05 February 2016

01 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/5

First we'll have the French original (this is sixteenth-century French, so don't panic if it looks different from your remembered high school textbooks or even what you picked up in that university year abroad).

Sonnet XIX

Diane estant en l'espesseur d'un bois,
Apres avoir mainte beste assenee,
Prenoit le frais, de Nynfes couronnee:
J'allois resvant comme fay maintefois.

Sans y penser: quand j'ouy une vois,
Qui m'apela, disant, Nynfe estonnee,
Que ne t'es tu vers Diane tournee!
Et me voyant sans arc & sans carquois,

Qu'as tu trouvé, o compagne, en ta voye,
Qui de ton arc & flesches ait fait proye!
Je m'animay, respons je, à un passant,

Et lui getay en vain toutes mes flesches
Et l'arc apres: mais lui les ramassant
Et les tirant me fit cent & cent bresches.

Louise Labé

Next we have two contemporary American translations:

Diana, retired in the depth of the woods,
Having just hunted down many a stag,
Was taking the air, her Nymphs at her back:
I wandered by in my usual dreamy mood,

When I heard a voice call out to me, now
Saying: O Nymph who looks so astonished,
Why did you not turn to glimpse the goddess?
Seeing me without quiver, without bow:

Whom did you meet, dear friend, upon your way,
Who took your bow & arrow as their prey?
I took aim, said I, at some passerby,

And hurled my arrows at him, all in vain,
And then my bow; but gathering these to his side,
He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain.

Louise Labé, translated by Richard Sieburth


[A Meeting with Diana]

Diana, standing in the clearing of a wood
after she had hunted her prey and shot it down,
breathed deep. Her nymphs had woven her a green crown.
I walked, as I often do, in a distracted mood,
not thinking – when I heard a voice, subdued
and quiet, call, "Astonished nymph, don't frown,
have you lost your way to Diana's sacred ground?"
Since I had no quiver, no arrows, it pursued,
"Dear friend, who were you meeting with today?
Who has taken your bow and arrows away?"
I said, "I found an enemy on the path,
and hurled my arrows at him, but in vain –
and then my bow – but he picked them up in wrath,
and with my arrows shot back hundreds of kinds of pain."

Louise Labé, translated by Annie Finch

In her brief (twenty-four poem) sonnet sequence, Labé is both playing in a sophisticated way with classical and Petrarchean traditions of love poetry and writing emotionally direct poetry. This sonnet has in its background the classical myth, extremely popular in the Renaissance, of Diana and Actaeon. He was a princely young hunter who inadvertently stumbled on Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, and her nymphs bathing naked. Though he was innocent of any voyeuristic intent, Diana (in the arbitrary way of the gods) punished him by turning him into a stag. His own dogs tore him to pieces.

In this poem, the innocent human wanderer is intruded upon by Diana, who has been out hunting when she stumbles upon the poet. The goddess plaintively asks why she is no longer seeking Diana's company, and further, why she no longer has her bow and arrows. Wandering from the company of the virgin huntress is our hint that the poet has fallen in love. And indeed, the poet came across a passerby and, in the style of Cupid, shot her arrows at him, though with less success than the ruthless little god; the untouched youth gathered her arrows and bow and used them to shoot back at her, causing her the endless pains of love. In a witty reversal of Actaeon's punishment, in this case it is the mortal man who has destroyed the votary of the goddess.

Both translations gesture towards preserving the original rhyme scheme. And both have the poet hurling her arrows at the youth, which may be faithful to the original but reads oddly in English. You can hurl a javelin or a rock, but you shoot arrows. Finch preserves the cumulative effect of the and / and / and at the beginning of the last three lines, but oddly makes the encounter between lover and love-object much more violent than seems warranted by the original: Sieburth translates un passant as some passerby, which seems closer than Finch's an enemy. I also don't see where she's getting that he picked up the bow and arrows in wrath. The poet's pain is more likely caused by indifference or uncertainty; the images of lover / beloved as hunter / hunted and of love as a physical wounding are tropes that don't need to be justified by some alleged enmity. Sieburth's He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain loses the specificity and closer translation of Finch's hundreds of kinds of pain, but fired brings with it a nice sense of the flames of love, and welcoming me to a world of pain conveys the nice ambiguity of the onset of love here, which is both welcoming and a cause of immense pain. I do love Finch's green crown woven by the nymphs; green seems like a reasonable clarification of what type of crown was made by these nymphs wandering the woods.

