12 October 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/41

The Parklands

(originally entitled Pour Envoyer à Sir Oliver Lodge)

Through the Parklands, through the Parklands
Of the wild and misty north,
Walked a babe of seven summers
In a maze of infant wrath.

And I wondered and I murmured
And I stayed his restless pace
With a courteous eye I held him
In that unfrequented place.

Questioning I drew him to me
Touched him not but with an eye
Full of awful adult power
Challenged every infant sigh.

"Of what race and of what lineage,"
Questioning I held him there,
"Art thou, boy?" He answered nothing
Only stood in icy stare.

Blue his eyes, his hair a flaxen
White fell gently on the breeze,
White his hair as straw and blue
His eyes as distant summer seas.

Steadfastly I gazed upon him
Gazed upon that infant face
Till the parted lips gave utterance
And he spake in measured pace:

"All abandoned are my father's
Parklands, and my mother's room
Houses but the subtle spider
Busy at her spinning loom.

"Dead my father, dead my mother,
Dead their son, their only child."
"How is this when thou art living
Foolish boy, in wrath beguiled?"

"Ask me not," he said, and moving
Passed into the distance dim.
High the sun stood in the heavens,
But no shadow followed him.

Stevie Smith

Pour envoyer à Sir Oliver Lodge means to be sent to Sir Oliver Lodge, who was an English physicist and also President for several years of the Society for Psychical Research. He lived from 1851 to 1940. He saw no contradiction between his scientific studies and his interest in Spiritualism; in fact it was his work on electro-magnetic radiation that bolstered his belief that a spirit world existed in a light-related ether that filled the universe (this theory on the nature of light and the universe was undermined by twentieth-century developments in physics). Lodge was drawn to Spiritualism even before his son was killed in World War I, though after the war such deaths led many parents and grieving friends to try contacting the dead through seances.

Sir Oliver Lodge is one of those fascinating odd characters whose fame gradually vanishes with time, so I enjoyed looking up information on him, but I also wish Smith had deleted the reference. It tips her hand on what's really going on in this odd encounter; beneath the spooky trappings there is a weirdly comic clash between an assertive and cluelessly rational adult and a mysterious child.

The spooky trappings I mentioned start with the poem's form: it's a ballad, a form associated with ancient, often anonymous, tales, frequently dealing with murder and the uncanny. Ballads are typically quatrains with a 4-3-4-3 beat, rhyming abcb, which is what we find in this poem. Smith furthers the association by using archaic language, though some of these terms might also be dialect current in the rural north: thee and thou, babe of seven summers, stay meaning to halt, and race and lineage to mean parentage. North itself is a direction traditionally associated with witches and Satan, and the poet emphasizes the connection with the supernatural by calling it the wild and misty North. Parklands is a fairly common English name for fields and woods surrounding an aristocratic estate, lending a touch of Gothic romance to the setting of this poem. Ballads often use repetitive language, and Smith starts us off with Through the Parklands, through the Parklands and later gives us Questioning I drew him to me and Questioning I held him there as well as I gazed upon him / Gazed upon that infant face and also Dead my father, dead my mother, / Dead their son among other examples.

The first stanza immediately sets the stage and introduces the strange child: only seven, but wandering alone through the neglected parklands, in a maze of infant wrath – that's such a great line! Anyone who's spent any time with children will have seen such outwardly inexplicable, inwardly revolving anger – I remember being in such states myself. There's something a bit comic about this child stalking about, stewing in his own juices, in the way babies have of sometimes looking like Winston Churchill, but there is also something deeply touching in the image of this troubled child; maze suggests that he is trapped inside what seems like an endless series of false starts and wrong turns; maze might also bring to mind the Labyrinth (though there are technical distinctions between the two types of traps), which might suggest a monster lurking at the center.

The fifth stanza, the description of the boy, is one of those pauses in the action that intensifies suspense. It also heightens the oddness of the child, as even the resolutely forthright and down-to-earth speaker is struck by something strange in his appearance. His hair is pale as straw or flax, his eyes as intensely blue as "distant summer [and therefore presumably cloudless and clear] seas". These comparisons link him to the vast natural world, rather than to any human setting. Even his stare is icy (another reminder of the wild and misty north). The language here, too, uses the repetition characteristic of ballads.

