I was passing through the Westfield Mall today to sneer at people who still had Christmas shopping to do when I overhead a youngish man saying, "With my sensibility, I would tend to get them joke gifts."
If phrases like "my sensibility" are part of your everyday vocabulary, you really aren't the sort of person who should be buying joke gifts.
If you're interested in medieval and/or baroque sculpture, the Legion of Honor has a couple of small temporary exhibits you shouldn't miss.
First are the Burgundian mourners in their alabaster hoodies. They've been on display for a few months but will be leaving with the year, so if you've been putting off the admittedly onerous trip up to the Legion you only have a couple more weeks if you want to see them.
You have a little longer (until 19 February 2012) to see the Medusa by the great baroque sculptor and architect Bernini, on loan from the Musei Capitolini in Rome, a city memorably shaped by the buildings, sculptures, and fountains he designed.
As with his famous Apollo and Daphne, Bernini depicts the moment of metamorphosis, thereby displaying at their height both the psychological drama of the sculpture and his ability to capture varying textures (hair, snakeskin, flesh, cloth, limbs and leaves) in a single block of marble.
The once beautiful and vain Medusa is suddenly aware that the vindictive (or just) gods are punishing her arrogance with a transformation that will literally petrify with horror those who look on her.
The Bernini is on display in the museum's baroque gallery (take time to admire their fine Guercino!), but classical fragments can also be found elsewhere.
Last month at San Francisco Opera I was at the second performance of Handel’s Xerxes, a company premiere presented in Nicholas Hytner’s long-lived production from the English National Opera. (Michael Walling was the revival director.) I was in London the year after its premiere and as a general sign of devotion to Handel I bought the poster in the ENO shop, though the opera itself wasn’t on the schedule during my time there. Decades of going to baroque operas, and before last month I had never seen a live performance of Xerxes! I did at one point see the DVD of the ENO production, which was sung in English translation, since that is (or was) ENO’s house policy, a policy which explains why they called Handel’s Serse Xerxes; SF Opera kept that version of the name, although the opera was sung here in Italian. Presumably the name was left as Xerxes to avoid confusing people.
Speaking of confusing people, companies really should omit plot summaries in the program books for most baroque operas. Several years ago one of SF Opera’s training programs presented Handel's Ezio, which I attended with V. She was looking at the program and I saw a look of baffled panic start to appear on her face. I said, “You’re reading the synopsis, aren’t you? Don’t. It will confuse you completely. It’s full of things like ‘A, disguised as the shepherd B, is pursued by the tyrant C, though she loves D, who is traveling under the name of E, and is seeking revenge on F. . . .’ I guarantee that if you just watch the action it will all make perfect sense. If you read the synopsis, you will be completely confused forever.” Never read the synopsis for baroque opera: this is infallible advice for understanding the stage action.
Anyway, as for Xerxes: on the whole, it was beautifully sung in a stylish production, though I had the sad feeling that under different circumstances I would have been enjoying it more than I can honestly say I did. For one thing, it was a Friday night, and even with a 7:30 start time it is a long evening (nearly four hours) at the end of a work week. My regular subscription, back when I had one, was on Friday nights, so I had to keep reminding myself that I was often tired on those nights too, as otherwise the evening was a depressing reminder of what aging does to our involvement even in things we love.
Also, the people around me, obviously immersed in the movement towards historically-informed performance practice, were behaving with authentic eighteenth-century rudeness: there was lots of chatting, coughing, smooching, and so forth during the performance, particularly from a group of egregious Germans right in front of me. One of them was a woman with an extremely large head, which was blocking quite a bit of the stage. Since I was in the second row and am over six feet tall, I just wasn’t expecting my view to be blocked (yes, I know that sometimes people behind me are not happy to be behind me). I wish audience behavior didn’t affect me so much, but it does. There may be a secret to the ability to concentrate completely on the multitudinous sights and actions and noises from the stage while simultaneously blocking out everything else, but I have sadly not been able to discover it.
