Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review: Pagliacci and La Voix Humaine

Opera Cleveland: Pagliacci & Voix Humaine at the State Theater (November 13)

by Nicholas Jones
Opera Cleveland: Pagliacci (Eric Mull)At the end of Pagliacci, we hear the chilling line “La commedia è finita” – the play is over. So, sadly, is the opera: with this weekend’s double bill, Opera Cleveland — at least in its present form — goes into a period of hiatus for re-structuring and re-imagining.

Somber in tone and tragic in outcome, these two very different operas made an evening of passionate and memorable celebration of the artistic success that Opera Cleveland has achieved in recent years.

The evening opened with Francis Poulenc’s one-act opera, La Voix Humaine. The libretto comes from a pre-war play by avant-garde poet Jean Cocteau. The premise is deceptively simple: a Parisian woman speaks on the telephone with her former lover for almost three-quarters of an hour. The situation, though, is complicated: we struggle to sort out her complex mixture of lies, self-deceptions and manipulations, even while we sympathize with her pain. She’s barely hanging on, literally by a cord, the single telephone cord that connects her with her ex — at least, at times (the post-war phone system in Paris was notoriously unreliable, so the call is interrupted often).

Poulenc’s strange opera draws its appeal from an age-old truth: we enjoy watching the display of suffering. I kept thinking back to the great lament of Dido in Purcell’s opera of some 300 years earlier: “Remember me, but, ah! forget my fate.”  Like Dido, Poulenc’s nameless Parisienne expresses her sorrow with a mixture of foolishness and dignity, and we listen in with guilty pleasure. Dido had no telephone, but modern technology solves none of the tragedies of desire.

Soprano Robin Follman carried the role with extraordinary skill. Dramatically focused, she wove across the stage (a stylish thirties set with beige and brown toned furniture) with an old bakelite telephone; her gestures were economical and full of powerful expression. Above all, she gave us Poulenc’s thorny musical lines with a variety of coloration and tonality that brought to musical life the vagaries of this tortured conversation.

The other protagonist was the orchestra, masterfully led by Dean Williamson. Among many wonderful moments, I’d note the glockenspiel as the ironic ring of the telephone (promising connectivity, but rarely delivering) and the chilling ending with a dry cymbal roll followed by a terribly mordant pluck on the double basses (who played an unusually dramatic role in the entire opera). Unfortunately, an epidemic of coughing in the audience  (nervous? bored?) plagued the performance.

After intermission Opera Cleveland gave us a passionate Pagliacci, radically separated from its usual partnering with Cavalleria Rusticana (“Cav and Pag”). In my ear, the modernist opening to the evening made the blatant emotionalism of “Pag” even more engaging. The production focused, rightly, on the heartfelt music (though I could have done without a couple of superfluous and unscripted mimes in the prologue and at the end). A tight 90-minute drama in the verismo style, Pagliacci delivers a powerful punch to the emotions: desire, jealousy, bitterness, revenge.

Especially powerful was tenor Gregory Carroll as Canio — the tormented clown whose great aria (“Vesti la gubbio” – better known as “Ridi, Pagliacco”) has been for a century an icon of tragically dissonant emotion. Against him — in many ways — was Robin Follman’s Nedda, the wife whose fidelity Canio rightly suspects. Coming off her Poulenc performance, Follman hardly seemed to need intermission to change modes: her Nedda was brilliantly mercurial — by turns lyrical, taunting, uncertain, furious. She showed once again that what makes for operatic impact is the ability to change color on a dime, to play the moment to the max.

Nedda’s lover, Sylvio, sung by Eric Dubin, lacked the flexibility and nuance to match Follman’s vitality. His portrayal was undercut by an absurd directorial choice to have the illicit lovers suddenly lie down to embrace on the stones of the piazza (in public in Italy?). The embittered Tonio, who lusts for Nedda and betrays her to her jealous husband, was chillingly sung by Michael Chioldi.

In the indeterminate interim before we hear another Opera Cleveland production, I hope that the artistic leadership and the board find ways to maintain the elements of their success — generally fine lead singers, a top-notch chorus, an excellent orchestra, and stimulating productions — while finding new approaches to meet the problems of financial stability. While of course large audiences are crucial for many reasons, I would suggest that a somewhat smaller and more acoustically friendly venue than the cavernous State Theater might be a part of the future.