The narrator is amusingly full of herself, feeling free to stop the child because she wonders at his restless pace, conscious of her courteous eye despite her awful [in the sense of awe-inspiring] adult power, which allows her to challenge a total stranger merely because he is a child whose behavior she finds peculiar. She is aware enough of the proprieties, however, so that she does not touch him (and of course, touching him would reveal his corporeal state). The boy, too, has been brought up in a certain way, and responds to her questions in measured pace (perhaps contrasted to the restless pace of his walk). She gazes upon him steadfastly until she receives an answer, which she will promptly reject as nonsensical. You feel that steadfast gazing is pretty much how she gets through the world.

He tells her that his father's estate is abandoned, and his mother's rooms are empty except for the spiders that move in when housekeeping lags (the spider busy at her spinning loom nicely evokes a world of fairy tales, and the mysterious enchantments that often involve spinning wheels). Then, perhaps understanding the type to whom he is speaking, he spells out the situation explicitly: Dead my father, dead my mother / Dead their son, their only child. Yet our narrator persists in her comically dense mode: How is this when thou art living / Foolish boy, in wrath beguiled? She refers back to the infant wrath that led her to stop him in the first place. Beguiled suggests that he has been charmed or enchanted by wrath – and perhaps he has been, though not in the way she means. She suggests that his anger has led him to state something foolish and wrong. But perhaps his wrath is what moved his spirit to walk his father's abandoned lands (we are given no information on how, when, or why the family perished).

The imperious child refuses to enlighten her further (and what more can he say than what he's already said?). He passes into the distance dim, a nicely alliterative way of suggesting a ghostly vanishing. At the very end comes the kicker: the sun is high in the sky, but the boy casts no shadow. The poem ends with a spectral chill in the bright sunlight: is this enough to make even our narrator realize what she has been speaking to?

This is from the Collected Poems of Stevie Smith. I first heard of Smith when I went to see Stevie, an interesting movie about the poet, which I was drawn to mostly because Glenda Jackson was the star. It was released in 1978 , seven years after the writer's death. Unfortunately it seems to be currently unavailable. One of my minor goals with this series has been to post something by Smith that is not Not Waving But Drowning, easily her most famous poem, so I can cross that one off the list.

07 October 2015

the glory of the Glory of Spring

Last Sunday night I was in Berkeley's First Congregational Church for the first performance in centuries of Alessandro Scarlatti's La Gloria di Primavera, written in 1716 to celebrate the birth of a male heir to Charles VI, the Holy Roman Emperor. The boy (the little baby Archduke Leopold) died a few months later and the serenata was shelved. Scarlatti died nine years later, Charles VI died twenty-three years later, the Holy Roman Empire expired ninety years later, and the manuscript lay there through it all, waiting for Professor Benedikt Poensgen to rediscover it and Philharmonia Baroque to bring it back to life.

Little Leopold was born in spring, which was the inspiration (though that is probably not the right word for the adequate and overlong libretto) by Abbate Nicolo Giovo. The seasons gather to debate which of them deserves the most credit for helping in the production of the Hero-baby, because now that he is born war will give way to peace. (This part is not entirely hyperbole; there had been several wars related to the Hapsburg claims to various thrones, and the hope was that Leopold's birth would prevent another one. As it happened, his early death meant that another war of succession had to be fought to place his sister Maria Theresa on the throne, an historical fact that gave the libretto an occasional depth of poignant irony unearned by its intentions.) Anyway Jove shows up in the second half and eventually (spoiler alert!) gives the palm to Spring as the season of actual birth.

The piece itself is like one of those baroque ceilings that are officially about The Apotheosis of X or the Triumph of Something Good Over Something Not As Good; what really makes you spend hours straining your neck staring up is not the official program but the mad extravagance of ornament, the swirling lights and shades, the glowing draperies, the fruits and flowers, insects and birds crammed in just for the pleasure of their company, the heedless and generous magnificence of the whole thing. Scarlatti's music is like that, cloaking the libretto's sycophantic conceits in a sumptuous flow of varied invention. Most of the music is at a high level of liveliness – a trumpets-sounding sort of thing – and as such it certainly plays to the jaunty strengths of conductor Nicolas McGegan and his band.