At the end of the first act the bald German man announced that “this is different from Wagner” – in fact he said it twice – and then he and his gang disappeared during the second act, which as a result I enjoyed quite a bit more. Unfortunately they returned for Act 3. I don’t know where they were in the meantime, or how they managed to adjust themselves to the tremendous discovery that Handel is not like Wagner.
So all along I’m feeling that this will possibly be my only chance to see this opera live – certainly it’s my only chance to experience this particular performance, for which I paid quite a lot – and for reasons not having much to do with the work itself, I’m feeling fairly low and let-down. Very sad for me.
Well, I did have one major complaint about the performance: much of the acting was too cartoony for me. You don’t need me to tell you that Susan Graham was commanding and sang beautifully as Xerxes, but Xerxes’s arbitrary and peremptory love for Romilda (Lisette Oropesa), the beloved of his brother Arsamenes (David Daniels) . . . damn, I wanted to avoid the plot summaries! Anyway, the interlocking love affairs were too frequently played for goofiness. The comic situations are more comic if those involved are clearly very serious about what they’re doing. (This also is infallible advice.)
And the situations aren’t all comic: Xerxes is an absolute monarch, used to having his way, and there should be a sense of real danger when he threatens the lovers who oppose his will. Otherwise there just isn’t much at stake. The action of the opera begins with Xerxes's celebrated aria, Ombra mai fu, whose flowing and noble beauty might obscure the fact that this all-powerful king, who could kill thousands with a mere gesture, is singing a love song to a tree. Xerxes is beyond whimsical and into unbalanced, and that’s obviously a dangerous quality in a person of unchecked powers.
I certainly don’t mean to single out Graham’s performance for this criticism, since she was one example among many. Maybe that is why I was particularly impressed by the Atalanta of Heidi Stober (Atalanta, the sister of Romilda, is secretly in love with Arsamenes, and therefore claims falsely to Xerxes that – argh, I’ve fallen into another plot summary!). She managed to avoid caricature and make a basically appalling woman, manipulative, selfish, and dishonest, into someone sympathetic and understandable. Added to the favorable impression she made in the very different role of Sophie in Werther, I have to say, she’s a singer I’m looking forward to experiencing again. Yes, she also sang with striking beauty, but that alone wouldn’t have set her apart in a cast that included Graham and David Daniels. Lisette Oropesa also held her own in this company, and I have to mention Michael Sumuel, who was genuinely funny as Arsamenes’s servant Elviro (he’s a servant, so he’s meant to be comic).
The large upside-down A is the museum's eminently mockable new logo. It symbolizes plunging attendance or something.
A while ago I made an attempt to see the new exhibit at the Asian Art Museum, Maharajah: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts. It was a Thursday night, before a concert, and it was the last Thursday of the year with late hours at the Asian, so it should have been perfect, except it wasn't because it was one of the museum's occasional stupid party nights. Sometimes those are easily ignored, but their website description of this one prominently mentioned a DJ, which should have been warning enough, but denial is, as they say, not just a river in Egypt.
They do have a nice cafeteria and an elegant gift shop. And there I am in the lower right-hand corner.
It was the nightmare I could have predicted if I had been realistic. By the time I realized how bad it would be it was too late to do anything else, but too early to go sit in the lobby of Herbst Theater. Getting into the museum took even longer than usual. The lobby was packed with people standing in very long lines for something – food or alcohol, I think – and walking anywhere required maneuvering around the immobile masses. Art didn’t seem to be on anyone’s mind. I went into the cafeteria (no line) and I ate my Indian-themed dinner to the brain-dead thump-thump-thump the DJ was inflicting on us.
This delightful picture across a lobby wall is promoting another new exhibit I haven't seen yet, Deities, Demons, and Dudes with 'Staches, featuring the attractively stylized and colorful work of Sanjay Patel, an artist at the Royal Court of Pixar.