The first translation is from Louise Labé: Love Sonnets & Elegies, translated by Richard Sieburth with a preface by Karin Lessing, in the NYRB Poets series. The second translation is from Louise Labé: Complete Poetry and Prose, edited with critical introductions and prose translations by Deborah Lesko Baker and poetry translations by Annie Finch, in the University of Chicago Press series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Both editions are bilingual.

30 January 2016

fun stuff I may or may not get to: February 2016

Local residents, and probably non-local ones, too, are no doubt aware that the Super Bowl is being played in Santa Clara on 7 February; what even some locals haven't realized is how inconvenient this is going to make life in the Bay Area for the next few weeks (and it's going to continue after the game; they need to take down all the corporate-sponsored tents and suchlike that they put up). If you're planning to go to something in San Francisco during the first half of the month, please be aware that some buses have been rerouted, some streets around the Embarcadero are closed, restaurants will be more crowded, car services will be pricier, and so on. Give yourself some extra time and bring some extra patience. Adding to the bitterness of local residents is anger at the 49ers for decamping closer to the riches of Silicon Valley, though of course neither local team was good enough to get anywhere close to the Bowl of All Bowls. So enjoy, everybody!

Cutting Ball Theater presents Ondine by Katherine Sherman, directed by Rob Melrose. It's described as "a mermaid tale for sleepless nights" which sounds good to me, subject as I am to sleepless nights and seduced by the thought of water; it runs 5 February to 6 March.

Custom Made Theater presents the premiere of Sam and Dede: or, My Dinner with Andre the Giant by Gino Dilorio, directed by Leah S. Abrams. The "Sam" in the title is Samuel Beckett, so I'm immediately interested. The play runs from 11 February to 5 March.

The Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward presents Mrs Warren's Profession by Bernard Shaw; the show runs 11 February to 6 March.

Berkeley Rep presents Conleth Hill and Frances McDormand in Macbeth, directed by Daniel Sullivan. This is a surprisingly difficult play to pull off; you can see if they manage from 19 February to 10 April. Click here to refresh your memory with an excerpt from Macbeth, which was Poem of the Week earlier this week.

Shotgun Players is starting something new this month: the Shotgun Blast Theater Festival, a series of shows, each running for just two nights, that together cover the gamut of offbeat theater. You can check out the various offerings here.

The Lamplighters present one of my favorite works by Gilbert & Sullivan, their wonderful parody of gothic horror stories, Ruddygore; or, The Witch's Curse, in Walnut Creek 12 - 14 February, at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco 19 - 21 February, and in Mountain View 27 - 28 February. There are lots of matinees in there, so check here for further details. (Ruddygore is the original spelling of the title; it was changed to the more familiar Ruddigore because it was felt that otherwise it was too close to bloody, which at the time was used as a strangely powerful vulgarity; Gilbert is said to have retorted to someone who said the words were the same, "Not at all; for that would mean that if I said that I admired your ruddy countenance, which I do, I would be saying that I liked your bloody cheek, which I don't.")

Opera Parallèle presents Terence Blanchard's jazz-based opera Champion, based on the life of boxer Emile Griffiths (libretto by Michael Cristofer). Nicole Paiement conducts and Brian Staufenbiel stages the work at the SF Jazz Center on 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 26, 27, and 28 (matinee) February.

West Edge Opera continues its intriguing and offbeat programming with a "Doppelgänger Season" of Opera Medium Rare, a series of semi-staged performances concentrating this season, as the overall title suggests, on lesser known versions of familiar stories. First up is Paisiello's Barber of Seville (to be followed in March by Leoncavallo's La Bohème). There are two performances: a matinee on 7 February at Lisser Theater at Mills College in Oakland and an evening performance on 9 February at Freight and Salvage in Berkeley. I'm disappointed to see that West Edge is also continuing its disregard for non-drivers and working people; the Oakland location is difficult to get to without a car and the Berkeley performance doesn't even begin until 8:00 on a Tuesday night.