The singers were also consistently strong. It would be difficult to single out a favorite from among Nicholas Phan's virile tenor, the mellifluous self-satisfaction of baritone Douglas Williams's Jove, the limpid countertenor of Clint van der Linde, or the glowing harmonies of mezzo-soprano Diana Moore and soprano Suzana Ograjenšek.

As you may have gathered, I was not a big fan of the libretto, which doesn't really rise above its praise-of-the-ruling-caste genre. For us it's little more than an excuse for the orchestra and singers to do their thing, from imitating the Danube's flow to praising peace. I'm all in favor of peace, and flowing rivers: so does the libretto actually matter in any significant way? There is one thing: it goes on too long. Scarlatti's inventiveness never lags, and neither did the performers' energies, but the audience's might have. The concert lasted nearly three hours (though that does include an absurdly long intermission), which is not unusual for a big vocal work from the baroque period but is maybe not what any of us were expecting (even PBO; the program book said the run-time was "about two hours" and I assume they would have had the sense to start earlier than 7:30 if they had known the length of the piece; of course there is no performance history for them to go by). When it got to be 10:00 several people just got up and left (there was no libretto in the program, so there was no way of knowing how much longer it would last). It's too bad, since there was so much pleasure to be had from the performance. But I'll admit – though I'm abashed at how bourgie and Philistine it makes me feel, and sound –  that my spirits sank a bit when I realized how little sleep I was going to get before the alarm clock went off for Monday morning. It's just another argument for more rational start times that better fit the way we have to live now. Aristocrats in Naples didn't have these problems.

There are still some performances left (7 October at Stanford, 9 October at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and 10 October back in First Congregational in Berkeley) so if you are able to get to one you will have a splendid time and hear something old yet new. (Tickets are available here.) Even better news is that PBO is recording the piece and will release it a few months from now on their house label. The weakness of the libretto and the unexpected length of the concert don't really matter when it comes to a recording; this is definitely one to be on the lookout for. I assume they'll have to patch together the different concerts, since  despite numerous reminders that a live recording was going on, there were a few eruptions of hacking coughs, and a brief period of unexpected laughter when the houselights suddenly dimmed and then went back up during the performance. I don't actually know why that was considered funny, but a lot of people laughed. McGegan shrugged insouciantly and kept on. I would have preferred having the houselights down the whole time, anyway. It looked intensely dramatic and concentrated attention. And we did not need to look at the words in our programs because they used supertitles. I assume that was to reduce page-turning and paper-rustling during the recording but it was a welcome innovation no matter what the reason.

05 October 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/40

A Mood Apart

Once down on my knees to growing plants
I prodded the earth with a lazy tool
In time with a medley of sotto chants;
But becoming aware of some boys from school
Who had stopped outside the fence to spy,
I stopped my song and almost heart,
For any eye is an evil eye
That looks in on to a mood apart.

Robert Frost

In his beginning lines the poet intimates a sacred atmosphere. The slightly odd phrasing of the first line (down on his knees to the plants, rather than among or alongside) implies that he is kneeling down before the growing plants as one would kneel to God in a church (that is, with a feeling of reverence as before a greater power, not merely kneeling because it's a position that makes gardening easier). He is singing under his breath; more specifically, he is chanting, a vocal form usually associated with monasteries and medieval monks. Anyone who has ever tended to plants from seedlings to harvest must have felt this holy sense of kinship with mysteries – the miracle of natural growth.

Is it a symptom of our over-sexualized sense of language that I find sexual hints in "prodded the earth with a lazy tool"? It might simply be a way of saying that he is proceeding in a dreamy directionless way, rather than in the energetic and organized way you would need for regular work. In either case – erotic undercurrent or daydream, or both together – an essentially private and personal atmosphere is created, which joins with the sanctified hints to recreate the "mood apart" of the speaker.

But the mood lasts only a few lines before the outside world intrudes in the form of "some boys from school" who have stopped to spy. They are probably just curious about the strange sounds they hear, but we are seeing things from the speaker's point of view, and spy is his angry verdict on their motivation. When gender roles were more clearly divided than they are today, men were expected to be engaged in the outer world, the non-domestic (and often harsh and uncomprehending) world, in a way that women, at least women of a certain social standing, were not. (This is actually still true for men, but now this engagement is more likely to be expected from women, too.) For many boys, the entry into school marks the beginning of masking their wayward and unusual side, their dreamy separateness, to protect it from the coarse judgments of the harsh new society they will be forced to grapple with for the rest of their lives. Hence the appearance here of the spying schoolboys; they represent this world, casually but continually monitoring behavior for any signs of strangeness.

