Month: July 2007

Yizkor

Here’s a tantalizing might-have-been. At some point in the early 1960s, Leonard Bernstein asked Robert Lowell to write the text for what would eventually become Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3, Kaddish. Lowell mentioned it in a Christmas Eve 1962 letter to Elizabeth Bishop:

I’ve had the worse experience, 1 of grinding out like a machine things I’ll never use. Ten sonnets of Nerval, that vanish to nothing in English, words for a symphony for the dead, that Leonard Bernstein wanted me to try and have so far produced a bilge of declamation.

In the end, of course, Bernstein rather infamously wrote his own text for the symphony. How and when Lowell’s part in the project came to an end isn’t clear—but Lowell’s “Three Poems for Kaddish” did eventually turn up, posthumously, in a 1979 issue of Ploughshares. They were reprinted in the 2003 edition of Lowell’s Collected Poems.

Like Bernstein, Lowell uses his text to address God directly, but in place of Bernstein’s defiance is a wry empathy: twice, Lowell calls the almighty “poor little Father.” Lowell seems to imply a division into seasons (suggesting that there may have been a planned fourth poem). The first is summer, images of light and heat hinting at environmental and nuclear holocausts.

[W]e think the sun draws nearer day by day.

[W]e bake our hearts out on the sands.
We worship thee, Oh bathers’ sun,
and in our terror ask if Solomon
in all his beauty was arrayed like thee.

Because we were forgetful of God’s ways,
will he rejoice and watch our planet run
like a black coffin round the sun
with frigid repetitions of his praise?

Then an allusion to Psalm 137: “How can I sing a new song,/ rolled stem and blossom/ in this strange land?/ Can God destroy us in the act of praise?”

The second poem shifts to spring, in the form of the Deluge of Noah:

Was God sure
that our extinction was our only cure?

Men saw the heavens’ open windows pour
destruction on the land for forty days;
from sun to sun, they filled the earth with praise,
but now we know the Lord of Hosts is poor.

Look in our fallible and foolish glass,
your own face stares at you like withered grass!

This sets up the third poem, where winter descends like an ice age. While fisherman cut holes in the frozen river, Lowell hears echoes of “the saber-tooth and mastodon… they rule with shaggy, crushing stubbornness.” The impersonal machinery of technology gives way to the savage machinery of nature.

… The clock-
maker has no surprises for the clock.

Our hands have turned creation on its head.
Oh Father, do not bite your lip and frown;
it hardly matters now if we made God,
or God made us. Both suffer and exist.

A Bernstein-Lowell collaboration, in theory, seems like a dream: both volatile forces, voracious reworkers of the culture, creators of uncomfortably personal art whose “confessional” personas were as carefully constructed and invented as any of their works. There’s a possibility that Bernstein decided the stage wasn’t big enough for both of them. But comparing Lowell’s poems with Bernstein’s own texts, there’s also a sense that Bernstein may have found Lowell’s contributions too polished, too “traditional” in their intricate rhyme and meter. Maybe the poems weren’t raw enough or brazen enough—Bernstein’s speaker seems a rebellious child, finally grown up enough to challenge the father as an equal. Lowell, who had ample experience as the rebellious child, instead opted to portray a God brought down to our level, afflicted with an all-too-human disappointment. (Our Father, who wert in heaven, welcome to the club.)

For me, the really interesting wild-card in this story is Allen Ginsberg. Because I think parts of Lowell’s Kaddish seem to be consciously or subconsciously picking up on themes from Ginsberg’s Kaddish. Ginsberg wrote his Kaddish, a long poem on the death of his mother Naomi, between 1957 and 1959. Ginsberg frames the recitation of his mother’s life with visions of sunlight:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon….

