30 November 2009

Haiku 334

Leftover turkey
Awkwardly irrelevant
Next to Christmas cakes

(I may or may not get to post the daily haiku while I'm traveling. If I don't get to, I will post them when I return. And feel free to leave comments while I'm gone; they too will get posted when I return. Thanks to everyone for reading. Back in a few. . . .)

29 November 2009

ready, set, Christmas

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio has become a bit of an odd duck, plucked from its native environment; its six cantatas were meant to be a cycle, but not performed all at once, and the German that made it immediately comprehensible to its intended audience is a barrier for most of us. No wonder Handel’s Messiah, so handily English, is the holiday oratorio of choice in these parts, even though, unlike the Bach, it was not originally intended for Christmastime. So much for historically informed performance practices.

I’ve never quite overcome my first hearing of the Christmas Oratorio, in a freezing cold church in Harvard Square, which dragged on until somewhere around midnight, which is not a criticism of the performance so much as a criticism of icy concert venues. And that’s an awful lot of German to digest for a novice concertgoer. There were no surtitles back in those days, children. Let Grandpa tell you how it used to be!

Actually, it still is that way at the San Francisco Symphony, which eschews surtitles, and which opened its holiday concerts with, as you may have gathered, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, only shortened and translated into English. This turned out to be a very effective way of presenting it, though it’s not quite as shapely as Messiah – during the last two cantatas, the soloists were pretty much the whole show and the chorus sat waiting for their ending jubilation. Maybe I was just expecting more of the chorus because their director, Ragnar Bohlin, was conducting the concert.

The music has plenty of festive trumpets and pastoral oboes, though as in the Bach Passions the chorus often meditates and reflects in a more somber way, occasionally to the same hymn tunes as the Matthew Passion (as the man behind me felt compelled to point out during the performance). I thought they should have ignored period style enough to beef up the strings, which were overshadowed by the brass and woodwinds. Baroque music sits a bit uneasily in Davies Hall, like a hermit crab that has chosen an overambitious shell.

That may be why I found the soprano, Malin Christensson, a bit pallid. Her voice was pretty but way too small for the barn she was singing in. I noticed that she got louder as the performance progressed, so maybe she just needed to adjust. I liked the rich tones of Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the contralto. In a switch from my frequent experience, the men – Lothar Odinius (tenor) and Anders Larsson (baritone) were the stronger and more expressive singers. I love the San Francisco Symphony chorus, so their contributions were my favorite part. After working all day (I went on Friday) I enjoyed sinking into the eddying waves of choral sound.

It was very strange to go from an unusually deserted Embarcadero to an unusually deserted Civic Center, passing through the insanely crowded downtown shopping area. My contribution to the newest national holiday, the so-called “Black Friday,” on which we celebrate Capitalism's deliverance of its people, was to buy a burrito. And a very small box of chocolates on sale at Macy’s. I don’t know why, but I thought Davies Hall would be fairly empty, but it wasn’t. I did switch my seat at intermission, which I seem to be doing a lot lately, but not because anyone around me was particularly obnoxious: I just wanted a little more room. We do seem crammed in more tightly at Davies than at other concert halls. This isn’t even about American obesity, though I did see a number of morbidly obese patrons who were having major trouble. You get four or five standard-sized men in a row and it’s sardine city in there. Maybe I’m just dreading my upcoming flight.

I used to go to one or two live performances of Messiah each December; it was one of those things that meant Christmas to me. There’s a subcategory of warhorses made up of the things you never mind hearing again, and for me (obviously this subcategory will vary greatly from person to person) Messiah is one of those pieces, though I have to say that much as I enjoy hearing it I don’t seek it out anymore. The Christmas Oratorio nicely filled the musical space usually occupied by Messiah. I had been a little put off, purist that I am, when I heard it would be abridged and sung in English, but I was pleasantly surprised (big thanks to Mr G/S Y for giving me a ticket) and enjoyed myself very much.