Photograph: Eric Mull

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Les Delices

Les Délices: "Mirages and Monstrosities" at the William Busta Gallery (October 30)  

by Nicholas Jones  NB: This appeared in
Les Delices: Mirages & MonstrositiesOpera dominated the world of the French baroque, delighting court and capital with its strange combination of the fantastic, the noble, the grotesque, the beautiful, and the expressive. The theatricality of opera permeated this weekend's Halloween-themed presentation of "Mirages and Monstrosities," the opening concert of the fifth season of concerts by Debra Nagy's group "Les Délices," which specializes in music of the French Baroque. With its mastery of baroque style, the group delivered a program of instrumental music that needed no sets, no singing, no costumes to transport us to the strange world of the French 18th-century imagination.

The opener was a suite from Rameau's noted opera Platée, which tells of a love that was a mirage (Jupiter, it seems, for some devious marital scam, pretends to make love to a water nymph named Platée; the poor girl, not very beautiful, is fated to be left at the altar). Nagy and her group gave us a dramatically emphatic rendition of Rameau's lithe and startling music, filled with the sounds of the frogs and insects of the water nymph's boggy home and the slippery deceits of Jupiter (I assume the latter was represented in the overture's lush and sliding suspensions).

Supporting Nagy here and in the other concerted pieces was a small band comprised of the fine violinists Julie Andrijeski and Karina Fox, and a continuo section (Josh Lee, viola da gamba, and Michael Sponseller, harpsichord). The ensemble was strong, the three treble instruments working with and against each other and the continuo like the best jazz musicians. The group plays at French low pitch (A = 392), considerably lower than even standard Baroque pitch; the resultant sound is rich and mellow, without any loss of sparkle, perfect for an intimate space.

Saturday's performance was hosted by the William Busta Gallery, inaugurating brand-new gallery space next to Busta's former galleries on Prospect. The new space holds a good-sized audience — a little more than a hundred, I think — and is an excellent venue. It was a joy to hear such intelligent and scintillating chamber music surrounded by the kind of serious and compelling visual art that Busta consistently hangs — the colorful, dripping abstracts of Matthew Kolodziej, fascinating acrylic night and city-scapes by Timothy Callaghan, and the haunting fiber-paintings of Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson.

As Nagy explained, the group likes the joy of discovering something new: in this case, an almost unknown "symphony" – more like a quartet – by François-André Philidor, a member of a musical dynasty in the baroque and (according to the program notes) the finest chess player in Europe at the time. In a more classical mode than the Rameau, this piece was also more graceful, and should not remain neglected. Its gorgeous opening phrases, led by the oboe, reminded me of Ennio Morricone's haunting pseudo-Baroque music from the film The Mission.

In the breaks between ensemble pieces, the continuo players became soloists. Harpsichordist Sponseller gave us a whirling world of fantasy in the unaccompanied harpsichord piece, Le Vertigo, by Pancrace Royer. His playing is at once forceful, witty, and intelligent. Gambist Josh Lee took center stage for one of Marin Marais' masterpieces, Le Labyrinthe. This long, virtuosic solo (with unobtrusive harpsichord accompaniment) seems to represent the journey of a single protagonist, whose simple "walking" motif, a little ascending and descending scale figure, appears again and again. Is he in the labyrinth of the Minotaur, or — as Lee suggested — the courtly gardens of Versailles? We can't know, but the music makes it abundantly clear that in his journey he encounters some pretty strange and creepy sights. I couldn't decide whether I was most reminded of Pictures at an Exhibition, Disney's Fantasia, or Harry Potter. Lee played with great expressiveness, sometimes spooky, sometimes easy and unconcerned, sometimes almost heartbreakingly sad and lyrical.

Les Délices gave us one piece that could never have been put on the 18th century operatic stage – Marais' bizarre depiction of a gall-stone operation, played by Lee and Sponseller and narrated in spine-chilling French by Nagy herself (without oboe). The viola da gamba follows the operation step-by-step with brief representations of what must have been a harrowing experience in the absence of anesthetic — the patient's shudder of fear at seeing the operation table; his determination to go through with the operation; the tying down of his legs and arms; the incision and removal of the stone; the flow of blood; the exhaustion at the end. The piece can be performed as a mere quirk, a kind of ghastly joke. But the intensity of Lee's playing here made it something more than that, a reflection on medicine and mortality.

