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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A Dreamlike Alcina

Ever since I saw an incredible production of Handel’s Alcina at the San Francisco Opera about a dozen years ago, it has been one of my very favorite operas. I listen to the CDs all the time (I have the historically inaccurate but wonderful Joan Sutherland recording), and I try to catch up with live versions whenever I can. When I saw that Carnegie Hall was presenting a concert version last Sunday, I couldn’t resist, though I figured it would just be a faint reminder of what I loved about the full-fledged opera.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. This Carnegie performance of Alcina, put on by Harry Bicket’s English Concert and an enviable roster of great soloists, has now upstaged the marvelous San Francisco opera performance in my greatest-hits-ever list. It’s not just that the musicians were excellent and the acoustics better than anything I’ve ever heard in an opera house. It’s not just that Bicket and his soloists wisely decided to do a “semi-staged” version, in which the singers acted out their roles with facial expressions and evocative gestures, even as they wore concert clothes and carried scores. It’s that, moment by moment, this was the most emotionally gripping, powerfully dramatic version of the opera I’ve ever seen. It turns out that Handel doesn’t need sets or even costumes to come across; he just needs highly intelligent, remarkably skilled performers.

Top of the list was Joyce DiDonato as Alcina herself. I didn’t recall this sorceress role as being so much the center of the opera that bore her name, but DiDonato certainly made it that. She has always had a beautiful voice, but in this case her singing was magical: she captured every one of us in the audience, just as a sorceress should, so that in the silences between her quiet notes you could actually hear nothing—not a pin dropping, not a program rustling, not a cough or a sneeze or even a deep breath. We knew we were hearing something the like of which we would never hear again, and we were suitably enchanted. (It didn’t hurt that DiDonato was wearing a girlishly punk hairstyle and a Maleficent-style dress, so that she seemed both over-the-top and completely unpretentious. But whatever she was wearing, we would have been her rapt slaves.)

Great as she was, though, she couldn’t have done it alone. The opera worked because every one of her supporting cast members brought her or his full self to the role. Alice Coote was a terrific Ruggiero (as she had been in my original San Francisco experience), Christine Rice a charming Bradamante/Ricciardo, Anna Christy and Ben Johnson a hilariously moving Morgana and Oronte, Wojtek Gierlach a great, deepvoiced Melisso, and Anna Devin an enchantingly ingenuous Oberto.  The band played beautifully, too, especially the duo of horns, the solo cello, and the solo violin.

Yet even all these stellar contributions, taken separately, could not have added up to what I saw on Sunday, had there not been some special chemistry involved. Call it DiDonato+Bicket+ Carnegie+Handel. Call it whatever you like: the hallucinatory drug, perhaps, that is Handel at his best. The young woman who had the seat next to me, a jazz pianist who knew nothing about opera, commented on how involving she found it. Was this what opera was like?  ”Hardly ever,” I told her. “This is as good as it gets.”

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Simon’s Band

I first came to love music, I mean really love music, by listening to the Berlin Philharmonic during  a semester spent in Berlin. I was an avid fan that whole fall, not only attending every concert I could get tickets for, but also squeezing my way into occasional rehearsals. I got to love the building itself—not the scaly gold exterior, but that warm, intimate, beautifully shaped, acoustically perfect auditorium. I got to love the musicians, who together formed a miraculously unified yet personally distinctive ensemble. And I especially got to love the way Simon Rattle connected with both his players and his audiences, making us feel we were all part of the same exciting endeavor.

So whenever I am in the same town as the Berlin Phil, I go again, and each time I have that same sense of discovery. Over the last ten days I got to hear them four times in New York—three times at Carnegie Hall, once at the Park Avenue Armory—with results that ranged from intense satisfaction to delirious delight.

The first Carnegie concert (a longer version of the gala for which the high-flyers had paid a fortune the night before) took place on Thursday the 2nd and featured Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Some people felt that the former was a bit of flash performed brilliantly while the latter was the meaty substance; others felt the reverse. (I was in the former category, a friend I spoke to at intermission in the latter). But Simon and his band clearly felt that both pieces equally deserved their serious attention, and their conviction made the entire experience compelling. The program made me realize, for one thing, how late Romanticism could blend almost seamlessly into early Modernism; it also brought home the fact that both these Russian works were essentially about dance. At the end, Rattle returned to his podium during the fourth standing ovation, quieted the audience with his hands, and asked in a friendly tone, “Do you want us to play something else?” The roaring crowd yelled, “Yes!” and was duly treated a lovely instrumental interlude from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.

The next two concerts, on Sunday the 5th and Monday the 6th, were mildly less exciting, mainly because they consisted almost entirely of Schumann symphonies. The Berlin Phil is capable of making me love almost any composer (I became a Brahms convert after they did all four Brahms symphonies here a couple of years ago), but Schumann may pose too high a barrier—though Berlin friends who heard Rattle leading mixed Brahms-Schumann concerts there in late September told me it was a revelation. Our New York concerts could perhaps have used some Brahms to fatten them up.