After walking in the pleasantly cool night to the BART station, during which walk not a single driver tried to kill me, I arrived at the platform one minute before my train, which may be the first time this season I didn’t just miss a train and therefore have to wait twenty minutes. And not only did my train pull right in, but it was eight cars (which is what they run at rush hour; usually at at night you get hellishly crammed trains half that size) and the people in it were only mildly obnoxious. Truly, the season of happy miracles is upon us!

Haiku 333

Was the wind waiting
Until I finished sweeping
To rise up, laughing?

28 November 2009

fun stuff I may or may not get to: December

This is mostly a New York month, since like all the cool kids I’m going to the Met to see From the House of the Dead. This will be my first time hearing something at the Met that is not in English and composed before 1960 (my Met operas are Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Great Gatsby, and An American Tragedy). Anyone judging solely from my experience would have a very odd idea of what the Met is about.

In addition to the Janacek, I’m seeing Le Nozze di Figaro and the new Bart Sher production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann.

And after my second, Saturday matinee viewing of House of the Dead, I’m following Esa-Pekka Salonen across Lincoln Center to Avery Fisher Hall, where he is conducting the New York Philharmonic in Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, and La Mer.

I have a few open nights so I’ll see what’s playing when I get there. But the night before I leave I’m seeing One Night, a Schubert/Beckett combo with Mark Padmore singing Winterreise (or, since I believe he’s singing it in translation, Winter Journey) while Andrew West plays the piano and Stephen Dillane recites (I assume) the Beckett.

Back in the Bay Area, San Francisco Performances has some wonderful pianists on its schedule: Angela Hewitt on December 1 and Marc-Andre Hamelin on December 15.

In Berkeley Cal Performances presents Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut, the only Nutcracker worth seeing. (If you disagree with me on that, check out Saturday Matinee’s guide to local Nutcracking. And if Christmas means choral music to you, check out the choral roundup at Iron Tongue.)

Cutting Ball Theater has extended its run of The Bald Soprano until December 12.

Shotgun Players presents that beloved holiday classic, The Threepenny Opera, which was my favorite musical until I discovered Sweeney Todd.

Haiku 332

Clear and cold the wind
Chastely shines the changing moon
You had left no word

Fourth Thursday in November

I can't claim credit for the rosemary rolls or the pain au levain, which are from Acme Bakery. T hoisted up the loaf and said, "That is artisan bread!" The apples are there mostly for color, because except for the cranberry chutney, this is a very brown meal. I didn't even take a picture of the oven-roasted potatoes, because some things are delicious but not necessarily photogenic.

The chutney in its little turkey dish.


Dressing, baked in my great-grandmother's Dutch oven. It's mostly bread, apples, pears, onions, garlic, and sage. And beer!

Heritage turkey from Praither Ranch.

The lighting is very yellow in this shot, even though I tried to fix it. Must be that dim glow from late afternoon in late November.

Coffee buttercrunch pie. Now on to Christmas.

27 November 2009

Haiku 331

Seated glancing eyes
Rushing crowds stopping, staring
What do they expect

26 November 2009

Haiku 330

(Thanksgiving Day)

For eagle and worm,
For ship and storm and harbor,
For all this, give thanks

25 November 2009

Haiku 329

Foods signalling feast
Quietly appear on shelves:
Brown, orange, red, gold

24 November 2009

Haiku 328

Contemplating clouds
Or bashing a noisome brain. . .
It's all aesthetics

23 November 2009

22 November 2009

21 November 2009

20 November 2009

Haiku 324

Dull green burnt orange
Still landscape; black birds start up
Shocking land to life

19 November 2009

Haiku 323

(for Sophocles)

Flow, infinite tears;
Flow into Ocean's salt womb
O Giver of Life

*******

Fingernail crescent,
Silver dimple on pale silk:
New moon at sundown

*******

Night drives as a child:
Starry hills and starry skies
Sparkle sleepy eyes

18 November 2009

17 November 2009

16 November 2009

15 November 2009

Haiku 319

(for Henry James)

Anticipation
Of poems that never come. . .
That is the poem.