I tried to see the new exhibit. Those rooms weren't as jammed as the lobby, but each object had one to three people listening to the audio tour planted in front of it, and since many of the pieces seemed to be fairly small and elaborately detailed paintings, it was going to be impossible to see anything, and besides the brain-dead thump-thump-thump was loud and unending. So here is what I managed to gather in a quick look: lots of gold, lots of silver, several small jewel-like paintings.
This bas-relief is from the permanent collection: the great Monkey King is bringing his troops to someone's aid (not mine).
I went to the second floor to look at Japanese art, hoping to escape the noise. Here are cranes flying! thump-thump-thump Here are peonies blooming! Thump-thump-thump I went up to the top floor to look at the regular Indian art collection. Here is Shiva! thump-thump-thump Here is a tiger hunt! THUMP-THUMP-THUMP
I finally couldn’t take it any longer and fled into the night, wondering if I should bother to renew my membership in the Asian Art Museum. Since I work, the Thursday evening hours are the best time for me to visit. It's a great place to go before a Thursday night concert in Civic Center. But they don't have the late hours in November and December, which are prime concert months. And about once a month they take over Thursday evenings with one of these events. And here’s the thing: if I wanted to listen to shit music amplified to a deafening volume, with my path steadily blocked by oblivious assholes nursing their grossly overpriced trendoid drinks while ignoring me and trying to pick each other up, then I would just go to a bar. And there are dozens of such places. As far as I know, there is only one place in the vicinity where you can go to look at Asian art. Why would an organization ignore its unique advantage and try to become a more expensive and inconvenient version of what is easily available in a dozen other places?
Old First Concerts offers a reliably interesting and entertaining line-up, and their $17 ticket price is one of the best arts bargains around; unfortunately for me, their concerts are almost always at 8:00 on Friday nights, which I’ve decided is possibly the worst time for performances. After a draining and tedious work week, generally the last thing I want to do with my exhaustion is carry it around aimlessly, wasting three-plus hours before a show even starts. One side effect of the ongoing Internetification of the World is the disappearance of many of the book or record stores where I used to be able to while away the hours in a more or less pleasing way. At least on Thursday nights some of the museums are open. There are simply not many places for me to go and not much for me to do now that won’t leave me feeling bored, irritated, and conscious of wasting time I could have spent better, and that's no way to walk into a concert.
Anyway, I did go up to Old First Church a couple of Fridays ago for the return of Euouae. I hadn’t walked up Van Ness that far (up to Sacramento Street) in a while, I guess, because I was surprised at the number of boarded-up businesses and restaurants I saw, some of them places that had been there for years. I was kind of tired but a better kind of tired than usual, since I had taken time off work and was wearing myself out in more interesting places.
Euouae made its maiden voyage at an earlier concert at Old First, which I wrote about here. This time director Steven Sven Olbash presented Jacob Obrecht’s Missa Sub tuum praesidium, interspersed with pieces by Josquin Des Prez and Perotin, as well as St Gall and Messine chants, the whole creating a service in honor of the Virgin Mary. In practical, sitting-in-the-audience terms, what this combination does is vary the texture of the music enough so that you can sit there for the duration (about 70 minutes or so) and not feel hypnotized by the lack of variety.
Euouae’s founding belief is that “music, being made of sound, cannot be written down.” Olbash also says (this information is coming from the program book, though you can also check out Euouae’s official website for more information) that they use rehearsal techniques employed before the tenth century. I don’t know what those techniques are, but then I’m not a choral singer and don’t know what current rehearsal techniques are either. Obviously something not written down is simply going to be lost unless interpretive traditions and techniques are handed down with an unchanged understanding, which requires what we have never had, a stable and uniform culture in which singers and audience share common assumptions. So I think what Olbash is getting at here is that they are trying to create or re-create the music, or a music, anew – that whatever antiquarian research lies behind the performance, the most important authenticity is of style and spirit. In short, the letter kills but the spirit gives life.