"Mirages and Monstrosities" ended with a little piece by Michel Corrette, a Concerto Comique, that appropriately dissolved all these serious and grotesque concerns with a bit of courtly baroque fluff, exquisitely tossed our way by this stellar group.

We have reason to be thankful for the concerted and complementary work of training and encouraging such performers and entrepreneurs, at the Oberlin Conservatory, at Oberlin's Baroque Performance Institute, and at CWRU. Who would have thought, twenty years ago, that today greater Cleveland would have such a wealth of early music ensembles? 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sunday, September 5, 2010

After long silence

The beginning of fall, the beginning of September, the beginning of the school year. My school-teacher dreams of being in the wrong place, in the wrong subject-matter (always math), at the wrong time. The leaves drying on the ground, the day turning cool despite the sunshine. The wind blowing fresh from the north west across Lake Erie, the waves scudding towards the shore.

The memories of so many times looking at water, at times of enormous change. This near shore of Lake Erie after a death, the far expanse of San Francisco Bay absent of airplanes in the days after Sept. 11. The sense that everything changes, and that water is one of the great metaphors for that change.

And to find that sense of change to be at the center of the book I choose to read just now. Allegra Goodman's beautiful and moving novel about time, change, philosophy, and (ah!) cooking: The Cookbook Collector. A book to read in the fall, when those perfectly ripe peaches are ready for the eating.

What can I do in this time but turn back to Keats? There he was, almost 200 years ago, in the sun outside the old town of Winchester, thinking about his brother's death and his own tenuous hold on life. And watching the fruit ripen, perhaps he dared to eat a peach, and above all putting process, change, transience, into words. Just the first stanza for now. You can find the rest here. What about those bees, finding more and more flowers, lulled into thinking that it all will last, and yet knowing better?
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Elizabeth Hoover Norman

When I started this blog about a year ago, I called it "the world's museum." I meant to evoke in that phrase the curious and thoughtful looking that I associate with museums, the way we pause, admire, critique, ask questions, try to remember objects that the museum presents us. What if the world were a museum, then? What if we, walking across fields, reading a book, looking at a garden, visiting a new place, thought of what we were seeing as cared for by curators, as "framed" to invite us to contemplate, the time we spend there precious and significant?

I came this way of thinking from many others who seem also to know this, from my father, my friend George Allen, my wife, my brothers and sisters-in-law, cousins, teachers, students. This week I lost one of my dearest museum companions, my cousin Elizabeth Hoover Norman, who died Tuesday.

Elizabeth was the daughter of my father's youngest sister, who followed him from southern Georgia to Cambridge, Mass. There they roomed together and she studied Shakespeare with the G. L. Kittredge, who was my father's dissertation advisor. And he introduced her to Herb Hoover, not the president, but a young architect from Idaho. He built a collection of stunning modernist homes in Lincoln, Mass., including his own home. No wonder that Elizabeth, and her twin Lucretia, and brother Harry, grew up wanting to talk about art -- and music, and books, and mountains -- as if these were part of a vast museum.

Elizabeth, like her sister, studied art history at Oberlin, using the same wonderful art museum that I now teach in and write about. Later she took an MA at Harvard -- while I was an undergraduate there, and I would visit her at the Fogg. When she married John Norman, she moved to England with him and taught art history at several places, most recently at Hallam University in Sheffield. She finished her PhD at Leeds just a few years ago, in her late 60s!

What she most loved was public art, art that doesn't hang on the walls of a real museum, but occupies public space in cities or in fields. She took us a couple of years ago to the Yorkshire Sculpture Garden on a blustery November day, full of energy despite her cancer, bounding across fields and paths to find the next Goldsworthy.

I loved visiting England's historic homes with Elizabeth. Last fall we went to Haddon Hall, an Elizabethan house that I had never seen. We lingered -- despite the freezing cold -- in the courtyard, the great hall, the chambers, the galleries, talking all the time about the architecture, the furnishings, the people who had lived here, above all just trying to evoke for each other the sense of the wonderful patina of the place, its layered historicity. John gave up after not too long and went ahead to watch a video about the re-creating of a sixteenth century banquet in the hall.