14 November 2009

Symphonic Quickies

I followed up my trip to the San Francisco Symphony’s season opener Mahler 1 by going to the Mahler 5 two weeks later. In between there was what sounded like an extremely odd evening of musical bits interspersed with chat from Michael Tilson Thomas and Thomas Hampson, both of whom like to talk to their audiences a little too much for my enjoyment. This sounded like a dry run for one of the Symphony’s upcoming let-us-explain-the-music DVDs, and I was hearing Hampson in recital the next week anyway, so I had no problem skipping this.

I have to admit that though I basically liked the performance of the Mahler, I also had flit through my brain a few times the notion that it was a lot longer than I remembered. (Check here for SFMike's interesting take on this concert.) I usually attribute such thoughts to exhaustion and allergies (or allergy medications), but I had remembered the Mahler 5 being about an hour, and the performance took about an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s like seeing skin stretched so tight that you can see every vein and muscle underneath, which can be interesting but perhaps too Mannerist in effect. When I got home I pulled several Mahler 5s off the shelf (or the floor or the table or whatever bare level surface I'd scattered CDs on) and though there were a couple as long as the one I’d just heard, the majority were indeed about an hour. I have previously noted Tilson Thomas’s tendency toward the monumental, and I think the slow tempi here were part of that. It's an approach that sacrifices the wilder, more grotesque side of music but displays the strength of the structure, like seeing the echoing arches of a Gothic cathedral but none of the gargoyles or ornamental capitals.

The real highlight of that evening turned out to be the relatively brief Hymnos by Giacinto Scelsi, a composer of whose eccentricities I had heard but whose music I hadn’t. Tilson Thomas gave a little talk beforehand, in which he mentioned being with Berio at a rehearsal and meeting Scelsi, who, when a photographer took his picture, grabbed the camera, smashed it, and then immediately apologized and paid for the damage. He didn’t like having his picture taken. Well, I sympathize; I’m not particularly photogenic, and I’ve often wanted to smash cameras. Hanging out with Berio and Scelsi . . . this is a side of Tilson Thomas that I don’t think we usually see at the symphony, despite what I consider his exaggerated reputation for adventurous programming, which usually takes the form of little pieces as preludes to the main event. The Scelsi was a real discovery for me, using fairly simple materials but all just slightly off-balanced so that it was vibrant rather than monotonous. Off to the CD-mongers!

I had thought the two Mahler concerts might be it for my symphony-going this fall, since there were a lot of other things going on and not enough money for any of them, and most of the Symphony’s programs were in that vague area where I’d be happy to hear them but not particularly upset if I didn’t. But I did end up hearing Osmo Vanska's performance of John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and Dvorak’s 7th (big thanks to Mr G/S Y for giving me his ticket). Antti Siirala was the soloist in the Tchaikovsky, rather than the previously announced Yundi Li, who disappeared from the schedule sometime after the season brochures were printed. I thought Siirala gave a fine and robust though perhaps not overly poetic performance. I had a fidgety child behind me and a fidgety old woman beside me, so at the intermission I moved to an empty seat a few rows away to enjoy the Dvorak in peace.

It was one of those evenings that I enjoyed a lot and I don’t really have much to say beyond that. I read somewhere that Orwell once remarked that the most difficult thing about working as a book reviewer was inventing reactions to books that didn’t make him feel much of anything one way or the other. But then I don’t write reviews of concerts, I write reviews of attending concerts.

There are symphonies that I have sort of memorized, just through frequent exposure, but of course many more that are just vaguely familiar, and I try to avoid the trap of comparing a performance to a record I have playing in my head – if I wanted it to sound like something I already knew, why wouldn’t I just stay home and play CDs? So I’m usually OK with most interpretations, because, as with wrong-headed staging of plays I’m familiar with, they force me to notice and to think about why I expect certain things. I get that deer-in-the-headlights uncertainty when someone asks me if I “know” a piece, because I don’t know quite what that means – have I heard it? Could I hum along? Have I grasped its structure? Have I grasped its truth? It’s the same way with books – I “know” certain books in that I’ve read them, but I always scrupulously feel that unless I’m totally immersed in the text the way the author was when he or she wrote it, I can’t truly say I “know” the book. And depending on how many years ago I read something, I may, from a technical, historical viewpoint, have read it, but can I still claim to know or even remember much of it? . . .