And then:

Toward the Key in the window—and the great Key lays its head of light on top of Manhattan, and over the floor, and lays down on the sidewalk—in a single vast beam, moving, as I walk down First toward the Yiddish Theater—and the place of poverty

We learn later that the sunlight “key” is from a letter Ginsburg’s mother wrote to him, which he quotes: “The key is in the window, the key is the sunlight at the window—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight at the window.” Ginsberg contrasts this with his mother dying in the hospital:

But that the key should be left behind—at the window—the key in the sunlight—to the living—that can take
that slice of light in hand—and turn the door—and look back see
Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe,
size of the tick of the hospital’s clock on the archway over the white door—

This is all similar to the sun imagery in the first of Lowell’s poems, especially when he says:

I think our little span has reached its end,
that henceforth only ruin will regard
the breathless planets and the sun descend
aeons around an earth whose crust is hard.

Lowell’s Psalm 137 allusion, the futility of his song, also has a counterpart in Ginsberg:

Tho I am not there for this Prophecy, I am unmarried, I’m hymnless, I’m Heavenless, headless in blisshood I would still adore
Thee, Heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity—
Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing—to praise Thee—But Death

Lowell knew Ginsberg. In 1959, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso visited Lowell at his house. Lowell didn’t think much of the whole movement; after the visit, he would write to Bishop:

They are phony in [a] way because they have made a lot of publicity out of very little talent. But in another way, they are pathetic and doomed. How can you make a go for long by reciting so-so verse to half-jeering swarms of college students? However, they are trying, I guess to write poetry.

But Lowell liked Kaddish. After the visit, he wrote to Ginsberg:

Well, I enjoy Kaddish much more. It’s really melodious, nostalgic, moving, liturgical. Maybe it ought to be shorter—the manner sometimes almost writes itself—probably there’s too much Whitman. And I do find it a bit too conventional, eloquent and liturgical. Well, it’s well done, felt and a good poem.

Presented with Bernstein’s scheme, did Lowell see an opportunity to rewrite Ginsberg’s Kaddish in his own manner? Certainly the results are wildly different, Ginsberg’s stream-of-consciousness reminiscences a long way from Lowell’s lofty detachment. But many of Lowell’s poems, in their early drafts, are at least a little closer to Ginsberg’s style. Lowell often would write blank verse at first, imposing rhyme and meter as he revised. And as he rewrote, personal, autobiographical details often became more abstract, more universal. Interestingly, the formality of Lowell’s Kaddish poems is closer to his early 1940s style than the rhythmically looser experimentation of his successful, controversial breakthrough 1959 volume, Life Studies. It might seem contradictory for Lowell to call Ginsberg’s eloquence conventional—but not in the light of Lowell’s own style, where he tends to utilize the strictest formal discipline for the most shocking and disjointed of his visions.

If Bernstein really was after a more “far-out” text for the symphony, it would be a little bit of irony that, if Lowell was indeed echoing Ginsberg, the result wasn’t, well, Ginsberg-like enough for Bernstein. Bernstein never collaborated with Ginsberg, either—that would have been some pairing. And it’s intriguing to try and imagine how Lowell’s unsentimental, tightly-controlled power would have interacted with Bernstein’s sprawling symphonic ambitions. But that could be why it failed—you always assume that the collaboration of two potent personalities will produce a critical mass, but maybe the result is destined to be fission rather than fusion.

Special thanks to Jodi and Patrick, and my lovely wife, for the Lowellian birthday swag.

There’s one for you, nineteen for me

Don’t miss Geoff Edgers’ fine muckraking smackdown of the Citi Performing Arts Center in this morning’s Globe. It seems the awfully lawyer-heavy board of trustees voted to give the CEO a $1.2 million bonus at the same time* they were running a deficit, cutting their summer outdoor Shakespeare productions from three weeks to one, etc., etc.

In a phone interview on July 18, board chairman [John William] Poduska [Sr.] said the bonus was created to keep [CEO Josiah] Spaulding [Jr.] at the center. “Was it justified or not? Boy, I’ll tell you it was,” he said. “Joe was being courted by everyone under the sun. . . . He stayed and did a heck of a job.”

The millennium’s most ringing endorsement! At the rate they’re going, the place’ll be a Citibank branch office before “Riverdance” swings through town again.

