MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Poetry’s “Thereness”

William Carlos Williams: passport photo, 1921

William Carlos Williams: passport photo, 1921

In “Reading the Difficult: A new critique of the New Criticism” – an article in this month’s Poetry magazine – Peter Quartermain reflects on the confounding “simplicity” of the kinds of poems that the New Critics disdained. With all their armory of explication de texte, interpretive analysis, and scansion exercises, they were at a loss when confronted with poems that don’t “care whether you are puzzled or not” but simply exist as “an event, and you can join it, take part in, or not.”

Especially in the case of the short poems of William Carlos Williams, there is an “implacability in the language that resists both paraphrase and explication. The language is so spare, the details so sparse, the statement so stubbornly there before the reader, uncompromising, that the reader’s knowledge cannot intervene, cannot interfere with the poem; indeed it renders that knowledge irrelevant, the poem open.”

Quartermain goes on to discuss the paradox of poets who “demand that we respond to the poem, to the language of the poem, as a what is, a thereness, a something outside.”

They ask us to recognize in the poem’s facticity what Giorgio Agamben calls the irreparable: “that things are just as they are, in this or that mode, consigned without remedy to their way of being.” Yet once we have read the poem, indeed as we read it, it inescapably moves within us, is within us, and in this the poem is like the world in which we move, which moves us, and is in us whether we are conscious of that or not. Our condition in language, our condition as language animals, is irremediable, irreparable. It is beyond “repair,” and doesn’t permit (presuming we want it) the perfect reading [the New Critics] sought, in which we all acquiesce and are of one mind, “completely” understanding one another. We are inside and outside at the same time, irreparably.

This opens up a rich perspective for thinking about the Modernist preoccupation with originality, with making it new (“Kinder, schafft Neues!”) – and not just in poetry, but in theater, music, the visual arts. Each of the poets Quartermain considers “posits language as a condition of the human, as 
constitutive of it, constitutive of meaning and hence necessarily of experience, inextricably part and parcel of apperception and conduct and understanding. Language is not, then, a means, nor is it, certainly, a precondition.”

And the poem? Maurice Blanchot, perhaps echoing Celan, thinks that the poem comes from that inexpressible place before words, from that gap between what might be the world and what might be words for what we find. Perhaps the poem comes from that odd cusp between the two sides of language, the outside and the inside that, mostly unknowingly, we inhabit. What is clear is that the poem brings into being what it says, and does not know ahead of time.

Filed under: aesthetics, poetry

Nights at the Opera

Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre presented by the New York Philharmonic in 2010; (c) Chris Lee 2010

My new feature for Symphony magazine’s Fall 2013 issue is available online now:

Total immersion: that was the radical brand of opera Richard Wagner hoped to inaugurate at Bayreuth. To enhance its effect, he famously made the “invisible orchestra” an integral part of his design. Yet the overall ideal of intensified theatrical illusion remained frustratingly out of reach, hampered by the limitations of the stage technology of the time. Cosima Wagner reported her husband’s sardonic joke in the aftermath of his deep disappointment over the first complete Ring: “Now that I’ve created the invisible orchestra, I’d like to invent the invisible stage!”

The concert hall has meanwhile long provided an appealing milieu in which to experience opera with another kind of immediacy—one that focuses on the musical dimension of this most collaborative of the arts and, far from disguising the orchestra, features it as the central character. And recent innovations that involve this format for presenting opera are even helping, in some cases, to redefine the orchestra’s institutional identity and sense of mission. A new era of co-productions involving artists from other disciplines, the choice of thematically meaningful repertory, marketing centered around concerts that include a visual and theatrical element as a special “event” of the season: all these are different facets of how opera in the concert hall has evolved in recent seasons.

The links between some of America’s most venerable orchestral institutions and opera are deeply rooted, whether in concert presentations (Frederick Stock’s legendary Tristan with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1935 and Dimitri Mitropoulos’s programming of complete operas with the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s) or in full productions actually in the opera house, such as the U.S. premiere of Wozzeck in 1931, which featured the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski.