The poem begins Once, implying that we are hearing a recollection, an adult looking back on his younger days. The phrasing some boys from school suggests that the speaker knows them, that he is a classmate of the spies (perhaps, under different circumstances, a friend). As such, he is particularly vulnerable to the on-going ridicule that might result from this encounter.  As soon as he realizes he is being observed, he stops his song, and also his heart (almost) stops – there is a suggestion of fatality there, the stopping of a heart, but more strongly of fear, and the suspension or hiding of something personal and sacred. His lovely moment has been violated. But we aren't told how the boys actually reacted – did they mock him, did some defend him, did they find the whole scene boring? – because under these circumstances any eye is an evil eye: that is, any outside look or judgment is a fatal intrusion. What's important to him now is not how the boys reacted then, but his reaction to what he sees as their spying – his heart-stopping knowledge of potential exposure and, despite it all, his continued retention in memory of his broken mood.

In the last line, the sort of odd and clunky chain of prepositions ("looks in on to a mood apart") helps create an almost physical sense of the separation between the group looking and the individual boy's mood – you feel the prepositions stretch like treacherously slippery stones between two river banks. Looks in on suggests a more intrusive regard than you would get from such possibly more benign phrasing as looks upon. The boys might have said plenty of things, or nothing at all, but the speaker is indifferent to all that – any intrusion is unwelcome. Moods are by definition temporary things. This special one was shattered. Nonetheless, he keeps the memory of it, away from the others; hence his ability to recreate it in poetry.

This seemed like a good poem for the beginning of autumn, a time when we tend to draw inward (which is probably one of the reasons it is my favorite season). The poem is from the Library of America edition of the Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays of Robert Frost.

04 October 2015

an October update: Volti open rehearsal

Fabulous new-music choral group Volti is having an open rehearsal this Wednesday, 7 October, from 7:00 to 9:00 PM at the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco (1187 Franklin Street, right up from Van Ness Avenue, across from St Mark's Lutheran and near the Cathedral). The group and composer Tonia Ko will be working on a piece based on Virginia Woolf's short story Monday and Tuesday. Ko is Volti's Choral Arts Laboratory composer for this season (this is a program which gives a young composer the chance to develop choral-writing skills by developing a piece with the group).

The event is free but reservations are recommended and you can make one here.

02 October 2015

Friday photo 2015/40

Another one of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from May 20013, right before it closed for a three-year renovation. This is looking up from the main lobby.

29 September 2015

fun stuff I may or may not get to: October 2015

The Cutting Ball Theater opens its season with Andrew Saito's new translation of Pedro Calderón de la Barca's Life is a Dream, directed by Paige Rogers. The show runs from 2 October to 1 November.

Shotgun Players presents The Rover by Aphra Behn, directed by M Graham Smith, from 15 October to 15 November. Behn was featured in Poem of the Week last year; you can check it out here, so that if anyone asks you if you've read anything by her other than Oroonoko you can roll your eyes and say, "Yes, of course!"

Early / Baroque Music
Philharmonia Baroque presents an exciting rediscovery: La gloria di primavera / The Glory of Spring, a long-lost (three centuries is long) serenata by Alessandro Scarlatti, written to celebrate the birth of a royal infant who died shortly afterward, whereupon the work was shelved and forgotten. Nicholas McGegan conducts the revival, with soloists Suzana Ograjenšek (soprano), Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano), Clint van der Linde (countertenor), Nicholas Phan (tenor), and Douglas Williams (baritone), along with members of the Philharmonia Chorale. That's 4 October at First Congregational in Berkeley, 7 October at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford, 9 October at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco, and 10 October back at First Congregational in Berkeley.

The Lacuna Arts Chorale performs Victoria's Missa Ave maris stella and other hymns to the Virgin Mary by Villette, Górecki, and Pärt; appropriately enough that will be at Star of the Sea (4420 Geary Boulevard at 8th Avenue in San Francisco). That's 23 and 25 (matinee) October.

The California Bach Society led by Paul Flight presents Zelenka's Missa Votiva on October 16 (St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco), 17 (All Saint's Episcopal in Palo Alto), and 18 (First Congregational in Berkeley).