Dianne Reeves appears at the SF Jazz Center from 11 to 14 February.

The Schwabacher Debut Recitals will take place at the San Francisco Opera's new Wilsey Center; the first one is 28 February and features soprano Amina Edris, baritone Edward Nelson, bass-baritone Brad Walker, and pianist Steven Blier.

Violinist Daniel Hope joins the New Century Chamber Orchestra as guest concertmaster to pay tribute to his mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, with an eclectic program featuring works by Bach, Pärt, Glass, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, El-Khoury, Takemitsu, and Bartók. There's an open rehearsal at the Kanbar Performing Arts Center in San Francisco on the morning of 3 February and evening performances on the 4th at First Congregational in Berkeley, the 5th at First United in Palo Alto, the 6th at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and the 7th at the Osher Main JCC in San Rafael.

The Berkeley Symphony will be led by Joana Carneiro on 4 February in Zellerbach Hall in a program featuring Lutosławski's Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven's "Emperor" Piano Concerto with soloist Conrad Tao.

Michael Morgan leads the Oakland Symphony in a program of Dvořák's Carnival Overture, Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra with narrator Michael Urie, and the world premiere of Vân-Ánh Võ's Lullaby for a Country; that's 12 February at the Paramount.

At the San Francisco Symphony, Stéphane Denève leads a performance of Nielsen's Violin Concerto with soloist Nikolaj Znaider along with selections from Prokofiev's Cinderella and Guillaume Connesson's A Glimmer in an Age of Darkness; that's 18 - 20 February. Herbert Blomstedt returns at the end of the month with the Bruckner 3 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto 3, with soloist Maria João Pires; that's 25 - 27 February.

The Russian National Orchestra arrives under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony; there are two different programs, one on the 21st and the other on the 22nd; both feature superb pianist Yuja Wang and are conducted by Mikhail Pletnev.

Early / Baroque Music
American Bach Soloists present an all-Handel program. Jeffrey Thomas leads the group in Alexander's Feast with soloists Anna Gorbachyova (soprano), Aaron Sheehan (tenor), and William Sharp (baritone) as well as the Concerto Grosso in C Major and the Harp Concerto in B Flat Major with soloist Maria Christina Cleary. The performances are 26 February at St Stephen's in Belvedere, 27 February at First Congregational in Berkeley, 28 February at St Mark's Lutheran in San Francisco, and (leap year!) 29 February at Davis Community Church in Davis.

Modern / Contemporary Music
Cal Performances presents new music ensemble eighth blackbird on 14 February performing works by Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman.

The Kronos Quartet presents a festival of international music, featuring many new works and special collaborators, including Wu Man, Ritva Koistinen, Mariana Sadovska, KITKA, David Coulter, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, and Vân-Ánh Võ. There are seven concerts over four days (4 - 7 February), all at the SF Jazz Center.

See Regina Carter under Violin, Dianne Reeves under Vocalists, and Terence Blanchard's Champion under Operatic.

Fabulous jazz violinist Regina Carter appears at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on 27 February. The concert is a benefit for the Homeless Prenatal Program.

San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco recital debut of Igor Levit on 11 February at the Conservatory of Music, with a program featuring Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and Prokofiev.

San Francisco Performances presents Richard Goode in an all-Bach program on 25 February in Herbst Theater.

See also Yuja Wang's appearances with the Russian National Orchestra under Orchestral.

Chamber Music
Earplay opens its season on 1 February with a concert in Herbst Theater featuring works by Stefan Wolpe, Shulamit Ran, Eric Sawyer, and Andrew Imbrie.

San Francisco Performances presents the Pacifica Quartet on 12 February at Herbst Theater in a program of Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Shulamit Ran.

San Francisco Performances presents the San Francisco debut of the Tetzlaff Trio on 20 February at Herbst Theater in a program featuring Schumann, Dvořák, and Brahms.

Cal Performances presents the Takács Quartet in the west coast premiere of a work by Timo Andres, along with works by Haydn and Brahms, on 21 February in Hertz Hall.

Cal Performances presents the Danish String Quartet in works by Per Nørgård, Janáček, and Beethoven, on 28 February in Hertz Hall.