*Update (8/21): Citi Center board chairman John Poduska, Sr. has sent a letter to supporters and donors in which he states that the decision to give Spaulding the bonus was made in 2001, just before a run of deficit years, although the expense was spread over the five years of his contract ($200K per year, plus accrued interest), which means that they were, in fact, setting aside money for the bonus at the same time they were cutting their support of other programs.

London Calling

Head over to the BBC website, and you can listen to streaming audio of the past week’s worth of Proms. Thanks to a tip from Ear Trumpet, I just caught up with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s new Piano Concerto, played earlier today by Yefim Bronfman and the BBC Symphony, Salonen conducting, and a fun Brass Day concert featuring new pieces by Judith Bingham and Peter Wiegold, along with HK Gruber’s trumpet concerto Aerial (played by Håkan Hardenberger).

I think Salonen’s Concerto needs the spatial experience of live performance for its full effect; through radio, its non-stop activity, even in the slow movement, comes across like an overstuffed Victorian museum, every corner crammed with bric-a-brac to the point where your senses are inured to the relative quality of each object. This is my second go-round with the Gruber, but critic-at-large Moe’s first: the atmospheric opening movement made him quite serene, while the modernist bump-and-grind finale stimulated his appetite. (That’s a beef short-rib bone he’s chewing on, a souvenir of a Korean barbeque outing with my in-laws.)

serene moemoe with a bone

Trollflöjten

In memoriam: the first act quintet from Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 version of Die Zauberflöte:
(Tamino: Josef Köstlinger; Papageno: Håkan Hagegård; the ladies: Britt Marie Aruhn, Kirsten Vaupel, and Birgitta Smiding.) A safe vote for the best movie version of an opera ever—although I think the Powell-Pressburger Tales of Hoffmann should also be a contender—what’s most fun about Bergman’s rendition is that he is more true to Mozart and Schikaneder than most productions, while, at the same time, transforming the material into an almost stereotypical Bergman film. (Kind of like Bernard Shaw and Wagner, in a way.) This entire scene is done with nothing but lighting (except for those great Seventh Seal-prop-reject skulls), but the close-ups and editing make it completely surreal in spite of the self-conscious stage artifice. The ladies’ deep-focus entrance alone—eerie, funny, and so casually understated in its legerdemain—is still one of my favorite celluloid moments.

The Young and/or the Restless

Two generations of composers at Tanglewood.
Boston Globe, July 29, 2007.

DVD extras:

John Harbison on choosing between jazz and classical: “There was this instance of mistaken identity. I won an award, but, by mistake, they gave it to another guy in my [jazz] group. By the time it was straightened out, I had already started [studying classical music] at Harvard.”

Joan Tower on performing vs. composing: “I thought playing the piano was much more fun [than composing]. You’d have the music right there—you’d just do what it told you, and music came out. Composing is so much harder…. Luckily, I kept changing environments. My father was a mining engineer, so we moved around a lot. I kept changing teachers, which wasn’t a good thing, but it helped me later in life not to have a definite career as a pianist. These things work out sometimes.”

Asaf Peres on computer playback: “I had a girlfriend who was a composer, and I would be embarrassed when she would play things back [through the computer] for me. It would sound really bad, and I would think, what am I going to do? But then you hear the live performance, and it sounds amazing.”

William Bolcom on Everett, Washington, where he grew up: “Everett was a little socialist town, so it had very good libraries. So I could go, and they had recordings! And scores! And I would start with the ‘A’ section—I would look at scores and auralize them, learn to hear them in my head.”

Alexandra Fol (a native of Bulgaria) on smuggling music across the Iron Curtain: “I remember that. I was very young, and I remember my parents smuggled Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar between their underwear, these black vinyl records.”

Correction (7/31): I originally had my pronouns mixed up in Asaf’s quote (see comments).

Fragment

More Soviet animation: a portion of Mikhail Tsekhanovsky’s “Bazaar,” the only extant scene from his unfinished Pushkin adaptation The Tale of the Priest and His Worker Balda, dating from 1933 and scored by none other than Dmitri Shostakovich.

Shostakovich abandoned work on the feature-length film after the infamous 1936 Pravda article denouncing him. The majority of the footage was destroyed in a fire during World War II. (More details here.)