I decided early on in the performance not to keep checking the order of pieces in the program or the translations (though of course it's easy enough to keep track of the parts belonging to the Mass) or to ponder koan-like theories, and just to abandon myself to the aural experience. Let me commend myself for my wisdom in doing so! Olbash started the performance with very brief remarks, saying that he had been criticized at their first concert for talking too much from the stage ( I think I was one of those who said that – it does sound like something I would say), and then he didn’t speak again until the end, so let me commend him for that. At the close of the concert he offered us an unplanned encore of the Agnus Dei, since with rather endearing goofiness he hadn’t noticed that one of the singers wasn’t on stage. So they did it again with the correct number of participants. It reminded me of counting players on the field in football.
Theories and rehearsal techniques may shape the final product but of course are of more importance to the performers than to the audience, which simply gets the results. I found the results as enjoyable as in the first concert; the singers* blend beautifully but with enough individual piquancy to keep the music from sounding too processed or homogenized. There was a strange bandoneon-type instrument (it had a keyboard, so perhaps it was some type of small portable organ) that provided an eerie meditative droning to accompany some of the pieces. There is just something about this sort of chant that brings you into a different world, which of course is what the ancient chanters had in mind all along. It’s penetratingly persuasive, no matter what your reason for sitting in the church and listening.
*Caitlin Austin, Alice Ko, and Rebekah Wu, sopranos; Mary Gerbi and Andrea Kline, mezzo-sopranos; Sara Couden and Emily Ryan, contraltos; Matthew Curtis, tenor; Jeff Phillips and Steven Sven Olbash, baritones.
I went out to Davies Hall a week or two ago to hear Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the German Requiem. As I entered the lobby I noticed a number of strikingly beautiful young women in semi-exotic Arabian/stewardess garb (and yes, I mean Arabian as in the Nights, and I mean stewardess and not flight attendant). I cast my eyes downward with appropriate and becoming modesty and made it through unscathed in my self-created burka-aura, though the ladies didn’t seem particularly interested in offering me what they were offering everyone else who passed, which was a chance to win two round-trip Emirates Business Class tickets from San Francisco to Dubai. I know this because the programs contained annoying little red drop-in cards with an entry blank and the news that this was how the Symphony was welcoming Emirates as their official airline. I have no idea what the duties of an official airline are, or how they concern the audience. I was bemused at the thought that a group of people excited about hearing the Brahms Requiem would also be excited about the prospect of a trip to Dubai, which sounds as if it's just a tacky giant mall in the middle of nothingness. “For here we have no continuing city” indeed. For that I can stay in America.
The original plan was for the concert to open with a new piece by Sofia Gubaidulina; sadly she was not able to oblige, but the excellent substitutes were a short choral piece (Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock/I am the true vine) by Heinrich Schutz and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. Since Schutz was on Brahms’s mind in the Requiem, and since Schoenberg admired Brahms, it all tied together nicely, and I am always happy to hear either Schutz or Schoenberg, let alone both, though it was a little difficult to hear the Schoenberg since the dowager behind me crinkled a plastic bag on her lap for the entire duration of the piece. I had mixed feelings about having an intermission after two short pieces – it would have been interesting to plunge right into the Brahms, I thought, and cumulatively not much longer than some of Mahler’s symphonies – but at least the break gave her a chance to put the bag under her chair, where it should have been all along. There was a young woman behind me with Chica Loca tattooed in sweetly flowing script across the tops of her sweetly flowing breasts. She behaved impeccably, which did not surprise me, since anyone with a Chica Loca tattoo who shows up for Brahms is unquestionably really into him.