Just weeks before she died, Elizabeth went to London to give a talk about public art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was about a project she was passionate for, the "Fourth Plinth" project in Trafalgar Square. There are three big plinths occupied by statues; the fourth has been empty for most or all of its time. The artist Andrew Gormley devised a plan to fill that plinth not with images of famous people, but with actual ordinary people, all day and night, all summer. Elizabeth signed up to be one, and was delighted to be chosen in the random drawing process. Late one night, at one am, she was put on this plinth by cherry-picker and proceeded to spend an hour doing her Indian Club exercises. We and others watched by streaming video as she deliberately paced off the area, swung the clubs in wonderful great arcs, and her amplified shadow followed her, projected by the arc lights onto -- where else? -- the front of the National Gallery. The indoor museum as a screen for the outdoor museum! Here the link to her part of this event -- you can actually watch her swing the clubs! 

Elizabeth was an exceptional curator of that world's museum that she and I shared.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Burchfield at the Whitney

In NYC for a wedding, we went to the retrospective of Charles Burchfield at the Whitney. As an Ohioan -- no, a northern Ohioan! -- I had known of Burchfield and have seen his watercolors before. But THIS exhibit: what an eye-opening set of rooms!

Burchfield makes of watercolor -- normally a pastoral medium -- a stage for the tragedies of nature. His trees are vital, scary, independent of humans (as I guess he might have been as well). They have their own agendas.
This little back yard is so fraught with danger and with life! Look at the little buzzy verticals above the bush: I think they represent insect songs.

I can't find images of most of the pictures I saw. One was a swamp in the afternoon (he loved swamps, apparently). What watercolorist would position himself IN A SWAMP, in the AFTERNOON, looking INTO the sun! but here was the sun, glowing, its super-nuclear fires evident in the normally-placid medium of watercolor: the medium that in Burchfield's hands, vibrates with fear, anger, awareness...

He did attend to the great depression, though he really loved nature, and produced a great body of realist, regionalist work about the thirties. Here's his image of an equinoctial storm -- nature beating down on shabby workers' houses as it did on the bald head of King Lear.

One particularly bizarre piece: the front of a house stands alone, a movie-facade, while builders take down everything behind it. It is ONLY the front, nothing else.

He wrote about one piece: "Astonishment and wonder are the keynotes of hte picture -- Eliminate all else." What a mantra for an artist to live by!

This is an Orion picture -- December Ohio sky.  Aren't these stars and these trees astonishing and wonderful???
I think of the great American poet Theodore Roethke -- like Burchfield, he grew up in the midwest (Michigan) -- and knew the connections of nature's insistence and the soul's obsessions. His father ran a greenhouse -- who better to know of how nature's pressures are to grow, and grow, and grow?

Here's Roethke's famous and wonderful poem about the roots in a root cellar. I think I knew these roots when I was 13 years old, too.
Root Cellar by Theodore Roethke
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
One last Burchfield: he called this "Decorative Landscape," but like Roethke's roots, these are far from decorative. He must have been a great ironist!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Apollo's Fire: 'Come to the River'

What an endlessly inventive group is Apollo's Fire! Their current offering, "Come to the River," billed as "An Early American Gathering," combines drama, personal recollection, American musical and religious history, and a corncrib full of music. Baroque meets bluegrass, and gospel, and shaped-note, and Celtic, and . . . .

Somewhat changed from last year's sell-out version, this is a show that clearly delighted all ages (kids, oldsters, and -- gasp!-- even teenagers). At the matinee at Huntington Playhouse, the revival gathering may not have converted any souls, though Lake Erie's beaches were at hand for a baptism if it had been needed, but it won a bunch of hearts, judging from the foot-tapping, hand-clapping, and vigorous audience sing-along at the end.

Jeannette Sorrell's stamp, as with all of Apollo's Fire, is unmistakable here. It's she who frames the collection of fiddle-tunes, gospel songs, ballads, and other surprises around her own experiences as a teenager playing piano for a revival church in the Shenandoah Valley. Being an accomplished historian of music, as well as performer and impresario, Sorrell has researched the roots of the tradition in Appalachian barn dances, frontier shoot-em-up songs, shaped-note hymns, and those incomparable American melancholic tunes like "Wayfaring Stranger" and "What Wondrous Love."