Cal Performances presents the Bach Collegium Japan, led by Masaaki Suzuki, in an all-Bach program on 24 October at First Congregational Church.

Modern / Contemporary Music
San Francisco Performances presents Thomas Adès and Gloria Cheng in a program of music for four hands on two pianos by Ligeti, Nancarrow (arranged by Adès), Messiaen, and Adès himself. That's on 30 October, and it marks SFP's return to the Herbst Theater, which is re-opening after two years of renovations.

The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players have a couple of events this month: on 21 October at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music the group will perform Death Speaks by David Lang, We Speak Etruscan by Lee Hyla, an improvisation by Kyle Bruckmann and Ken Ueno, and Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four songs to cross the threshold) by Gérard Grisey (there is also a preview concert on 20 October with just the Grisey).

Then on 24 October at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco they will perform Six Japanese gardens by Kaija Saariaho, Violance by Jean-Baptiste Barrière (preceded by an on-stage interview with Barrière). During the intermission there will be an on-stage interview with Saariaho, which basically means there is no intermission, because why would you mill around the lobby when you could listen to the composer? That is followed by Saariaho's NoaNoa and then Barrière's Time Dust.

Cal Performances presents the eco ensemble and cellist Anssi Karttunen led by David Milnes in three pieces by Kaija Saariaho: Notes on Light, Tempest Songbook, and Sept Papillons. That's 23 October at Hertz Hall.

There's a wide variety of concerts at the Center for New Music so take a look at their calendar here. A couple of things jump out at me: live accompaniment to Fritz Lang's Metropolis on 14 October and the Del Sol Quartet playing Terry Riley on 29 October.

In October the San Francisco Opera offers a revival of Jun Kaneko's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute and a new production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. We haven't lacked opportunities to see either one of these works but these revivals do have various enticements (and of course if you've never seen them, this is a good chance to do so!). In the Donizetti Nadine Sierra (replacing Diana Damrau) is the tragic bride and Piotr Beczala is her lover: Nicola Luisotti conducts. That's on 8, 11 (matinee), 13, 16, 21, 24, and 28 October. Please note that the Mozart is, for reasons unclear to me, sung in English, presumably in the same overly jokey version prepared by David Gockley that we had last time. I liked the production design quite a bit; you can read my thoughts here. Last time it was the casting of Papageno that persuaded me to attend yet another Flute, and this time as well it's a major enticement that the talented Efraín Solís is playing the bird-catcher. You can catch him and the rest of the cast on 20, 25 (matinee), 27, 29 October and 4, 8 (matinee), 12, 14, 17, and 20 November.

The Berkeley Symphony opens its season on 14 October with Music Director Joana Carneiro conducting the west coast premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Laterna Magica, along with Berlioz's Les nuits d'été (with soprano Simone Osborne) and Ravel's Bolero. The concert is at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley (where Saariaho is a visiting professor this fall) and it starts at 7:00 rather than the usual 8:00, due to the Opening Night Dinner, though I feel that starting all of their concerts at that hour would be sensible.

The Oakland Symphony (formerly the Oakland / East Bay Symphony) opens its season on 2 October at the Paramount with Music Director Michael Morgan conducting the west coast premiere of Devil's Radio by Mason Bates, along with the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 2 with soloist Kenneth Renshaw, selections from the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes (led by Choral Director Lynne Morrow), and Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances.

The San Francisco Symphony has Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Tchaikovsky Pathétique along with Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (soprano Susanna Phillips is the soloist) and Ted Hearne's Dispatches. The latter is conducted by Christian Reif and is a Symphony co-commission. You can hear this program 30 September and 1 (matinee), 2, and 3 October. I have mixed feelings about this program. I do like the Tchaikovsky and the Barber. I've heard other work by Hearne and I liked it. But I've heard the Tchaikovsky and the Barber recently and frequently, and the Hearne is approximately fifteen minutes long. Do I want to go to the trouble and expense of an evening at the Symphony for approximately fifteen minutes of new music? I'm glad that they don't segregate new music, but considering the proportionate amount of time scheduled for it, I can't help feeling that the Symphony is sticking it in there the way you might swaddle a pill in wads of cheese before feeding it to a sick dog. I am just frustrated by their lack of commitment to new, long orchestral pieces. The Berkeley Symphony usually has half of each program devoted to something contemporary – I wish the San Francisco Symphony would follow their lead.