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Filed under: concert programming, opera, orchestras

A Nose Job That Works

Study for The Nose by Wm Kentridge; photo by Nick Heavican

Study for The Nose by Wm Kentridge; photo by Nick Heavican

I met with an interesting group today for the Met’s HD simulcast of The Nose. A few of us recalled and shared our impressions of the Return of Ulysses production by Stephen Stubbs’ Pacific MusicWorks, which featured the unforgettable work of director William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa.

The excellence of Kentridge’s Shostakovich production – originating in 2010 and the Met’s first staging of The Nose – comes from his approach to the opera’s absurdism. Together with his first-rate design team, Kentridge gives full scope to this example of Shostakovich’s unbridled imagination, refusing to settle for a merely surreal comic tone.

With the opera’s massive cast and complex array of minor parts, Kentridge could have all too easily overwhelmed us with visual distractions, yet the many layers he adds to the narrative – the acres of newsprint reconfigured as collage, the animated film segments showing the separate “life” enjoyed by the autonomous Nose, and the urban chaos of early-Bolshevik Petersburg/Leningrad – all cohere and enhance the opera’s effectiveness.

Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 short story about the hapless assessor Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov – who wakes up after getting a shave from his aggressive barber to discover his nose has gone missing – predates Kafka’s The Metamorphosis by more than three-quarters of a century. (Along with its Kafka reference, Philip Roth’s The Breast reverses Gogol’s conceit into synecdoche.)

Like the German playwright Georg Büchner (Woyzeck dates from the same time), Gogol inspired a modernist opera in the following century. Berg’s take on his source became an instant classic, while Shostakovich’s disappeared for decades. Kentridge in turn makes this fascinating score, which soon after its premiere staging in 1930 fell into oblivion, come alive for the 21st century. (What other operas involve a declaration of independence by body parts? I can only think of Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias, with its breasts-turned-to-balloons that float away from the fed-up Thérèse – but she celebrates her sex change.)

This ranks among the finest new productions the Met has ventured under Peter Gelb’s tenure. What an illuminating discovery this score is for anyone whose familiarity with Shostakovich is limited to the Fifth Symphony or even the great string quartets. The incendiary brilliance of the young artist – he had already made a splash with his First Symphony at age 19 – is almost frightening. Sheer invention abounds in every corner of the orchestra, including innovative writing for percussion, along with a declamatory setting of the text that carries Mussorgsky’s ideas of natural musical speech rhythm forward – Shostakovich isn’t afraid of dispensing with the comforts of mere melody.

Young Shostakovich

Young Shostakovich

It all drives home how much the art of opera lost as the result of the dreadful turning point in Shostakovich’s career, when his next opera was denounced by Stalin’s culture police six years after The Nose came and went. My colleague Roger Downey, a superb critic and an expert in opera and theater, wondered how Shostakovich would have developed if he hadn’t been forced to bend to the strictures of Socialist Realism. The Nose contains so many intriguing what-ifs in that regard.

One quibble with the production – or perhaps with the structure of the opera itself: up to the end of the second act, the story follows Kovalyov’s desperate quest for his nose-gone-rogue clearly enough. (A wonderful idea was to provide ad hoc “entr’acte” music by having the orchestra improvise on the ritual of tuning.) So what’s all the business with the police and the train station in the third act? Why do they suddenly turn on the Nose and subdue it? Of course the absurdism is only strengthened by playing the narrative logic “straight,” but here it just becomes confusing.

The Nose of course demands to be read as an allegory – whether of the gullibility of us readers (Gogol), or of social hierarchy and the indifference of government bureaucracy (not so interesting), or of the inner division we feel as creative individuals (Kentridge’s take).

It occurred to me, especially from our current perspective, that The Nose could also be viewed as an allegory for the tension in early Modernism between the purist objective of autonomy (the abstract ideal) and the mongrel forms of the avant-garde imagination. Shostakovich himself emphasized the centrality of collaboration in this opera, its status as music theater and not “pure” music – precisely the strengths of Kentridge’s production.

In a recent review of Jacques Rancière’s Aisthesis, Hal Foster evaluates the French philosopher’s model of three “regimes” of art in the Western tradition. He points out that the new stylistic freedom permitted by the “aesthetic regime” – in which “the image is no longer the codified expression of a thought or feeling” (Rancière) – doesn’t require a contradiction between Modernist abstraction and the Dadaist/Surrealist “mission to reconnect art and life” in Rancière’s model: “the aesthetic regime is precisely this dialectic of modernist purity and avant-garde worldliness.”