And then I went back Friday before last before Semyon Bychkov’s Rachmaninoff program. The first half was his setting of Poe’s The Bells (in Russian translation, where it sounds less jingly, at least to a non-Russian), and then we had the Symphony No. 2 in E minor. I bought a rush ticket about an hour before the concert started, which was $20 well spent, and I had a great seat on the right side of the orchestra. I had only bought rush tickets once before; it was the previous season, and I wanted to hear Emanuel Ax playing Szymanowski’s Symphonie concertante for Piano and Orchestra, because how often do you get to hear that?

Well, it was one of the Friday concerts that they start at 6:30, which you’d think I would be crazy for given my constant bitching about 8:00 start times, but it turned out to be just a bit too early to get anything to eat and a bit too late for me not to have to kill time before the performance started. Also, for some reason at these concerts (I assume due to some misguided notion of making symphonic music less utterly terrifying to the twitching timid rabbits who have assembled) they drop a piece of music and substitute conductor chat, so that the concert isn’t actually any shorter, it just has less of what you’ve come for.

In this case the dropped piece was the overture to the Magic Flute, which I have indeed heard many times before, but I wouldn’t have minded hearing it again, especially since the little talks tend to be nothing specific or technical about the music but just general cultural and biographical background, which is the sort of stuff I usually know anyway, and if I’m going to be exposed to stuff I already know, I’d just as soon have it composed by Mozart.

So I was in an open seating area up behind the orchestra (where the chorus sits when they perform), which is how I discovered how uncomfortable those seats are – as in, throw your back out uncomfortable. Once again, I suffer for Art, which barely knows I exist. I also discovered that when you sit up there and there’s a soloist, you have an entire orchestra, including the brass and tympani, between you and him, and there’s a reason he’s normally in front of the whole shebang, especially when it's a refined player like Ax. But still – Szymanowski live! Followed by Strauss’s Burleske in D minor for Piano and Orchestra and Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

I had tried for a rush ticket for another concert last May, since the amazing Yuja Wang would be playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2 in G minor, and we also had a new piece by Mason Bates and the Sibelius 4, but even though I went to the box office early, at lunchtime, there were no rush seats, though fortunately for me and the Symphony’s finances there was one excellent orchestra seat available, for which I more or less happily paid full price.

I liked the Bates piece (The B-Sides), especially the first few movements, but then we got a lot of taped noise and a steady thumping bass of the sort that annoys me to the point of insanity in pop music. And I have a vague memory that there was a lot of fooling around with electronic equipment before we could get started, which used to drive me crazy at pop concerts and I haven’t gotten any more patient with the years (have I ever mentioned my theory about patience? You’re born with a certain amount, and when you use yours up, it’s cranky to the end). So I was positive on Bates but still unconverted on electronic music. And Wang is phenomenally good – so wide-ranging in her moods and effects.

The Rachmaninoff program was among other things a chance to hear the terrific Symphony Chorus. Last May I went to the all-Handel program conducted by Bernard Labadie, and since I’d been pondering the uses of subscription series and how many I should keep, that concert really brought home one of the joys of subscribing: reluctantly going to something only because you bought a series and the ticket was included, and then discovering or rediscovering how wonderful something can be. I’ve always loved Handel, but I have to say I was not exactly thrilling at the thought of sacrificing an evening (after being out on so many of them already) to hear Zadok the Priest or the Dettingen Te Deum. But there it was, a joyful noise before the Lord. I don’t think any composer does magnificence better than Handel: that grandeur, that pomp without pomposity.

In addition to the Chorus, the Bells featured soloists in each movement: soprano Nuccia Focile, tenor Frank Lopardo, and bass Mikhail Petrenko. (Gosh, I remember when Lopardo had hair, and it was black . . . how like the Marschallin one feels at times!) I had heard a recording of The Bells once or twice, but I think I had never heard a note of the 2nd Symphony. So when it comes to “knowing” these pieces, as discussed above, I feel pretty secure in saying this was all new music to me. It’s very vivid and rich and varied. (And it was a relief to be in an attentive audience for once at the Symphony, and not to spend the first half looking for a refuge for the second half.)