Cal Performances presents Shiva by the Chitresh Das Dance Company on 27 and 28 February in Zellerbach Hall.

The San Francisco Ballet presents Helgi Tomasson's version of Swan Lake from 19 to 28 February.

29 January 2016

26 January 2016

American Bach Soloists: Bach Favorites

Last Saturday I headed out to First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the American Bach Soloists, who were performing a program they called Bach Favorites. Despite the title, there was no sense of retread over pieces too frequently played; it was quite a refreshing evening. It opened with a cantata, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! pray! pray! watch!; BWV 70), which takes a surprisingly lively and even joyful view of the approaching apocalypse; granted, the text takes cheerful consolation in the redeeming power of Jesus, but I have to admit that there are plenty of times when the thought of the fire next time adds a little lift to my steps too. Right before the music started conductor Jeffrey Thomas turned to us and said that the two cantatas we would be hearing were the ones ABS performed at its first concert twenty-seven years ago. And in a spirit of authenticity, we were invited to sing along with the chorale, just like the Lutherans in Leipzig back in 1723. He led us in a little rehearsal beforehand. I declined to sing; as Sister Maria del Carmen used to tell us back in the day, her gift to God was not to sing to Him; after all, if that's what he wanted, he could have given her a better voice. I believe I was not the only one to refrain. Despite or because of this, Thomas assured us that we sounded better than had the audience in Belvedere the night before. I have no idea where Belvedere is. Thomas may well have made it up for all I know.

Anyway the cantata is mostly solos, and we had a fine set of them: Mary Wilson, soprano; Jay Carter, countertenor; Derek Chester, tenor; and Mischa Bouvier, baritone. The chorus and orchestra were as always strong, clean, and lilting. Wilson sings with ABS fairly often, but I'm not sure I had heard her before; her clear soprano made a striking effect in its one solo, bringing the sort of consolation you find in the one soprano movement of the Brahms Requiem. After this rather elaborate cantata we had the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, only in a new guise: a solo violin arrangement made by our solo violinist, Tatiana Chulochnikova. Her strong, clear, steady tones seemed like an echo of the voices we had just heard. It's interesting to have the massive organ avalanche of this piece replaced by the more sinuous sound of a solo violin. After the intermission, Chulochnikova returned, this time with the orchestra, for an engaging performance of the Concerto for Violin in E Major (BWV 1042). This was, for me at least, the most familiar piece on the program, but welcome nonetheless. It was followed by a second cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life; BWV 147). This piece was written for the feast of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (mother of St John the Baptist), so I guess hearing it was my final farewell to last Christmas. It was a very satisfying end to a satisfying evening. Your next chance to hear ABS will be an all-Handel program, featuring the Handel / Dryden celebration of the power of music, Alexander's Feast. You can find out more information here.

25 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/4

A cry within of women.

[MACBETH:] . . . . what is that noise?

SEYTON: It is the cry of women, my good lord. [Exits.]

MACBETH: I have almost forgot the taste of fears:
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in 't. I have supped full with horrors.
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

[Enter Seyton.]

SEYTON: The Queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Enter a Messenger.

Thou com'st to use thy tongue; thy story quickly!

William Shakespeare, from Macbeth, Act V, scene 5, ll 7 - 29

This is a moment of high drama in the play. Macbeth, who, with the encouragement and aid of his wife, has murdered his way to the kingship of Scotland, is besieged in the castle of Dunsinane by the armies of his victims (The cry is still, "They come!"). Secure in his castle's strength, he also still feels secure in the prophecies revealed by the Weird Sisters: among them, that none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth and that he shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him (Act IV, scene 1). He feels protected against his foes, but also aware that if those prophecies are true, so are the ones that predict his will be a sterile monarchy: no children will succeed him; instead, he has committed murder to the ultimate benefit of Banquo's children. Nausea at life fills him. He has squelched the better instincts of his conscience; perhaps that is why, when he hears the women attendants of the castle screaming, he expresses himself in oddly physical, animal terms: he has almost (almost is important, it drives the uncertainty that torments him) forgotten not the feeling but the taste of fear. The suggestion that fear is nourishing him is picked up later in the speech, when he says he has supped full with horrors. Even his expression of fear seems weirdly detached and animal-like: he describes how his fell (an archaic word meaning pelt) of hair would rise as if on its own – as if there were life in it separate from him. This division between the emotional / spiritual life that eats at him and his physical / animal life will be brought home at the play's end, when (in a stage direction often ignored in productions) his head, severed from his body, is brought on stage.