Filed under: aesthetics, Metropolitan Opera, opera

The Age of Auden

"My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain."

“My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.”

Last month marked four decades since W.H. Auden died (he was only 66). How has he managed to retain that oracular hold over us, to continue to play the role of prophet? Auden himself abjured the myth that attached to his earliest work, the poems that first made him a celebrity. He later pointed out the foolishness of the fake choice – “we must love one another or die” – and steeled himself against the Siren sway of poetry’s utopian promise, even as he embraced other utopias.

How unforgettably Auden bids farewell to the image of the vatic poet in his elegy to W.B. Yeats, while recognizing the pressure of posterity to forge its own meaning from what the poet has left behind: “The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.”

Jess Cotton considers Auden’s strange holding power despite the wild swerves of tone and style in the later work:

Auden tried on styles like hats, finding only a couple too trivial to salvage. His poetic inventiveness and intellectual restlessness invites reels of criticism; though that is not to say that anything goes. The words of a poem are not the sum of its parts; and Auden’s poetry rarely yields its meaning quite as easily as its perfectly light verse would suggest. In fact, one of the masterful tricks of his poetry is that it’s quite often saying the opposite of what the reader has decided to hear. Ever alive to the limitations— and fundamental frivolity—of art, Auden’s greatness lies in believing at once in the power of art to enchant, while allowing irony to do its duty.

Can Auden really have it both ways? Irony but also enchantment in the Age of Anxiety?

This self-consciousness that “poetry makes nothing happen” doesn’t necessarily undercut the magic; in fact, he suggests, it may be one of magic’s expedients. Both “Stop all the clocks” and “September I, 1939,” are written in pastiche mode—the former to show precisely what happens when lines are taken out of context; the latter, far from the call to arms it is often taken for, salutes a rootless, ironic mode of being. As he writes of Yeats’ afterlife, Auden’s poetry is forever “Modified in the guts of the living;” its meaning distilled and rendered to fit the occasion. But poetry is mainly sound—the meanings will only take you so far; and to have sounded, in poetry, the tones of the age, is no small feat. To still sound them today, 40 years after his death, is surely a great one.

Filed under: poetry

Hell, Paradise, and Parody

The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder (c. 1896)

The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder (c. 1896)

Here’s a piece I wrote for San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Flying Dutchman – a look into Wagner’s attraction to the source material he used for his breakthrough opera:

“…[T]he faithful woman hurls herself into the sea and the curse on the Flying Dutchman is lifted, he is redeemed, and we see the ghostly ship sinking to the bottom of the sea. The moral of this piece, for women, is that they should beware of marrying a Flying Dutchman; and we men should draw from it the lesson that women, at best, will be our undoing.”

It might not be unreasonable to assume this quotation comes from a critic hostile to Wagner. Or perhaps it represents a merry ribbing of the unintended absurdities that never seem far from the surface in his operas, a la Anna Russell? (“The scene opens in the River Rhine. IN it.”) Yet this sardonic wink at the climactic scene of The Flying Dutchman is actually taken from the chief source Wagner used for the opera in which, as consensus has it, he began to realize his authentic voice for the first time.

Richard Wagner: drawing by Julius Ernst Benedikt Kietz, 1840-1842

Richard Wagner: drawing by Julius Ernst Benedikt Kietz, 1840-1842

That source is “The Fable of the Flying Dutchman,” an episode contained within the longer unfinished novel Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schabelewopski (From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski), which was published in late 1833— eight years before Wagner composed the bulk of his opera. Its author is the great German–Jewish writer Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), and his narrator recounts this story as the plot of a play he has witnessed; his retelling of what he sees onstage moreover embeds an erotically titillating episode involving a seductive fellow audience member (her sexually loose behavior making her a kind of anti-Senta).