Many happy returns of the day

The truth is, laws, religions, creeds, and systems of ethics, instead of making society better than its best unit, make it worse than its average unit, because they are never up to date. You will ask me: “Why have them at all?” I will tell you. They are made necessary, though we all secretly detest them, by the fact that the number of people who can think out a line of conduct for themselves even on one point is very small, and the number who can afford the time for it still smaller. Nobody can afford the time to do it on all points. The professional thinker may on occasion make his own morality and philosophy as the cobbler may make his own boots; but the ordinary man of business must buy at the shop, so to speak, and put up with what he finds on sale there, whether it exactly suits him or not, because he can neither make a morality for himself nor do without one. This typewriter with which I am writing is the best I can get; but it is by no means a perfect instrument; and I have not the smallest doubt that in fifty years’ time authors will wonder how men could have put up with so clumsy a contrivance. When a better one is invented I shall buy it: until then, not being myself an inventor, I must make the best of it, just as my Protestant and Roman Catholic and Agnostic friends make the best of their imperfect creeds and systems.

—George Bernard Shaw, The Sanity of Art, 1895/1908

Kubrick and Jagger are pretty cool, but sharing a birthday with GBS? That makes getting older worthwhile.

Caricature by James Dexter Havens, 1935. Trivia: Havens was also the first American patient to receive insulin therapy for diabetes.

Fish Story

As for Periander, the man who gave information about the oracle to Thrasybulos, he was the son of Kypselos, and despot of Corinth. In his life, say the Corinthians, (and with them agree the Lesbians), there happened to him a very great marvel, namely that Arion of Methymna was carried ashore at Tainaron upon a dolphin’s back. This man was a harper second to none of those who then lived, and the first, so far as we know, who composed a dithyramb, naming it so and teaching it to a chorus at Corinth.

This Arion, they say, who for the most part of his time stayed with Periander, conceived a desire to sail to Italy and Sicily; and after he had there acquired large sums of money, he wished to return again to Corinth. He set forth therefore from Taras, and as he had faith in Corinthians more than in other men, he hired a ship with a crew of Corinthians. These, the story says, when out in open sea, formed a plot to cast Arion overboard and so possess his wealth; and he having obtained knowledge of this made entreaties to them, offering them his wealth and asking them to grant him his life. With this however he did not prevail upon them, but the men who were conveying him bade him either slay himself there, that he might receive burial on the land, or leap straightway into the sea. So Arion being driven to a strait entreated them that, since they were so minded, they would allow him to take his stand in full minstrel’s garb upon the deck of the ship and sing; and he promised to put himself to death after he had sung.

They then, well pleased to think that they should hear the best of all minstrels upon earth, drew back from the stern towards the middle of the ship; and he put on the full minstrel’s garb and took his lyre, and standing on the deck performed the Orthian measure. Then as the measure ended, he threw himself into the sea just as he was, in his full minstrel’s garb; and they went on sailing away to Corinth, but him, they say, a dolphin supported on its back and brought him to shore at Tainaron: and when he had come to land he proceeded to Corinth with his minstrel’s garb.

Thither having arrived he related all that had been done; and Periander doubting of his story kept Arion in guard and would let him go nowhere, while he kept careful watch for those who had conveyed him. When these came, he called them and inquired of them if they had any report to make of Arion; and when they said that he was safe in Italy and that they had left him at Taras faring well, Arion suddenly appeared before them in the same guise as when he made his leap from the ship; and they being struck with amazement were no longer able to deny when they were questioned.

—Herodotus, The Histories, 1.23-24
(trans. G.C. Macaulay)

This might just be the best beach book ever. The Arion story, by the way, was made into an opera by Alec Roth and Vikram Seth in 1994.

Stumblin’

I wasn’t going to come back to the Jerry Hadley story, but at ArtsJournal, Terry Teachout and CultureGrrl are not letting go of it in interesting fashion. And you’ll find, at the end, that a suitable moral lies there.