There is a sense in his speech that time is deranged, things are happening both too quickly and too slowly and in either case out of order. When an attendant officer, Seyton, brings him word that the outcry from the women was due to the death (possibly through suicide, by self and violent hands) of his tormented wife, his immediate reaction is to say she should have died later, when he would have had time to feel and mourn and react appropriately. It's possible that at this point he simply does not know how to feel anymore. The Queen had urged him on in the beginning (note his use in this passage of Direness, which not only contains the sound-sense die but links back to her wish, when she first heard of the Weird Sisters' prophecy that he would be king, that she be filled from head to toe with direst cruelty). An estrangement had slowly grown between them; she is unable to help kill King Duncan (. . . had he not resembled / My father as he slept. . .); she rebukes her husband, puzzled, for the apparitions that haunt him (the air-born dagger he sees before the first murder, the ghost of Banquo after he has him killed); Macbeth increasingly acts without consulting her. Her terrible guilt, shown in the famous sleep-walking scene at the beginning of this act, overwhelms her. Though events are foretold to Macbeth throughout the play, they never quite happen as they should, in his eyes, or bring him the certainty and security he longs for. Lady Macbeth's death is another untimely event: under attack, beset on all sides, what can he manage to say or feel?

Despite the chaos and unease swirling around him, he temporarily, extraordinarily, pauses time with a nihilistic aria expressing the disgust he now feels with life. The plodding repetition of tomorrow, the creeping, the petty pace: all suggest and reinforce a feeling of life as a drawn-out dullness, an endless series of trivialities. Macbeth at this point still thinks his life is safe from attack, not yet realizing that there might be a technical evasion hidden in none of woman born. This might seem like the security that he has ached for, but, like the kingship, it brings with it a sense of futility and restless discontent. The days arise and are extinguished, their light serving only to guide fools (that is, humanity) as they return back to dust. Despite the sense of time dragging on, Macbeth refers to time (or is it life? are the two distinguishable for us?) as a brief candle – a flame that burns itself out in short order. He speaks of time as both eternal and brief. Is time stretched out because there is so much of it to endure, or does it seem stretched out because it is simply unendurable? Out, out, brief candle provides another echo of Lady Macbeth; in the sleepwalking scene that occurred shortly before this scene, the Queen enters carrying a taper (now afraid of the dark, she has light by her continually. 'Tis her command.) and repeatedly cries Out to the imaginary blood she is trying to wipe from her hands.

Macbeth reflects on the transitory and unreal nature of life, finding horror rather than beauty (or even consolation) in this "floating world" quality. In a meta moment, he compares life to that most transitory of human creations, live performance: life is a poor player, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage and then heard no more (this is a concise and despairing version of the already edging towards despair Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It, which begins by telling us All the world's a stage / And all the men and women merely players). Calling life an actor suggests that it is controlled by puppet-master forces, and we do not act on our own volition; Macbeth throughout has questioned the role of destiny in his life (If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me); now, he feels himself caught up in the mechanism of Fate (his assurance against harm depends on believing in the Fateful pronouncements of the Weird Sisters). Calling the player poor suggests he is inadequate to his task as well as impoverished (that is, a victim of his own deficiencies or society's); it also suggests a conflicting glint of sympathy ("that poor man!"). It is part of a series of descriptors – petty, dusty, brief – that reinforces a sense of existence as a degraded thing.