Also at the San Francisco Symphony: Susanna Mälkki leads them in a Russian program featuring Shostakovich's arrangement of Dawn on the Moscow River from Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina, Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist Christian Tetzlaff, and the Prokofiev 5; that's 15 - 18 October (the 18th is a matinee).

The week after, Mälkki leads a program featuring the San Francisco premiere of Alma III: Soma by Jukka Tiensuu, along with the Sibelius 5 and the Chopin Piano Concerto No 1 with soloist Simon Trpčeski; that's 22 - 24 October.

And the week after that, Andrey Boreyko leads the orchestra in Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite, the Tchaikovsky Suite No 3, and Bartók's Violin Concerto No 1 with soloist Gidon Kremer. That's 28 - 30 October (the Thursday performance is a matinee).

Bay Area Cabaret presents Stephanie Blythe in an evening of songs associated with Kate Smith. If you've ever heard Blythe sing this repertory you know she'll be a knockout. That's 4 October at the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill.

Famed a capella quartet Anonymous 4 stops by as part of their farewell tour, under the auspices of San Francisco Performances. They will perform a variety of ancient and modern works on 18 October at St Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco (they will return to the same venue on 15 November with a program of music associated with the Civil War).

San Francisco Performance's Salon at the Hotel Rex series opens on 21 October with baritone Efraín Solís (who will also be performing Papageno in the San Francisco Opera's Magic Flute). These "Salon" shows start at 6:30 and are shorter than the usual concert. I have not been to them because Wednesdays are usually booked for me, but I hear great things about them. Solís will be performing works by Strauss, Poulenc, and Sondheim, as well as some new settings of poetry by Lorca, written for Solís by Jose Gonzales Granero.

At the San Francisco Symphony, soprano Christine Brewer joins organist Paul Jacobs for a wide-ranging recital on 18 October.

Chamber Music
Cal Performances presents the Takács Quartet on 11 October in a program of Haydn, Shostakovich, and Schubert (Death and the Maiden).

San Francisco Performances presents the powerful young Pavel Haas Quartet in works by Prokofiev, Beethoven, and Bartók; that's 12 October at the SF Jazz Center.

San Francisco Performances and the San Francisco Symphony present Sir András Schiff, playing final sonatas by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. Unfortunately the performance is in cavernous Davies Hall; that's 4 October.

See also the Adès / Cheng recital presented by San Francisco Performances and listed under Modern / Contemporary Music.

Cal Performances presents the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra in Cinderella, with Prokofiev's score and choreography by Alexei Ratmansky; that's 1 - 4 October (with two performances on 3 October) in Zellerbach Hall.

San Francisco Performances and the Yerba Buena Center present Sankai Juku, the famous butoh dance troupe from Japan. in Umusuna – Memories Before History. That's 9 - 11 October at the YBCA Theater.

Cal Performances presents Twyla Tharp's 50th Anniversary Tour on 16 - 18 October.

Visual Arts
The blogosphere's own Opera Tattler has an exhibit of opera- and pastry-themed paintings at the Borderlands Cafe, at 870 Valencia, running from 1 October to 30 November.

28 September 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/39

"There is a gold light in certain old paintings"

There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
             And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
             Share in its charity equally with the cross.

Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
             I say the song went this way: O prolong
             Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.

The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
             And all that we suffered through having existed
             Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

Donald Justice

Here are three vignettes. The first is, on the surface, a description of dramatic lighting in some Old Master paintings. At first, we see only the splendid gold light spreading through the canvas, and the paint conveys a feeling: it is like happiness, which, the phrasing suggests, is provisional, temporal, and not all that frequent: when we are happy. (The phrasing might also suggest that it is only like happiness when we are already happy, that our happiness changes the substance of what we're seeing so that it, too, shares and becomes our feelings.) This light, now associated with happiness, comes "from everywhere and from nowhere at once", suggesting again a sort of arbitrary and mysterious essence at work. Only at the very end of the stanza do we discover the specific subject of these paintings: the Crucifixion. So this light that is like happiness (even the word light suggests a buoyancy of spirit) is associated (and possibly has its source in) a scene of intense suffering but ultimate redemption.