Rosenbaum was of the opinion that bad reviews played a part in Hadley’s suicide (more here, here, and here):

Critics have to call it as they see it. But perhaps this singer’s suicide suggests that journalistic discussion of the shortcomings of artists needs to be done in a different spirit, with more sensitivity, than exposés of professional malfeasance. When we criticize how people perform their jobs, we’re attacking what they do. If they’re unethical, incompetent or merely wrongheaded, that’s fair game for a hard-hitting appraisal. But when we disparage an artist, we’re attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they’re completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.

If you’re a professional, exposure of your malfeasance is the critic’s job. Personal attacks? Right out. But I didn’t see any personal attacks in critical reaction to Hadley’s 1999 Gatsby performance, however harsh the assessment. I’ll say this—I never write a criticism without asking myself if I would consider it unfair if I was the performer. Is that enough? It has to be.

Teachout took the opposite tack, soberly shaking his head at the spectacle of a career gone down in flames. After some angry feedback, he had this follow up:

The world is a hard place, and the opera business is, or can be, one of its toughest neighborhoods. Those who think otherwise know nothing about it. Those who pretend otherwise are kidding themselves.

Now, the opera world as a Chandleresque Darwinian dystopia seems a little overblown for an industry that puts people in funny costumes and sends them out on stage to sing, even if supply does vastly outstrip demand. Still, tough-guy prose can be fun to write. But Teachout also quotes detective novelist Rex Stout saying that refusing to speak ill of the dead reflects a fear of death. Here’s the point: I think all that terse this-is-the-way-it-is realism reflects another fear, the fear of failure. And the thing is, Rosenbaum implies it, too. She advocates a kindler, gentler criticism out of hope that, when failure comes, we can all get a soft landing. Teachout disdains failure, keeping fear at bay with the bravado of the survivor. (Have “Spade and Archer” taken off the doors and windows.) We all fall somewhere on this continuum, I guess. But it’s the combination of that fear with something Rosenbaum says that’s really pernicious: [W]hen we disparage an artist, we’re attacking who they are. Whenever they perform or create, they’re completely exposed and putting their entire beings on the line.

Coming up is the best lesson I ever learned. I’ll even put it in boldface, I think it’s so important. There may be a lot of things I miss, a lot of things I don’t know—but I do know this:

What you do is not who you are.

This is a hard concept for a lot of people to bend their mind around, particularly in America, with its Protestant work ethic and rampant capitalism. But again: the mere fact of success or failure at a particular activity says nothing—nothing—about one’s worth as a human being. If you’re pursuing an evil activity, sure, that probably makes you evil. But if you fail to achieve a worthy goal, all that says is that you failed. And failure is probably the most common human condition there is.

Teachout writes, “I wish my last memory of Hadley were a happier one.” Memory is a recreative process—if you want your last memory of someone to be happy, just pick a happy memory. The number of operas with dramatically ridiculous final scenes well exhausts my fingers and toes. But good operas aren’t invalidated by bad endings.

Lazy


In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re into summer programming around here—photos, food, video links, etc. But since we’re well on our way to that eight-billion-channels-all-the-time world the Internet keeps teasing us with, I at long last did an update on the increasingly unwieldy blogroll over there. Some were long-overdue lacunae (ANABlog, The Standing Room, etc.), while some are relative newcomers: countercritic covers the coverage, with sassy prose and the proper space devoted to dance, the red-headed stepchild of the fine arts (I’m half-afraid and half-eager for him to start reading the Globe); The Omniscient Mussel is but four posts old at this writing, but between one and fifty million cricket-loving Donald Tovey fans can’t be wrong; and Ear Trumpet is the new electronic outpost of Boston critic Richard Buell, who has also taken over the Globe‘s radio listings, turning them into a mouth-watering smorgasbord of Web-streamed delicacies.

Opera is still vastly underrepresented; until the day I expiate that sin, the blogroll over at Sieglinde’s Diaries will keep you plugged in. And The Rambler’s link page is still one of the universe’s great procrastination aids.

Anyway, I swear there’s substantial stuff in the works. I promise within the next two weeks I’ll be tackling economics again—that’s always good for a laugh.