Heinrich Heine: portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Heinrich Heine: portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Heine here applies his celebrated genius for irony to the tale of the wretched mariner whose defiant pride has doomed him to sail forever on a phantom ship. (In both Heine and Wagner, “the Flying Dutchman” refers not to the protagonist, who is unnamed, but to his doomed ship.) Heine’s bathetic parody of Romantic pathos was so effective precisely on account of the popularity of this relatively modern variant of an ageless legend (a principle that can still be seen operating in the success of films like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). The meme of the Cursed Sailor and his crew likely took shape as European empires expanded their maritime trade activities. While it had made the leap from oral folk tale to literature only recently, the culture was already saturated with this meme when Heine added his cynical depiction of “Mrs. Flying Dutchman”—already by 1826 the London playwright Edward Fitzball could score a hit with a partially farcical, over-the-top melodramatic treatment of this material.

Everyone loves a good ghost story, of course, and Shakespeare and Stephen King alike know how to captivate their audiences with a chilling yarn that can simultaneously provide entrée into something more profound. But the Dutchman motif proved especially alluring in the emerging era of Romanticism. From poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Thomas Moore to popular German storytellers of the early nineteenth century, it quickly made a trans-Atlantic crossing and became a theme frequently encountered in American letters. Examples include the writings of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe (both the short story “MS. Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym introduce Poe’s own fascinating twists on this material).

The Flying Dutchman, published in Collier’s Weekly, December 8, 1900 (oil on canvas), by Howard Pyle (1853–1911)

The Flying Dutchman, published in Collier’s Weekly, December 8, 1900 (oil on canvas),
by Howard Pyle (1853–1911)

The Dutchman’s eerie fate gratified a craving for tales of supernatural crime and punishment that also found expression in the work of several of Wagner’s predecessors: most notably, the German Romantic operas of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner (who composed one on a faddish vampire story) and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s early French grand opera Robert le Diable.

Nor was Wagner without precedent in recognizing in his cursed protagonist a resonant metaphor for deeper existential questions. The Gothic sense of alienation from ordinary society that is key to Wagner’s portrayal of the Dutchman taps into related currents of darker Romantic angst about modernity—as seen, for example, in Lord Byron’s world-weary anti-hero Manfred and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s precocious novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. In addition, as Dieter Borchmeyer remarks in Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, the Dutchman of lore can be viewed as “a symbol of the hubristic spirit of discovery that transgressed the boundaries of knowledge and experience” dictated by religion” and “is thus the maritime equivalent of Faust.”

Frontispiece to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (revised edition from 1831 of the novel first published in 1818)

Frontispiece to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (revised edition from 1831 of the novel first published in 1818)

It’s not by coincidence that during his exile in Paris, Wagner abandoned work on a Goethe-inspired Faust Symphony not long before embarking on The Flying Dutchman. (He later published what he had completed as an independent concert overture.) The composer himself analyzed this move toward “the specificity of the drama” as a liberation “from the mists of instrumental music.”

Wagner’s intense attraction to the Dutchman legend can hardly be explained as an attempt to exploit a topic made fashionable by popular culture. In fact, hot on the heels of his first commercial success with Rienzi, the more artistically adventurous Flying Dutchman initially earned a lukewarm reception (there were only four performances of the original Dresden production).

Another angle from which to consider the tale’s grip on the composer’s imagination, according to Joachim Köhler’s controversial biography Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, is arguably an inner need to exorcize “the traumatic experiences of horror and the fear of ghosts that kept him awake at night”—terrors that in Köhler’s portrayal had been imprinted on him as a sensitive child. And in a fascinating essay on The Flying Dutchman in the context of the operatic genres of its time, Wagner expert Thomas Grey writes that the composer turned the “melodramatic” claptrap associated with the story—“with its mysterious portraits, invisible voices, ersatz folk ballads, and sentimental ‘romances’”—into “an allegory of Romantic alienation, love, and redemption.” In doing so, “Wagner was aiming to rehabilitate this ailing branch [the “homely genre” of German Romantic opera] of his artistic patrimony.”