Yet in the final two lines the light is disassociated a bit from Jesus on the cross; it falls on the cross but also on the soldiers sprawled below who were instrumental in this execution. There is a further nuance: they are seen as poor soldiers, which indicates mostly a sense of pity for them (those poor guys!), but also suggests their economic status (the army might have been their best way out of poverty; how much responsibility do they, mere instruments of the will of others, bear for state orders?), and also perhaps a hint that they are not so good at being soldiers (sprawling on duty seems like poor soldiering). The gold light falls on all of them, benign and with perhaps a certain amount of divine indifference (there might be an echo here of Matthew 5:45: ". . . for [your Father which is in heaven] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust").

The second vignette moves us from the Christian to the classical world, with Orpheus emerging from his trip to the Underworld in his vain attempt to rescue his dead wife Eurydice. Again the "story" is told mostly indirectly; we are more concerned with the Black River (which balances off the gold light we saw in the first stanza). We know we're in the Underworld because of that river, the River Styx, which flows between the worlds of the living and the dead (Styx is associated with a Greek word for gloomy and black is the traditional color of mourning). We see Eurydice as Orpheus did, only in a fleeting and final glimpse: a "beloved back" momentarily appearing and then disappearing forever. Orpheus hesitates just when he's almost reached success (he's already at the border of the Black River). With so much to look forward to, he looked back: his uncertainty and failure to move forward sabotage his approaching happiness, an act which might seem perverse if it weren't so essentially human.

Art is involved in this vignette as well; just as we were given an Old Master painting (though only indirectly and partially) in the first stanza, now we have music – at least, we think or assume that he sang then, because that is what Orpheus does, he sings; but the song is lost. Even in his sorrow there is some consolation in glimpsing his beloved: "At least he had seen once more the beloved back." Not even her face – even a glimpse of just her back is a consolation. Once again the final two lines add a twist to the stanza, as our poet takes over from the mythological poet and suggests a song that conveys some of our longing for continued life even when we are suffering: O prolong / Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong. As in the first stanza, art is a way of shaping and transfiguring  (and also highlighting) human suffering.

After scenes from the Christian and classical worlds, the third vignette is intimate, contemporary yet also timeless; you can imagine a pastoral poet of ancient Greece saying something similar (though no doubt substituting a suitable instrument, perhaps a lute, for the modern guitar). Family is invoked; the speaker addresses his uncle. Why an uncle, rather than a parent or a son or daughter or a lover? Perhaps it is to suggest that he is addressing a society larger than his immediate clan (uncle can also be a term of respect for an older man you are not related to).

The stanza begins with an understated but overwhelming truth: The world is very dusty. This is a description not of a cataclysm or disaster but of ordinary relentless troubles: it's impossible to keep dust from accumulating everywhere! There may also be a reminder here that the Bible has humanity created out of and belonging to the dust: "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Genesis 3:19) – in other words, as with the soldiers at the cross or Orpheus looking back before he should, perhaps these problems are inherent in our condition as humans – perhaps we are some of that accumulating, troublesome dust. Dusty can also imply that something is old and undisturbed, since the dust has settled on it so thickly; there might be a suggestion here of the weight of our knowledge of history.

I hear echoes in these lines of Hemingway's stripped-down and suggestive style, particularly in the definition of what is to be valued: that which is strong and clean and good. The lines are simple, rhythmic, and direct as a prophecy is direct: One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good. (For good means forever, but it also suggests that this change will be for the good.) The speaker says Let us work, but it is unclear how much, if anything, our labor has to do with clearing the earth of the sickness (a term both precise and vaguely evocative, suggesting not only physical failures but also psychic ones). Nonetheless, we work. The transformed world is seen in intimate, very local terms: The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar. An orchard in bloom promises sweet abundance; it also suggests human labor and organization (an orchard has to be planted; these aren't just random fruit-bearing trees). And again we have the presence of art transforming the landscape: someone will play the guitar (an intimate instrument associated with love).

Again, the final two lines send the stanza in a different direction: And all that we suffered through having existed / Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed. But our suffering is so essential to our condition, not just in this stanza, with the sickness and the dustiness of the world, but in the previous ones, in which both the Christian and the classical worlds are shown as permeated with loss and pain: we're being told that the thing that defines most of our lives will be forgotten. Yet we ourselves are not completely forgotten: we have also just been told that our work will be seen as worthwhile. This suggests that what we do (specifically, what we create: the gold light of the old painting, the invented song for Orpheus, our guitar-playing among the flowering trees we've planted) has a chance of lasting beyond our physical being and its attendant suffering.