But there was a moment or two during the hour-long symphony when its lush beauty almost backfired for me; I thought, this is what people wish the soundtrack to their lives was like: richly and fully felt, passionately engaged, deep and arching and complete even in its sadness. And I understood, despite my genuine pleasure in the music, why the nerve-jangled modernists, their world shattered by the global wars, could not accept this music as appropriate to that world.

and Troy once more expire

So there I was Thursday before last, on my way to Philharmonia Baroque’s Purcell program at Herbst Theater, crossing a one-way street with the light, feeling secure that the cars would only come on one side, when a monstro car made an insane and completely illegal turn from Van Ness head on in the wrong direction to this one-way street, nearly hitting me as well as smashing into the cars stopped at the light. This complete moron just wanted to make a U-turn, and couldn’t possibly go up a block to a street where that would have been possible. And then she flipped me off! Yes, I had flipped her off first, but that’s only the natural order of things when a ton of steel bears down on your defenseless person when you have the right of way. The very least this idiotic (insert your favorite derogatory term here) could have done is pretend to feel some shame. I only wish I could have reached out to her with some heart-piercing empathetic words, or possibly just a baseball bat. Honestly, what has become of the simple decency of pretending to care about other people? It’s a world turned upside down, indeed it is.

And I’m not fully convinced the two next to me in the theater, hacking, chatting, and program-flipping during the first half of the concert, actually were people. The woman’s scrawny form, large empty black eyes, and bulbous forehead narrowing down to her clacking mandibles made me think she was just some giant ant transmogrified through some terrible accident, possibly involving gamma rays or suchlike, the same accident which had plucked her male companion, a snuffling old badger, from his woodland dell, and mysteriously deposited them in a concert hall for an evening of Henry Purcell. No wonder they didn’t know how to behave in such a startlingly alien environment! You see, after being nearly killed by Idiot of the Evening #1 and then finding myself seated as always next to some more Idiots of the Evening, I have decided to approach the universe with compassion and understanding, because seriously what other choice do I have?

So the concert started, and given the evening so far, and the general tenor of my days, and the known difficulty of getting, say, five people to show up in the same meeting room at the same time, it struck me that here we had roughly fifty people all come together, some to sing and some to play various instruments and all in harmonious coordination, working together and attending to each other, in an effort to bring beauty and joy to a blighted world and to let a dead artist’s works not die with him, and what a strange and wonderful thing this is. And I see it all the time, and experience it on recordings, and I’ve grown blasé about it, and I shouldn’t be.

Moments of disoriented epiphany aside, the first half of the concert, though deeply enjoyable, was also very odd, sort of a Purcell grab-bag. The concert was billed as “The Passion of Dido,” in realistic acknowledgement that we were all there to hear Susan Graham as the tragic Queen of Carthage, but it was really a surprise birthday party for the composer’s 350th. So we skipped from sacred to profane and back again, as no doubt did Purcell's comissions, first hearing a chorus (O Sing Unto the Lord a New Song) followed by the Chacony in G minor followed by another chorus (Hear My Prayer, O Lord) and then the Suite of incidental music from Aphra Behn’s Abdelazer (anyone want to join me in clamoring for a revival? . . . well, fine, forget I mentioned it!), the Rondeau of which jumped out at me with not-quite-placeable familiarity until the program-book came to my aide-memoire by mentioning that Britten used it as the theme for his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, a gift from one native-born British composer to the next.

To top off the suite, Celine Ricci sang Lucinda is bewitching fair, and I must say that however bewitching Lucinda may be, Ricci did not have the same effect on me, though I can’t quite say if I simply didn’t care for her very bright voice or if her non-stop cartoony mugging just put me off too much. She’ll improve immeasurable as a performer, I think, when she learns the value of standing still. I might be surrounded by gargoyles in the street or the audience but, having higher standards for the theater, I like people on stage to resemble my fantasy of human beings.