Last scene from the Dresden premiere production: Leipziger Illustrierte Zeitung, 3 January 1843

Last scene from the Dresden premiere production: Leipziger Illustrierte Zeitung, 3 January 1843

Yet what drew Wagner so compulsively to the satirical version of the legend set forth by the notoriously anti-Romantic Heine, whose ironic posture he simply stripped away? Heine, in fact, exercised a far-ranging influence on Wagner’s future career. The aspiring young artist had been befriended by the poet, a fellow exile in Paris who welcomed him into his circle (and quite possibly even helped Wagner polish his French prose in the scenario he prepared for submission to the Paris Opera). Köhler points out that “virtually all the mythological themes that were to be associated with Wagner’s name were already touched on” in Heine’s writings (such as the Grail legends, the tale of Tristan and Isolde, the riding Valkyries, and Tannhäuser’s excursion into the forbidden Venusberg). And in his earlier autobiographical accounts, Wagner credited Heine for giving him “all I needed to adapt the [Dutchman] legend and use it as an operatic subject”—though Wagner’s metastasizing anti-Semitism likely underlay his later suppression of any reference to his debt to Heine.

“One must be able to joke about the most sublime of things,” declared Wagner (as reported by his wife Cosima in her diaries). Borchmeyer adds that “as early as 1840 [before he had even completed his Dutchman libretto] he had written French parodies of Senta’s Ballad and the Sailors’ Chorus, showing how tragic themes immediately evoked parodic associations in his imagination.” (When you get down to it, “The Ride of the Valkyries” is not such a great distance from vaudeville.) By way of making sense of Wagner’s transformation of the satirical source he discovered in Heine into a primal existential drama, Borchmeyer suggests that “the subject has reacquired its former tragic seriousness, having lived through the experience of its own comic negation…which explains why, in turn, Wagner’s music dramas have repeatedly invited writers to parody them.”

(c)Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: opera, Wagner

Testing the Sound of Silence

The anechoic test chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis holds a Guinness Book record as “the quietest place in the world.” Used to test the amount of sound generated by an amazing variety of products (Whirlpool, Harley-Davidson, etc.) and to determine sound quality, the chamber has generated a meme about the psychological limits to enduring an unnaturally quiet environment. It has a reputation for being “so quiet it becomes unbearable after a short time.”

Justin Glawe over at The Airship casts doubt on all the publicity. Is it really a matter of gullible journalists repeating the brand hype?

It’s much less impressive in person than in the photographs you can find online. What you can’t see in image searches is the dust coating the fiberglass fins that cover the walls and sit below the chicken-wire floor.

…[David] Berg, lab manager for the last 22 years, said the claim that no one could last in the anechoic chamber for more than 45 minutes is a result of shoddy journalism.

According to George Michelson Foy, author of Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, the legendary 45-minute limit wasn’t a problem when he tried it, despite the chamber’s ability to absorb 99.9% of sound:

In an attempt to recapture some peace, I decided to go on a mission to find the quietest place on Earth; to discover whether absolute silence exists…

When the heavy door shut behind me, I was plunged into darkness (lights can make a noise). For the first few seconds, being in such a quiet place felt like nirvana, a balm for my jangled nerves. I strained to hear something and heard…nothing.

Then, after a minute or two, I became aware of the sound of my breathing, so I held my breath. The dull thump of my heartbeat became apparent – nothing I could do about that. As the minutes ticked by, I started to hear the blood rushing in my veins. Your ears become more sensitive as a place gets quieter, and mine were going overtime. I frowned and heard my scalp moving over my skull, which was eerie, and a strange, metallic scraping noise I couldn’t explain. Was I hallucinating? The feeling of peace was spoiled by a tinge of disappointment – this place wasn’t quiet at all. You’d have to be dead for absolute silence.

Then I stopped obsessing about what bodily functions I could hear and began to enjoy it. I didn’t feel afraid and came out only because my time was up; I would happily have spent longer in there. Everyone was impressed that I’d beaten the record, but having spent so long searching for quiet, I was comfortable with the feeling of absolute stillness. Afterwards I felt wonderfully rested and calm.

Filed under: acoustics, silence

The Morning After: Seattle’s Theatre22 Takes Its First Bow

(left to right) Meg McLynn, Alex Garnett, Zach Sanders, Chris Shea, Tom Stewart, Megan Ahiers, Rachel Sedwick, and Mary Machala

(left to right) Meg McLynn, Alex Garnett, Zach Sanders, Chris Shea, Tom Stewart, Megan Ahiers, Rachel Sedwick, and Mary Machala

When he was ready to realize his dream of launching a new theater company in Seattle, director, actor, and teacher Corey D. McDaniel chose a play that centers around rich and complex ensemble acting for their first outing. Theatre22‘s declared mission to serve as “a meeting ground” emphasizes the power of artistic collaboration. And the company’s inaugural production of Fifth of July unquestionably puts its values to the test.