The Monday concert benefited from having an interlude of Georg Friedrich Haas between Schumann’s 4th (which Rattle played in its earlier, lighter edition) and Schumann’s 3rd, which ended the program with a bang. The Haas, dark dreams, was a new piece written in 2013, and its twenty-three-minute duration could have been either five minutes or an hour: once you got into its musical zone, which involved hair-raising string-and-horn creepiness mingled with ominous drum rolls, solemn gongs, and even occasional solo melodies, you lost the sense of where you were in time and just drifted. I was grateful for its novelties and thrilled by its depths, but the grumpy old guys sitting around me (at least one of whom had slept through the initial Schumann) were clearly upset by the unexpectedness of having to listen to something new. When a small portion of the audience began booing at the end—an almost unheard-of event at Carnegie—one of my seatmates muttered his agreement with the naysayers, adding: “I hate that kind of muck!” Such attitudes made the rest of us feel a bit as if we were attending the original Rite of Spring.

The high point of the Berlin Phil’s visit, though, was their performance of the Saint Matthew Passion at the Park Avenue Armory, where they had recreated the seating structure of the Philharmonie auditorium so as to stage Peter Sellars’s production in the round. I had seen this Saint Matthew before, in Berlin, and while I did not buy tickets to either of the two New York performances (prices for this White Light Festival event started at around $275 and eventually reached a scalped $800), I managed to get my class of writing students into the all-day Saturday rehearsal, courtesy of Sellars himself. He generously seated us about ten feet from the stage, right in front of all the action, and my students and I were in heaven. We got to see 45 minutes or so of actual rehearsing, with Simon Rattle speaking quietly to the singers and players (sometimes in German, sometimes in English), getting them to redo certain bits and focusing on subtle acoustical questions while the chorus stampeded around the hall to its designated marks. And then, even more importantly, we were treated to a full run-through of the whole show, with a lunch break in the middle.

I had been moved by the performance in Berlin, but I was even more moved here, where I could read every line in English supertitles as it was being sung. And it was remarkable to sit so close to Mark Padmore as he rendered his intensely physical, searingly emotional Evangelist, the transmitter through whom this whole account of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion comes to life—comes to life even, perhaps especially, for us agnostics in the audience. I had told my students beforehand that if they were sure they were not going to write their papers on the Saint Matthew they could go home at the break if they got too tired, but almost all of them stayed for the whole 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. experience. And when I left at the end of the afternoon, I felt that my class and I had witnessed something irreplaceably wonderful. It seemed even better than a real performance would have been, because we got both the intensity of the full concert—granted to us at very close range—and the intimacy of being part of its making.

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Tetzlaff’s Triumph

David Hume says somewhere in his philosophical works that you can’t be proud of the Pacific Ocean—the idea being that you need to have some sense of relationship or ownership to warrant pride, and no one can own the Pacific Ocean. I, as a native Californian, have nonetheless insisted on retaining a certain unearned feeling of pride about the Pacific Ocean, and now I find I have the same sense about a few beloved performers whose concerts I’ve been following for years. Christian Tetzlaff’s achievements have nothing at all to do with me: I had no part in giving rise to them, and they would be exactly the same if I did not exist. Yet when I hear Tetzlaff play all six Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin in one evening, the emotion that wells up in me feels very much like pride.

Perhaps I am just proud of the human race for producing a violinist who can bring so much to these remarkable pieces and, at the same time, render them exactly in Bach’s spirit.  Or perhaps I am just pleased with myself for having managed to hear Tetzlaff accomplish this miracle twice, both times in the same place, in the main auditorium of the 92nd Street Y. The first time I heard him do it, about five years ago, I had no idea what was about to take place, so I was stunned both by the performance itself and by my own feelings of transcendence in the face of it. This time I knew better what to expect, but the transcendence still hadn’t gone away. The astonishing thing about Tetzlaff’s achievement, as a physical feat, is that he is able to sustain this unimaginably difficult performance for so long; and yet what happens to you, as you listen, is that time seems to disappear, so that the whole 136 minutes of playing becomes like one “spot of time,” as Wordsworth might have put it.

In last Thursday’s concert, just as in the one I heard in 2009, Tetzlaff played all six pieces in order, by heart: Sonata 1, Partita 1, Sonata 2 (then an extended intermission placed exactly in the middle, so that he could eat cookies to restore his strength and we could rush out for a quick meal), Partita 2, Sonata 3, Partita 3 . And as before, but perhaps in an even subtler way, the six pieces became a single work telling a continuous story. It was a story without a plot and without characters, but it had a great deal of narrative color and enormous shifts of mood, from quiet moments of contemplation, when you almost couldn’t hear the notes (but you always could, every single one), to fast, intense passages that made his fingers fly so quickly you could barely see them. For the first five works, Tetzlaff was relatively solemn, for him. He curled over his instrument, stayed rather still, and often closed his eyes or lowered them to his fingering. (For tunings between movements, he even turned away from us, toward the back of the stage, as if to signal: please ignore, this is private, I am not really here onstage during this part.) But when he got to the sixth piece, the final partita, he relaxed back into his usual lightly dancing, joyous, comfortable self, as if to say: Yes, I’ve done it, here we are at the end, and wasn’t it wonderful? And it was.

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Glass and Reich

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

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

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

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Up Close

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

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

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

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

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Perfect Programming

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

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

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

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

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

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Purposeful

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

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

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

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Impromptu

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Four Nights of Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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