Macbeth also finds existence, at this point in his life, a meaningless thing: he moves from describing life as an actor strutting and fretting (strut suggesting vainglory and conceit, and fret suggesting worry and wearing away) to describing life as a tale, but one told by an idiot (which here means not so much just a stupid person, as we use the word now, but a mentally disturbed one). Creating a tale – creating art, telling a story, like the playwright who sends the player out on the stage – is a way of imposing order and meaning on the world. Macbeth here declares that the tale we tell ourselves about life is equivalent to the ranting gabble of a madman – the sound and the fury signify not just nothing, but nothingness. He has moved from comparing life to an actor – a relatively rational albeit "poor" human being – to comparing it not to the idiot, who may be irrational but is still a human being, one whose condition might actually raise pity in the on-looker – but to the "tale", that is, the ranting, of the idiot. Life is no longer even represented as a human; it is words, garbled, crazy words, furious and meaningless air. Earlier there had been hints of a rational order underlying existence; Macbeth sees time stretching out to its last syllable. A syllable suggests an on-going flow of words, of words as history. But finally the words are just random syllables, units of sound lacking meaning – the tale told by a madman.

This relatively brief speech has leapt out of Macbeth, stopping the action and crystallizing his anguish. By its end, he can go no further into despair. He reverts to the world of frenzied action, demanding of the newly arrived Messenger that he tell his story, and tell it quickly. He is back in the world where we pretend stories make sense. But the Messenger has a tale to tell that seems senseless, though it's one we saw coming when we heard Duncan's son Malcolm, in the scene preceding this one, ordering his troops to cut down branches of Birnam Wood to carry before them while marching to Dunsinane, thereby misleading Macbeth as to the true extent of their forces. In short, the hapless Messenger must inadvertently report that the first protection promised Macbeth has fallen: Birnam Wood is marching against Dunsinane Hill.

This is from the Signet Classic edition of Macbeth, edited by Sylvan Barnet. I'm planning on doing a Shakespeare entry at least once a month, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the poet's death.

22 January 2016

19 January 2016

Cappella SF: Russian music in the rain

Under weeping skies last Sunday, looking out the train window at bare black branches or the occasional flurried clusters of dark green leaves tossing in the wind, I went into San Francisco to hear Cappella SF sing an all-Russian program at the Mission Dolores Basilica. It was obviously a day suited to a Russian mood.

I discovered at Cappella SF's last concert that the sound is very good in the back of the Basilica (near the entrance, that is), so that is where I planned on sitting. The doors were open already when I arrived a little before 4:30 for the 5:00 concert. I went in and then out the side to the men's room, which is right by the old Mission cemetery, which was padlocked for the night by then. I stared for a bit at the rain falling on the headstones under the trees, which is an enjoyably gloomy sensation.

Artistic Director Ragnar Bohlin had arranged a nicely varied program, with pleasing obscurities amid the more or less familiar beloveds. The sounds of the pieces themselves worked well together, making a program that was coherent but changeable enough to avoid monotony over the almost ninety minutes of the program. The sound of the chorus itself just seems to get better and better, with something clear and precise yet mellow about it, a sort of amber luster and clarity. The program started with some of the (to me, at least) obscurities. First up was Cherubic Hymn No. 7 by Dmitri Bortnyansky, who lived in the late eighteenth - early nineteenth centuries. He studied under Galuppi and spent a decade in Italy; I've heard some concerts the last few years of music from eighteenth-century Russia that make the case for a sort of European style that gradually gave way in the nineteenth century to national schools. Bortnyansky seems to straddle that divide with his hymn to the trinity. The next two composers, Pavel Chesnokov and Alexander Grechaninov, straddled a different divide, between Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, but both their pieces (Salvation is created by the former and a wavelike setting of The Lord's Prayer by the latter) continued the religious theme and ethereal sound of the music.

The next piece was by a contemporary, Sergei Viluman, and though it was secular, a setting of Alexander Blok's poem Night, street, lamp, drugstore, the text and sound were so meditative and sombre and philosophical that it actually took me a while to realize that it wasn't an officially religious work. By now the rain was falling so heavily outside that it was clearly audible in the basilica, reinforcing the choir ("You die – and then relive it all, the same restart, the same repeat; the night, the ice on the canal, the drugstore, the lamp, the street. . . "). Rainfall is one of the few non-musician-caused noises that I can stand during a concert, a point that was brought home to me in the next section, when three youngish women who had come in late (possibly just to get out of the rain) sat in the pew behind me and proceeded to whisper, giggle, and loudly turn program pages during Schnittke's Psalms of Repentance (Nos. 1, 2, 11, and 12). That's the disadvantage of sitting in the back. You get people like that there: the latecomers, the whisperers, the phone-checkers. The mood was ruined, but fortunately they left after the Schittke. I moved farther back anyway. And I had really been looking forward to the Schnittke. I just can't comprehend people who can hear such music and not be moved to, at a minimum, a respectful silence.