Lanford Wilson’s landmark play from 1978 is a richly textured meditation on the ties and tensions between a circle of highly individual characters coping with the emotional scars of disillusionment – and, in the case of Kenny Talley, a vet who lost his legs in Vietnam, the physical scars as well. Ken has taken temporary refuge in the now-rundown family homestead in rural Missouri which is his inheritance. Kenny’s lover Jed, a creative gardener, is painstakingly restoring the surrounding landscape, but the impulse toward stability Jed represents is countered by the events of a long Independence Day’s journey into night.

Chris Shea and Alex Garnett as Kenny and Jed

Chris Shea and Alex Garnett as Kenny and Jed

Among the holiday guests are Kenny’s sister June and her precocious teenage daughter, their Aunt Sally, and friends from their shared past as erstwhile radical students at Berkeley in the 1960s: the smooth-talking John Landis (who was sexually involved with brother and then sister) and his wealthy wife Gwen, whose big business trust fund didn’t prevent her from accessorizing trendy ’60s-style Marxism back in the day. Now, though, Gwen’s dreams have turned toward a career as a country singer, and her trusty guitarist Wes has accompanied her for the visit.

Borrowing a framework from Chekhov, Wilson establishes dramatic stakes that outwardly revolve around the proposed sale of the Talley home. John and Gwen hope to buy the farm to transform it into a commercial recording studio. But its metaphorical significance – the symbol of Ken’s unrealized potential and also of the past, of the collective memory whose meaning is up for grabs – intensifies the moral weight of the outcome. (Wilson, who died just two and a half years ago, went on to expand his drama of the Talleys into a trilogy, writing two more plays about the Talley family’s past, which take place in the 1940s.)

Fifth of July cast: Megan Ahiers, Tom Stewart, Chris Shea, and Meg McLynn; photo by Robert Falk

Fifth of July cast: Megan Ahiers, Tom Stewart, Chris Shea, and Meg McLynn; photo by Robert Falk

Director Julie Beckman is well attuned to the musical method of Wilson’s writing: like a tapestry of solo instrumentals emerging from the ensemble, different characters unexpectedly detach and come into the foreground to riff on a particular – not necessarily related – theme, only to gently recede while the focus turns elsewhere. A persistent challenge is making these transitions plausible and seamless: at times the production makes them feel too abrupt. There’s a lot of sensitive attention to detail in these monologues, and to their alluringly poetic blend of pathos and eccentric humor. The overall pacing, though, especially in the first act, has a tendency to slacken. As with Chekhov, finding the right tempo for Wilson is an extremely subtle undertaking.

Yet the connections and frustrations that are key to Fifth‘s momentum are vividly realized by the cast. Chris Shea, while tending toward a one-note approach to Kenny’s bitterly ironic tone, is genuinely moving in the final scene when – with beautiful symmetry – he is persuaded to stay by Gwen (a gloriously larger-than-life fuck-up in Meg McLynn’s portrayal). As his boyfriend Jed, Alex Garnett is the force that grounds Kenny, but he also underlines the significance of his rapport with Aunt Sally – and thus is the linchpin who holds this fragile family together. Megan Ahiers conveys sister June’s lingering insecurity; as her uber-curious daughter Shirley, Rachel Sedwick toggles between bratty tantrums and wise-beyond-her years remarks.

Aunt Shirley is meant to embody the contradictions that define the Talley family – or the braver exemplars of the clan – and the link to a past whose meaning has become painfully dubious. Mary Machala shows her as a dreamy eccentric, bruised in her own way and thus in league with her nephew Kenny. Tom Stewart emphasizes John’s sleazy swagger, but he comes off a tad too nice for the cutthroat competitor who has apparently shucked his Age of Aquarius idealism with no qualms. Zach Sanders has a few show-stealing moments as the space cadet Wes – including his famous monolog about the ill-fated Eskimo family.