After the intermission, having had more than enough of my neighbors, as soon as the lights dimmed and the main event was about to start I slipped a few rows forward to one of the few empty seats where I could be blissfully surrounded by people actually paying attention. And here I’ve made you wait almost as long for the appearance of Susan Graham as we waited that night! I had been a bit let down by her rendition of the Ruckert Lieder at the Symphony in September, but she was triumphant and heart-breaking as Dido, and in full blonde glamazon mode to boot, dressed in a sort of purple-and-coppery beaded sheath, towering physically over everyone on stage, even her Aeneas (William Berger, and though I thought he started out a bit weak, he soon was supple and powerful enough to make a vivid impression in his small but crucial role). Graham astutely played against her strength by emphasizing Dido’s pain in sometimes unexpected places; lines such as “For ‘tis enough, whate’er you now decree, / That you had once a thought of leaving me”, which might have blazoned forth with offended majesty, were instead a tender reminder of the little interior bit of human dignity we try to cling to in ourselves.

Brian Thorsett was Mercury and the saucy Cockney sailor; Jill Grove was elegantly malevolent as the Sorceress. Her two assistant witches were Cyndia Sieden (who also sang Belinda) and Celine Ricci (who also sang the Second Woman); I much preferred Sieden, since Ricci had not spent the intermission taking my telepathic advice and calming down her gesticulating. There seems to be a growing tradition of having the Sorceress express elaborate boredom as her accomplices roulade away on ho ho ho; I’m not sure where this comes from (maybe Mark Morris’s staging?) and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It’s mildly funny, but the joke is at the expense of the repetition and virtuosic display so characteristic of baroque music, so the effect is of a subtle insinuation that the art form we’ve gathered to hear is basically strange and laughable. Would these people have the same reaction to a modern form like so-called minimalism, a form also dependent on repetition and virtuosity? An early music ensemble should be able to shake off the underlying nineteenth-century mindset.

Haiku 318

Tomatoes and plums
Vanishing from my counters
Give way to apples

13 November 2009

Haiku 317

My breath a white cloud
Vanishing like morning mist
Grey dawn on cold streets

12 November 2009

Haiku 316

This loaf, those fishes
Will last as long as paint can:
Memento mori

*******

Deaf to the music
Too absorbed in you, and you
Were blind to all else

11 November 2009

Haiku 315

Birds sing undisturbed
And the rivers run freely
Elsewhere, yes, somewhere

*******

Lawns refreshed by rain
Green Winter flows from vivid
California hills

10 November 2009

09 November 2009

08 November 2009

06 November 2009

Haiku 310

A glance to the side
And you might be miles away:
Sunlight on green grass

05 November 2009

Haiku 309

Around the corner
New birds, buildings, trees dropping
Their dead leaves downward

04 November 2009

Haiku 308

Here, it is Winter
That we long for as a change:
The dark rain, the chill

03 November 2009

Haiku 307

What does the sand feel
When the tides recede leaving
Seaweed and starfish

*******

Glowing green fresh grass
Gently waving in the breeze:
A restoration. . . .

02 November 2009

a reason to hate the world of classical music

The following item appeared several days ago in Leah Garchik’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"The third movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony has such a razzle-dazzle ending that the San Francisco Symphony audience Thursday cheered at its ending, a definite no-no because there was another movement (much quieter) to come. Afterward, an audience member approached one of the musicians, praised the concert and asked what the encore had been, an inquiry that caused big giggles among the musicians."

Well, I don’t have strong feelings on the clapping-between-movements controversy. I oppose anything that disrupts the music or the mood for everyone else, but I’m not really convinced that clapping during a pause between symphony movements does that, at least as compared to clapping between each song in a recital set or being the first to scream bravo before a song has finished. It’s the last sentence of the item that contains the irritant: the very fact that this audience member was not already immersed in concert-going etiquette, familiar (or over-familiar) with every single note of Tchaikovsky's Sixth, and had not been looking at the list of movements in the program during the performance, indicates to me that she (I’ll just use “she” for convenience; I have no idea of the gender here) was, of all things, actually listening to the music. Gee, she might even be one of those “new audience members” arts groups are allegedly so desperate to reach. So she, having no doubt paid a fair amount for her ticket, instead of rushing out immediately like most symphony-goers took the trouble to compliment the musicians and ask about the music, which obviously had touched her. For this she gets the snotty "big giggle" treatment by the in-the-know sophisticates. I hope at least they had the decency to give that member of their paying public a courteous and straightforward answer to her face before they alerted the media. Well, being a swell fiddle player doesn’t guarantee either sensitivity or sense.