There was a little break for the chorus before the final number; Bohlin played a prelude (Op 23, No 10 in G-flat) by Rachmaninov. The chorus then sang Nos. 1 - 8 of Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, with some lovely solos by mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen and tenor Jimmy Kansau. The program notes promised some low basses here, and they came through, with that deep organ tone that sounds so essentially Russian, or so essentially like a certain conception of a certain Russia.

Cappella SF's next concert will be in May, again at the Basilica, but this time a concert of Norwegian music . As I said, their sound just keeps getting better, and this was a striking and moving concert (audience aside). Check out their next appearance (but please give a wide berth to the solitary man in black sitting in the back of the church!).

18 January 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/3

(to Leland)


She went to buy a brand new hat,
And she was ugly, black, and fat:
"This red becomes you well," they said,
And perched it high upon her head.
And then they laughed behind her back
To see it glow against the black.
She paid for it with regal mien,
And walked out proud as any queen.


The play is done, the crowds depart; and see
That twisted tortured thing hung from a tree,
Swart victim of a newer Cavalry.

Yea, he who helped Christ up Golgotha's track,
That Simon who did not deny, was black.

                        (The Unknown Color)

I've often heard my mother say,
When great winds blew across the day,
And, cuddled close and out of sight,
The young pigs squealed with sudden fright
Like something speared or javelined,
"Poor little pigs, they see the wind."

Countee Cullen

These poems use traditional, and in the context of their time, conservative rhyme and meter (an appropriation of traditional forms that in itself carries some subversive intent in a Harlem Renaissance writer such as Cullen), but placed together they form an ambiguous and suggestive whole.

The first one starts out with a sort of nursery-rhyme sound and feel: She went to buy a brand new hat; and the very simplicity and cheerful lilting rhythm increase the shock and even crudity of the next, also linguistically simple, line: And she was ugly, black, and fat. This pattern continues in the next couplet, with a possibly innocuous line followed by one that reveals the complexity and cruelty underlying a seemingly everyday transaction. "This red becomes you well," they said might seem genuine until you reach the insidious perched in the next line, and you can see the bright hat teetering ridiculously on top of this very large woman. We're not actually told that the salesclerks are white, though you could infer it from the emphasis in the second line on the woman's blackness, and we're not told if they're men or women – and yet what reader doesn't know these clerks, just close enough to the border of offensive so that they get their mockery across to their victim without going far enough to put themselves obviously in the wrong. They laugh at her, but behind her back: but in the next line, To see it glow against the black, glow tips us off to a beauty – to glow is to emit a steady light or radiance – that they are blind to. The title of this first poem tells us that the color it's about is red, the glowing red of the hat, rather than primarily the black of the woman's skin; this is another hint to see something significant in the bold brilliance of the hat.

So far each couplet has had its first line subverted by its second; in the first two couplets the second line exposes the fraught situation of the seemingly direct first line, and in the third couplet, as the situation intensifies, the ridicule in the first line is countered in the second by the suggestion of unexpected and, for some, unseen beauty (the perched red hat glowing against the fat woman's black skin). But in the final couplet, the two lines reinforce each other: she pays with regal mien, and in the next line she walks out proud as any queen. What does the woman herself think? Does she realize she's being mocked, does she like the hat anyway? We're not told. Wearing hats was something ladies did in public; this entire transaction is in a social space, and we're seeing her (ugly, black, and fat) as her society mostly sees her. Her society, in the form of salesclerks, treats her accordingly; we, the readers, see a woman reacting with considerable dignity to a petty humiliation of the sort she must face frequently. The very reticence in the final lines about the woman's actual perceptions or reactions to the joke being played on her increases our sense of her dignity. For the reader, her strength becomes her beauty.