The fine black box space of Fremont’s West of Lenin underscores the intimacy of this production and the details of Michael Mowery’s picture-frame unit set and Jordan Christianson’s spot-on costuming (complete with unironic bell-bottoms sported by John). Tim Moore’s sound focuses on the music – mostly a blast from the past – though I would’ve also welcomed some environmental sounds for a sense of place. Robert Falk’s lighting traces the first act’s woozy trailing off into memory as the national holiday fades into night, followed by the uneasy promise of the morning after.

It all makes for an impressive inaugural production. And Theatre22 has mapped out some ambitious plans for later in the season: in February comes a new musical titled The Hours of Life by Paul Lewis, based on Edgar Allen Poe, which will be directed by Corey McDaniel; and Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata is slated for this coming June, directed by Gerald B. Browning.

If you go: Fifth of July plays through October 26 at West of Lenin in Fremont. Tickets online

Corey McDaniel (producer) and Julie Beckman (director); photo by K. Lindsay

Corey McDaniel (producer) and Julie Beckman (director); photo by K. Lindsay

Filed under: review, theater

What a Story: Enda Walsh’s Walworth Farce

NCT's "The Walworth Farce"; photo by Chris Bennion

NCT’s The Walworth Farce; photo by Chris Bennion

For its fall production, Seattle’s enterprising New Century Theatre has chosen Enda Walsh’s The Walworth Farce. Here’s my review for Crosscut:

Talk about a repetition compulsion: For the first half of The Walworth Farce, New Century Theatre’s latest adventure, a father and his two grown sons run through the lines of the play they reenact day after day – an absurd, antic ritual involving a mock procession with a cardboard coffin, constant prop swaps, dizzying identity changes and a hidden “fortune” of shredded Monopoly money.

In the confines of their squalid South London council flat, Dinny (Peter Crook) is the paterfamilias and dictatorial writer-director of the script he and his sons Sean (New Century Theatre artistic director Darragh Kennan) and Blake (Peter Dylan O’Connor) perform day after day. Dinny keeps his boys’ eyes on the prize, egging them on to compete for a chalice-like trophy that will go to that day’s “best actor.” But snafus inevitably occur, and the ritual has to be reorganized.

Dinny’s play is the thing that’s supposed to keep them all safe. It recounts the story, fable repeated until it’s taken as fact, of how this insular family unit was forced to abandon their idyllic home back in Cork. We also learn how Mother was killed in a bizarre accident involving a dead horse. They’ve been living as exiles ever since, surrounded by “savage” Londoners and holed up on the top floor of a grimy, stairless high-rise.
“What are we without our stories?” wonders Dinny by way of justifying the outrageous fiction he’s used to paint over what actually happened – and the real world kept at bay by a half-dozen deadbolts on the flat’s front door.

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Filed under: playwrights, review, theater


Roger Reynolds, 2005

Roger Reynolds, 2005

Despite the recent government shutdown, this month’s world premiere of george WASHINGTON by the National Symphony went ahead as scheduled. Here’s the essay I wrote for the program:

“I believe all things will come out right at last, but…the people must feel before they will see.” These words of George Washington (1732-1799), observes Roger Reynolds, might serve as the epigraph for his new composition. They occur in the final section of the libretto for george WASHINGTON, which Reynolds carefully selected and assembled from the diaries and letters of the iconic figure. In comparison with Washington’s relatively “wooden” speeches, which represent a “publicly constructed persona” intended to shield his imposing image, these more intimate sources proved to be a wellspring: “I was staggered by his wisdom, his sensitivity, even his ability to be poetic and to make emotively potent statements.”

The priority of experience as the gateway toward true understanding, Reynolds adds, is an idea that recurs in Washington’s writings, but it also expresses the composer’s own goal for the work. He envisioned george WASHINGTON as a multimedia amalgam of orchestral music, narration, visual projections, and computer-processed “surround” sound. All of this elaborate technical apparatus, in the end, is meant to provide an immersive experience that can “provoke the imagination and arouse in the audience some sense of their own relationship to Washington as a human being. It’s not about giving a history lesson but about trying to enter into Washington’s world.”