The rhymes in this poem are restrained and musical. After an internal and charmingly four-square rhyme in the first line (gold / old), all the other rhyming pairs (the second and fourth and then the fifth and sixth lines of each stanza) are repeated words, occasionally with a different meaning. In the first stanza, we have sunlight / light and cross / cross; in the second, looked back / beloved back and prolong / prolong; in the third, good / good and existed / existed. That set in the third stanza might be, hidden in plain sight, a little hymn of praise for our human existence. The repetition helps add to the sense that the structure of this evocative poem is – well, strong and clean and good.

This is from The Collected Poems by Donald Justice. The book was first published in 2004, the year the poet died, and this is the last poem in the collection, a position which gives it in context a kind of valedictory feel.

25 September 2015

Friday photo 2015/39

This was taken at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in May 2013, shortly before it closed for a three-year renovation. The powerful and beautiful painting is Hem by Jenny Saville. I don't know who the other women are.

22 September 2015

New Century Chamber Orchestra: Letters from Russia (& other places)

Last Thursday I was at First Congregational in Berkeley for the first concert of New Century Chamber Orchestra's season. The program was called Letters from Russia, since it featured the Letter Scene from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin among other Slavic music, but there was some contemporary music featured too, from Jennifer Higdon, this season's featured composer.

The performance opened with Estonian Arvo Pärt's Trisagion, which is Greek for Thrice Holy, and if you know anything about Pärt and his music you will not be surprised to hear that the piece is linked to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, or that it flows with a steady meditative quality, or that it is beautiful. NCCO has such a rich and sometimes even sumptuous sound; yet they can also plink and pluck and be acerbic in the Shostakovich style, as we heard later on. After Pärt's fifteen minutes, Ailyn Pérez came out for Rachmaninoff's Vocalise. She was glittering in a floor-length silver sheath, looking almost incongruously glamorous, like a mermaid just risen from the depths, among the sombre black and purple clothing of the orchestra, there in the austere arches and angles of the colonial New England-style church. She gave a suitably rich performance of Rachmaninoff's flowing line.

And then to close the first half we had sort of a Higdon sampler: Strings, the "quasi-scherzo" second movement of the Concerto for Orchestra from 2002; String Lake, another second movement, this time from All Things Majestic, a 2011 work inspired by the mountainous scenery of Wyoming; and To the Point, an arrangement of the third movement of Impressions, a 2003 string quartet written in response to Impressionist painting as well as the quartets of Ravel and Debussy. (The piece had been commissioned by the Cypress Quartet as part of a series in which composers were asked to respond in some way to a classic of the quartet repertory.) This may sound potentially like a grab-bag mishmash, but actually all three pieces went nicely together, offering enough variety as well as congruity to form a satisfying suite. I'm looking forward to hearing more of Higdon's work (including a world premiere at the season's final concert); there are depths there worth exploring.

After the intermission, the second half started with Shostakovich's Elegy and Polka (also known as Two Pieces for String Orchestra). The first part was shaped from a melancholy, moody aria from his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, and the contrasting second part was adapted from his ballet The Golden Age, about a Soviet soccer team traveling to Paris. It sounded suitably sporty.

Then Pérez came out again to perform the Letter Scene from Onegin, in which the naive Tatiana writes a letter declaring her love to the sophisticated, Byronic Eugene Onegin. (It does not turn out well.) Clarice Assad did the arrangement of Tchaikovsky's music. When Pérez entered, she once again (glittering in her silver sheath) looked so glam and sophisticated, so much the opposite of a young country girl like Tatiana, that I wondered how she could possibly convey the character. With vocal skill, it turns out; with a finely detailed, yearning performance. Even with only the English words in the program it was easy to know exactly where she was in the aria, so well-defined was her emotional arc. The orchestra matched her level of passion and precision. What a wonderful thing all around. The applause was so great afterwards that the orchestra did an encore, a piece by Schnittke, whom Music Director and lead violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg amusingly described as of course "the first name that comes to mind when Russian music is mentioned!"

Next up for NCCO is a holiday concert in December, featuring the San Francisco Girls' Chorus and klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer; that's 17 - 20 December and you can find out more about it here.