This being Apollo's Fire, what might be called corny is also highly accomplished. The artfulness of the performances is evident even while the performers and the audience are having great fun. Watching the stunning cellist René Schiffer stagger to the ground as the two-timing Wild Bill Jones is a hoot; it's quite another thing, though, to hear Schiffer play his own variations on "Old Virginny," as a reflection on Scott Mello's heart-rending rendition of the beautiful sad ballad.

The barn dances that begin the show are simply wonderful: varied, expressive, full of the rhythmic energy we have come to love in Apollo's Fire performances. Tina Bergmann plays the dulcimer with a combination of the early American and the new Celtic sound; baritone Paul Shipper -- also a wonderful "preacher" -- does a stunning rendition of a 1609 English lullaby; flutist Kathie Stewart leads a set of traditional Irish dances with a melancholy sound full of the Emerald Isle.

Even the harpsichord -- not unknown in early America -- plays its part in a set of dances from New England and Ireland; here, as in many of the sets, the soloist (Sorrell) claims the stage for a solo and then subtly hands off the energy to others who join her. The eventual ensemble playing, with running bass lines, obbligato roulades on top, and a relentless percussive energy, made up for the fact that we couldn't actually get up and dance in the aisles.

Sopranos Sandra Simon gave us a number of songs; one of the most memorable was her "Fox on a Chilly Night," accompanied only by Sorrell on the bodhran, sung with such articulation and delivery that no one needed the printed text to understand what the story was. She was joined by tenor Scott Mello and soprano Abigail Haynes Lennox in a gripping lullaby, "Nobody but the Baby," from a field recording by the great folkmusic collector Alan Lomax. Fiddler Rachel Jones was collaborator with Lennox in a very moving "Wayfaring Stranger."

Apollo's Fire has taught us in their baroque concerts how corporeal baroque music was. In this program, the barn dances and fiddle tunes were given real "body" by the very accomplished body-percussion artist Matthew Olwell, whose fast-moving feet, hands, chest, arms, and even mouth, were his tympani and his marimba.

A great moment in the second half, which centers on a revival meeting, was Apollo's rendition of "Hold On," the great civil rights gospel song that Mahalia Jackson and Pete Seeger sang. Sorrell and Schiffer let loose with a bass line that made us think there might be an electric guitar in the wings.

The series of shaped-note hymns in the second half was the least convincing part of the program; the singers seemed a little glued to their part-books, with this unfamiliar and fascinating style. Even so, I loved hearing these modal harmonies, and the set provided a welcome reflective period in an otherwise high-energy afternoon.

Bravo to the group for finding such varied venues, and for traveling around Northeast Ohio to bring this music near to us. And bravo for having the spectacular and vivacious juggler Aaron Bonk (whose card lists him as "Object Manipulation Specialist") on hand to greet us and to give a show at intermission.

(performance June 20, 2010; review published in

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Italy: a complex space

The Piazza San Marco, at the center of Venice, is a complicated and wonderful space: history built on history; structures gilded and decorated; religious and civic and hedonistic functions competing for space in this compressed city space.
One edge, to the right on this picture of the basilica of San Marco, struck me as especially complex. It is called the "piazzetta," the little piazza, and it stretches from the basilica to the waterfront in the long direction, and from the Palace of the Doges (the dukes) to the Biblioteca (library) Nazionale Marciana on the short side.

Here's where travelers to Venice in old times would have gotten out of their galleys and entered the city. They would have seen on their right the Duke's Palace (here on the left of the picture) -- a long marbled and pillared building speaking worlds about the power of the republic and its oligarchy.

Then at the end of the square, they would have seen the side of the basilica: again, covered in marble, laden with the spoils of Constantinople, a brilliant facade to the voluminous chiaroscuro of gleaming and dark inside.

And on their left as they made their way to the basilica, the Renaissance arcades of what is now the library -- and was even then, a storehouse of Greek and Latin humanism. (see my former posts on this blog)

What I wonder, is whether the architects of this space imagined the other component to this mix of civic, religious, scholarly treasures? That is, the entertainment that fills it today -- and has at least since the 18th century. We know that because Canaletto's sparkling pictures show us people having a great time in this tourist town, which has been a tourist town longer than we can imagine.