pursued as by the avenging furies

Amazon.com, which either does not realize that I am apparently the only person in the western world who didn’t think August: Osage County was the greatest thing since Heartbreak House or simply wants to torment me, like poking a wounded animal with a stick to watch its eyes bug out, keeps insisting that I should buy a copy of the play, because of its similarities to the following items I have already purchased: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses (uh, no), Six Plays by Bulgakov as well as his life of Moliere (no and no), the Complete Plays of Chekhov (emphatically not), and the Mark Morris production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (WTF? Now they're just shooting in the dark).

Haiku 306

A steady drumming
A migraine obbligato
A pulsing thrumming

01 November 2009

Balled soprano

Cutting Ball Theater opened its tenth season this weekend with a fast, fun, and fluid production of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, directed by company Artistic Director Rob Melrose in his own new translation. I waited until after the performance to look at all the program notes, so it wasn’t until the play started that I remembered that this is the play Ionesco wrote because he was studying English and was fascinated and amused by the very precise yet nonsensical world of language texts, in which one person will ask simple questions repeatedly of the other, or one person informs the other of things they both already know.

Years ago, during various attempts to study various languages, I too was puzzled and amused by the strangely precise and arbitrary dialogue format, until someone explained to me the underlying theory: if the dialogues make intuitive sense, the student will simply assume the meaning instead of puzzling out the grammatical forms and vocabulary. Beneath the rational tone of the dialogues, the nonsensical and the arbitrary ensure that you pay attention.

In other words, the play isn’t just a random series of non-sequiturs and sketches. There’s a set-up here for a standard realistic play, with the Smiths (David Sinaiko and Paige Rogers), a proper bourgeois couple complete with a clever, backtalky maid named Mary (Anjali Vashi), waiting for the Martins (Donell Hill and Caitlyn Louchard), another proper bourgeois couple whom they have invited for dinner. The Fire Captain (Derek Fischer) also shows up.

The dialogue all makes surface sense; it just doesn’t make sense that anyone would say these things (as when Mrs Smith animatedly describes to her husband the meal they have just eaten). The pleasantries start to give way to little outbursts of rage or sarcasm. Exposition is contradicted moments later with contradictory information. Gradually the participants lose physical control and start hurtling themselves into the beautiful tangerine walls or somersaulting over the couches. After this complete breakdown into Dada, the play circles in on itself as the Smiths repeat their dialogue from the beginning of the play – only now the Smiths are the couple we’ve come to know as the Martins. Order, if not reason, is restored.

I saw this play years ago, and read it even longer ago, so I thought I pretty much had done it, and frankly wasn’t all that excited about seeing it. But I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering something I thought I knew. I continue to be amazed at how close to “real life” the Theater of the so-called Absurd really is. Just as the behavior of the people next to me during last season’s Ionesco echoed the themes of that play, so the whole contrast in this play between the banal expected civilities of middle-class life and little eruptions of rage and violence was echoed by the woman next to me, who kept crossing her legs into my space and kicking me without any sort of apology. Why are these idiots always next to me?

But she’s already seen it, so I don’t think you’ll have to sit next to her. If you have any curiosity about this play, let me strongly recommend this production, which runs through November 22. The cast is uniformly outstanding. As a Cutting Ball bonus, I should mention that Shakespeare’s caustic Troilus and Cressida is the November 8 offering in the Hidden Classics series, which I had forgetfully left off my November fun stuff list.

Haiku 305

Bright moon through black leaves
Next time I glance out, bright moon
Through black bare branches

*******

Sharp concrete edges
And bright lights soften and blur
Misty drunken nights