I thought the Brahms was magnificent. This piece can seem so familiar, but the performance managed to make it sound new and even strange without taffy-pulling it into pointless eccentricity. I particularly liked the faster tempo for the second movement (Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras/For all flesh is as grass, which might be my favorite movement anyway), which gave it a glowing, lilting, dance-like quality, like some mystical moonlit processional swaying past in the night, mourning with a mysterious joy. The handsome bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was the male soloist, and there was an extra dimension of poignancy in hearing his supple virile young voice singing of the brevity of life. Jane Archibald was gleaming and evanescent in her movement, as if she were singing to us from a dream. And the chorus was stupendous, as they so regularly are.
Death seems to bring out the best in the Symphony these days: there was their mighty Verdi Requiem, the revelatory Shostakovich 14, and, because he’s always death-haunted, the epic Mahler 3, and this German Requiem joins that company in my mind.
I wanted to go back for another helping of Brahms (Gil Shaham playing the Violin Concerto) with a side of Schoenberg (his orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet) the week after, since it was the Friday after Thanksgiving and I had to work anyway and the concert was at 6:30 so I wouldn’t have to wait around too long, but there were no rush tickets available, which might have been just as well since I was so tired that day I didn’t even re-heat turkey when I got home, I just ate pie all evening, and so another day passed.
O December: are you proud of yourself? You've already made Lisa cry. And I'm still trying to get out from under November. And yet you're already here, so here is this year's final round-up of arbitrary and personal cultural possibilities as 2011 winds down:
Volti performs new choral music that explores "the aspects of the divine and the timeless in even the most mundane moments of our lives"; tonight in San Francisco and tomorrow in Berkeley. Further info here.
Shotgun Players present God's Plot, written and directed by Mark Jackson, whose work is always interesting.
The San Francisco Symphony has an outstanding program on 8-10 December: Leila Josefowicz and Christine Brewer join Esa-Pekka Salonen to perform Sibelius's Pohjola's Daughter, excerpts from Wagner's Ring, and Salonen's Violin Concerto, the recent winner of the Grawemeyer Award.
And the great Boston Symphony Orchestra is appearing at Davies Hall (a sad falling off from Boston's Symphony Hall, where I first started attending symphony concerts, but there it is) 6-7 December, with two separate programs, both enticing. Tuesday's concert includes the BSO-commissioned Flute Concerto by Elliott Carter, which is a rare opportunity to hear music by this great American master performed at Davies. (Carter turns 103 on 11 December and is still composing.)
On 8 December the guest conductor Jayce Ogren leads the Berkeley Symphony in the Sibelius 5, Verge by Lei Liang, and Lou Harrison's wonderful Piano Concerto, with Sarah Cahill as the soloist. The Piano Concerto was my introduction to Lou Harrison's music, when I heard it years ago with Ursula Oppens at the Boston Symphony, and it just bowled me over.
Berkeley Rep presents Kneehigh Theater's The Wild Bride, 2 December to 1 January. I missed Kneehigh's Brief Encounter at ACT a couple of years ago, but I heard good things about it. Berkeley Rep sadly for me has a fairly inconvenient performance schedule, and doesn't seem to do rush tickets. And may I just say that I wish performing groups would give you clear information up front about their prices? I don't care that tickets start as low as $3.50 or whatever, since the small print is always that for that price you have to sit in an adjoining building behind a column and watch the show through an open window. I want to know how much a ticket costs in each section without having to click through six screens, and I want to see all seats available. Could we get on that please? Thanks!
Philharmonia Baroque presents the Mass in B Minor 2, 3, 4, and 6 December, in various locations; and Messiah at Zellerbach in Berkeley (in conjunction with Cal Performances) on 10 December.
Cal Performances presents the Takacs Quartet in works by Janacek, Britten, and Ravel on 4 December.
San Francisco Performances presents the Brentano String Quartet in a program called Fragments, in which living composers complete unfinished works by past composers (4 December); the great Karita Mattila in a song recital with Martin Katz (6 December); and pianist Christian Zacharias playing CPE Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert (9 December).
And of course there are plenty of Nutcrackers, Christmas Carols, and Messiahs out there. Enjoy the season!