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Filed under: commissions, music news, new music, orchestras

Remembering Toby Saks

Toby Saks

Toby Saks

Yesterday evening Seattle’s Benaroya Hall was the gathering place for a large crowd of musicians, music lovers, friends, and members of a very extended family who were there to commemorate Toby Saks. She died two and a half months ago, just after a particularly successful edition of the annual summer Seattle Chamber Music Society Festival, her baby, had come to an end.

Toby Saks’s legacy as a cellist, educator, festival organizer, champion of new talent, and overall remarkable human being was recalled last night from many different angles. There were moving personal anecdotes from her circle of friends and peers. Most significantly, the event centered around performances featuring a combination of local musicians and others traveling from around the country — over 60 musicians, all told. They made it clear that it is through living music most of all that Toby would want to be remembered.

Quite a few were wearing buttons custom-made with a photo of the cellist smiling and the inscription “I’m Here for Toby.” The official program was framed by excerpts from Toby’s extensive archives — performances restored from reel-to-reel tapes and converted to digital format by her brother, Jay David Saks, a musical producer for the Metropolitan Opera.

Toby Saks - (c)Seattle Chamber Music Society

Toby Saks – (c)Seattle Chamber Music Society

One of the restored pieces listed in the program was of the Dvořák Cello Concerto as recorded by Toby at 19 with the Kol Yisrael Symphony Orchestra (in Jerusalem, 1961). Gerard Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony’s conductor laureate, spoke eloquently of the first time he had heard her playing, which happened to be this very work. It took place at the High School of Performing Arts in New York – her alma mater, where Schwarz was then studying – as Toby as en route to participating in and winning the Pablo Casals Competition in Israel.

Schwarz reminded us that Toby was among the very first women cellists of the New York Philharmonic and noted the many ways in which her musicality continued to astonish and inspire him throughout their decades together in Seattle. Schwarz himself led a string orchestra (some Seattle Symphony players with mostly SCMS associates) in a rich-voiced account of the “Elegia” movement from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings to open the celebration. For all the sense of loss and the meditative, even solemn character of most of the musical selections, that’s exactly what the event was: “This is a celebration of life,” her husband, Dr. Martin Greene, reminded everyone. “It’s not about mourning.”

Greene introduced a video tribute looking back over Toby’s 30 years heading the Chamber Music Festival she had founded in 1982. Her fellow musicians competed to outdo each other with their praise and gratitude for how much she had influenced their lives, their careers, converging on a shared theme of “Mama Tobs” as an insatiably generous and passionate advocate for music. Violinist James Ehnes, who took over as artistic director of SCMS two years ago, described what a vital force she had been, operating a complicated network and interacting with hundreds of musicians through the years. Robin McCabe, director of University of Washington’s School of Music, recalled Tobyu’s “feisty” vitality and fierce love of her students.

Of the many remarkable musicians who were on hand to perform in Toby’s honor, cellist Robert deMaine’s performance of the Largo from Chopin’s Cello Sonata (with pianist Jon Kimura Parker) struck me as especially heart-felt, to the point that his warmth of phrasing seemed to be speaking directly to Toby – cello to cello, as it were.

Toby Saks

A particularly notable moment was the premiere of a new piece, spontaneously composed in memory of Toby Saks by Lawrence Dillon as soon as he learned of her passing. Dillon had gotten to know her only recently in connection with the chamber work he was commissioned to write for this past summer’s festival. His Passing Tones, for three cellos and violin (Ehnes and deMaine, Jeremy Turner, and Andrés Díaz). This compact, elegiac essay carried a poignant reminder of the principles of ensemble and the individual voice, the creative tension between them, that’s at the heart of chamber music making – and about which Toby was so passionate.

Martin Greene introduced the closing number, remarking there could be no better way to end than with a composer his wife especially loved, rendered by an orchestra of her favorite instrument, the cello. And so 19 cellists took the stage, with Schwarz again conducting, to play the arrangement by Heitor Villa-Lobos of Bach’s Prelude No. 8 in E-flat minor from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier. A prelude, not a postlude, speaking worlds about the enduring ways in which Toby touched the lives of those around her.

Filed under: chamber music, new music

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