The second poem is actually two brief poems, connected by references to the crucifixion of Jesus. The first part, as with the first poem in the set, begins innocently enough, with what seems like a description of a crowd departing a theater after the show is over. And, repeating the pattern of the first poem, the second line exposes the cruelty hidden by but latent in the first: the mob has been watching a man being lynched. And again as in the first poem, as the suggestion in the first line of a theatrical performance makes clear, we are in a social space. The murder has apparently taken a while, and been protracted, as the victim's corpse is twisted and he has been tortured. He is given the retrospective dignity of an archaic term to describe the cause of his murder: he is swart, that is, swarthy, dark-skinned. He is given the further dignity of having his death compared to that of Christ, expiating the sins of humanity through death on the cross: hung from a tree in the second line prepares us for the direct comparison to Calvary in the final line (Calvary in this section and Golgotha in the next both refer to the hill outside of Jerusalem on which Christ was crucified). The suggestion is that this anonymous victim of a lynching is another sacrificial victim to the sins of humanity. (This reminds me of the terrific line in the Epilogue of Shaw's Saint Joan: "Must then a Christ be crucified in every generation to save those that have no imagination?")

The second section, brief and epigrammatic like the first, plays off the story of Simon of Cyrene, who helped Jesus carry the cross up the hill, and Simon Peter the apostle, who (as foretold by Christ) denied Jesus three times on the night of the crucifixion. Simon of Cyrene, like many minor actors in the life of Christ, has had major legends spring up around him. (Even the name of his hometown is a bit mysterious; I searched for the correct pronunciation and was given three different possibilities, each one authoritatively stated: Sy-reen, Sy-ree-nee, and Sy-ree-neh. Since it's a Greek name I'm assuming the second or third is closest to the original, but the pronunciation might have been Anglicized.) Cyrene was an ancient city located in what is now Libya, and though there were both Greek and Jewish communities there, Simon has often traditionally been seen as a native of the region (that is, a black man). He is mentioned in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a bystander who was ordered to help Jesus carry the cross when the guards feared Jesus would die before reaching his appointed execution spot.

Though it seems clear Simon's assistance was involuntary (which could actually work in this poem, given the American history of race-based slavery), there is an alternate tradition that Simon either was or became a Christian himself, making him a type, like the Good Samaritan, of one who helps the downtrodden. There is a tradition of venerating him as a saint. In these lines, Cullen views him definitely as a black man; it's a bit ambiguous whether he sees Simon's assistance as willing or at least not unwilling, but he makes a pointed, acerbic comparison between Simon of Cyrene's acceptance of the helper role thrust on him and the denial of Christ by Simon Peter, who of course became the first head of the Christian church.

Something beyond the comparisons to the crucifixion connects these two sections, and that is the color of the title: black. In the first section, the man was one of the thousands of black men lynched in America as part of a racially motivated campaign of terror; in the second, the man who helps Jesus carry his burden is, in the emphatic final word, black. Together these two sections offer rich suggestions of the African-American history of slavery, lynching, survival, and the sustenance and spirit of the black churches.

The first two sections have dealt with social spaces, and the titles have indicated very specific colors. In the third section, we are in a domestic space, and the color is unknown. These are existential terrors, affecting Nature as well as people. The high winds howl. The piglets howl along, in their squealing register, as if they've been stabbed – as if, the mother suggests, in another hint of the folkloric or nursery-rhyme element we've seen elsewhere in the set, they can see the wind. Seeing this unseen but powerful force is what frightens the little pigs. In contrast to the first two sections, this third one is relatively direct, lacking the complex social interaction of the first one and the implied cultural and historical references of the second: and yet, in conjunction with their examination of human pain and the suffering and fortitude in the face of pain, it opens the set out into a finally irresolvable vision of human suffering connected not just to race, history, religion, or culture, but to the unseen forces of the Universe.

This is from My Soul's High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen, Voice of the Harlem Renaissance, edited and introduced by Gerald Early. A footnote to the poem explains the dedication "To Leland" by saying "Leland B. Pettit was the organist of the All Saints Cathedral Choir and, apparently, a good friend of Cullen during the mid-twenties. In 1925 he organized a reading for Cullen at the Atheneum in Milwaukee."