow it to be performed as an actual stage play. I first read it in the early 1990s, when I was following around the director Stephen Daldry, who wanted to put it onstage (he never managed to). Last year I attended a version at BAM’s Fisher Theater which seated the audience in rocking chairs and left them in the near-dark to listen to recorded Irish voices. It made the play seem so tedious that I would have hesitated to give it another try, had it not been for the presence of Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon in the 59E59 performances.

And their presence is really what made the play. Trevor Nunn staged it as a radio play being recorded live, which meant the actors all carried scripts and spoke into dangling microphones. There was a trace of scenery—a tubular object which could serve as a car (Mrs. Rooney hitches a brief ride into town) as well as a generalized piece of the derelict landscape. And we could see the actors, live, as they waited quietly on the sidelines and then moved centerstage to speak their lines. It was especially important to be able to watch Eileen Atkins, who was onstage the whole time, and who brought to this central role all the capacities of her expressive face, voice, and body. As she interacted with various townspeople on her way to the train station (there are about five smaller parts in addition to the two main ones), many small, engaging, humorous moments mingled with the prevailing sense of despair; at such times, the play was almost fun, the audience rejoicing audibly in its collective appreciation.

And then, as Michael Gambon stepped into his role from his chair on the side of the stage, the emotion darkened and the audience fell completely silent. This great actor has recently reported problems with his memory: he has had to cease performing regular dramatic roles, resorting only to non-speaking characters or to the rare part like this, which allowed him to read from a script. Yet this very handicap intensified his performance, causing us to wait breathless on the edge of our seats, hanging on his every word. It was as if the blindness of the fictional Mr. Rooney had been transmuted into the stage-fright and memory-loss of the actual Michael Gambon, so that the guiding hand of Eileen Atkins (who, in true trouper fashion, here took on a literally supporting role) was necessary to get him through the part. The section of the play in which Mr. and Mrs. Rooney alone held the stage—that is, roughly the last third of this seventy-five minute script—was among the finest twenty-five minutes I have ever seen in live performance, anywhere. You could sense the palpable suffering shared between these two people; you could feel his lostness and fear, her cranky but affectionate sorrow. And you could hear the words Beckett wrote, almost as if they were taking shape in the air like a thick atmosphere surrounding, and in effect giving rise to, these inimitable, pathetic, valiant characters. It was magnificent.


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News Flash

It turns out—to no one’s great surprise—that Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato, now a quarter-century old, is as amazing as it ever was. In fact, like many of the best works of art, it seems to have accumulated extra layers of meaning in the course of its long life.  Or so it seemed to me as I watched it on Saturday at Lincoln Center, exactly twenty-five years to the day after its first performance. If anything, this grand evening-length performance—a celebration of Milton’s seventeenth-century poetry and Handel’s eighteenth-century music as well as Morris’s abundant choreographic imagination—was richer and more galvanizing than ever.

Part of what I found so moving, this time, was its splendidly persuasive utopianism. How can a work that begins in melancholy and ends in mirth—that starts in autumn, essentially, and concludes in spring—strike us as so beautifully true? I can’t answer this question.  I can only say that if this great work comes to your vicinity, you should see it, preferably as often as possible. I attended two of its three recent performances at the White Light Festival, and my only regret is that I didn’t see the third.

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The Pacificas (Again)

I’ve already had my say, at length, about how great the Pacifica Quartet is, so when I set off for their Zankel concert last night, my only intention was to listen for the pleasure of it. The performance was so spectacular, though, that I feel obliged to make a few remarks.

The concert consisted of two long pieces: the Piano Quintet of 1927 by Leo Ornstein before the intermission, and Beethoven’s Opus 130 with its original long ending, the Grosse Fuge, after. I had never heard the Ornstein before, barely even heard of it, and though I’m not yet sure how I would rank it against  either the Schumann Piano Quintet or the Shostakovich Piano Quintet (two of my favorites in this genre), I was thrilled to hear it for the first time. The pianist was the marvelous Marc-André Hamelin, who found the piece and brought it to the Pacifica Quartet; Hamelin has recently been rediscovering and playing a lot of work by Ornstein, a twentieth-century composer whose life spanned the whole century—he died in 2002 at the remarkable age of 108—but who essentially disappeared after the 1920s. As you listen to the mingled excitement, romanticism, and discord of the Piano Quartet (performed with miraculous exactitude and exemplary vigor by all five players), you can sense to the full the year 1927, with all its anticipations and thrills. You stand as if on the edge of a brave new world of art, music, literature, theater, dance, and film, in which everything seemed about to change forever. No wonder Ornstein felt he couldn’t adapt to the drab, depressed world that followed.

Beethoven’s Opus 130 is something else again. It is of its time, I suppose, but it is for all time as well, and in the right hands it can seem a newly minted piece every time it is played. The eight hands of the Pacifica Quartet are exactly the right hands.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more satisfying performance of this complicated, much-loved, occasionally resistant work. In their version, the Grosse Fuge was not just an appropriate but a necessary ending to what had come before. Having thoroughly explored every mood from quiet tentativeness to melodic romanticism and harsh distress, we were rewarded at the end with a feeling of emphatic exhilaration. I felt it coming, as I always do with this rousing ending, and yet I was surprised at the same time: that’s how good the Pacificas are.

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Going to hear a musical group you’ve never heard before always entails a risk, but the risk tends to be less with Baroque music, which—if it is played at all—is usually played at a fairly high standard. The risks in this case are all small ones: that the period-instrument performance will be rigorously academic in mode, or that you will be lulled into tepid enjoyment by the familiar strains of familiar music, or something innocuous like that.

Arcangelo, I am happy to say, transcends even these small risks by taking bigger ones. This young British company, conducted by the harpsichordist Jonathan Cohen, played at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall last night, and I suspect I am not the only newcomer to their audience who felt that the evening went from good to great. What made the difference was Arcangelo’s willingness to venture out of the world of pure music and into the realm of staged song.

The Bach violin concerto which opened the concert was fine, if slightly willful in its sedulous avoidance of any tinge of romantic inflection (but can unadorned Bach ever be a bad thing)? Next up, though, we had a cantata from a different Bach:  Johann Christoph, a cousin of Johann Sebastian’s father, who had chosen to arrange a passage from the Song of Songs in a movingly simple plain-chant sort of setting. The soprano for this performance, Katherine Watson, was so terrific that I actively missed her when we moved on to the purely instrumental Handel concerto that closed the first half, even though Handel may well be my favorite composer of all.

Imagine my delight, then, when the piece after the intermission turned out to be a full performance of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne cantata, featuring not only the wonderful Watson as the nymph Daphne, but also an equally fantastic Russian baritone, Nikolay Borchev, as the proudly aggressive god who was chasing her. Somebody (my suspicions lie with Jonathan Cohen) had gone to a great deal of trouble to stage this unstaged mini-opera in a way that brought out both its meaning and its emotional depth.  The acting skills of Watson and Borchev helped, too.  When she staunchly defended her virginity, she was shrill and pinched; when he boasted about his masculine prowess, he was sickeningly self-confident and vain. You didn’t have to understand a word of Italian to follow the plot.  And when, after tracking her around the circumference of the stage (where she had been cowering behind the bass player), Apollo suddenly grabbed Daphne by the shoulders, he was left holding a sprig of greenery as she fleetly disappeared—a lovely piece of stage magic that utterly complemented the intense beauty of the voices. I understood, as if for the first time, why Handel’s vocal music needs to have so many repeats:  because the line of sung melody is so gorgeously expressive that we want to hear it again and again.

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