After hearing mass and choral music in San Marco, we came out to the square, and what? brilliance after darkness, joviality after solemnity, schmaltz after Gounod's sanctus and Franck's Panis angelicus:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Italy: an old library

The library I was in yesterday -- see the previous blog -- was the working end of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice -- the National Library of St. Mark. It's in the old mint, called the Zecca.

Today we went to the showy end of the same library. Here's a library to beat all libraries.

It was the poet Petrarch who had the idea of a library for Venice, in 1362.
The library got started a century later, when the humanist Cardinal Bessarion (they had humanists in the Roman Catholic church then) donated a thousand "codexes" -- or books in MS. -- and some "incunabula" -- early printed books to the city of Venice. These included the main sources of Homer's poems for the modern world.

About another century passed and the Republic of Venice built this gorgeous library to house the books. Three hundred years later, or so, Napoleon ended the Republic and annexed the library to his new palace, which blocked off the end of the Piazza San Marco and generally annoyed the citizens no end.

The library is decorated with paintings around the walls and ceilings, of course. This is a movie with a 360 degree view.

The decoration includes about a dozen pictures of philosophers -- some by Tintoretto, others by lesser artists. They are burly, strong men, mostly, men whose strong thinking seems to have gone into their bodies as well. (I can't pull a picture in here, but try clicking here for Tintoretto's Aristotle).

These scholars and scientists are uncomfortably crammed into niches, torturously turning to get themselves into the available space. They are focused on books, thoughts, geometries, inward. Great figures for a library in the Renaissance: think about the world, they say, in the broadest possible way; but do it in your body, in the space that's given to you. It's not going to be easy.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Italy: old books

This morning, I walked down to San Marco, in Venice. By ten, the crowds were just starting to gather, the families speaking all kinds of languages, laughing, listening to the bands at the expensive cafes. I love watching the crowds in Venice.

But today, instead, I turned in by one of the cafes to go into the national library in Venice. I am working on the poems of Guarini, a poet from about 1600. I had found that the library had three editions of his poems, two of which I hadn't seen, so I went to look at these. Happy sounds filtered in from the cafes and the crowds as I worked with these old books.

One thing it taught me was that Guarini was pretty popular. In one year alone, there were at least five reprintings of his poems -- and that in a day when every reprinting meant laborious type-setting and expensive paper. The fifth, interestingly, was a little pocket-size edition that told me he wasn't just a coffee-table poet.

The first edition, though, was pretty fancy: bound in soft calf leather, with a fancy title-page like this one (here's me in the library with this book). Most luxurious of all, it gave a full page to each poem, some of them only seven lines long. The Venetians knew how to do things right, even then.

Guarini was popular with ordinary readers, but also with composers, which Venice abounded with. Those days, most music was sung music. Composers looked for texts that were expressive and gave them a chance to put in lots of contrasts: I'm in love/I hate being in love; I'm so happy/I bet I won't be happy very long; she's so cool/she's too cool to me.

The composers loved Guarini's poems. So I thought I would look at some of their work. I called up three collections of "madrigals" -- each with about 15 songs in them, one by one Gesualdo, and two by Monteverdi, who had been music director right across the piazza from where I was, in the basilica of St. Mark. (Here's Monteverdi)

In those days, you bought music in parts; that is, you saw only your own part; there was likely no "score," no collected representation of all the parts together. So, that's what I saw too, only parts. The Gesualdo only had two of the five parts, the others were missing. These were thin little books, that would have sat in front of a singer, each sitting around a big table.

One of the Monteverdi collections was well used. Someone, in pen, in a 17th-century handwriting, had made some notes. He or she was interested in where the texts were from, so there were notes on the poets. Also, the music had been performed; there were corrections to some of the wrong notes. One of them was especially interesting -- a little piece of paper, about an inch long, floating in the tenor part, with a music staff, four notes, and some words of text. I couldn't figure out where it had originally gone, but surely it was exactly what I do now when something's wrong and I want a readable part -- I write it out corrected and paste it over the wrong notes. Only the paste hadn't lasted four hundred years.

I didn't really need to look at these first editions of music: these are famous pieces, and they've been edited in modern, scholarly editions and I can see them in Oberlin. But I'm glad I did. It let me touch the work of these Venetians as that work had first seen the light of day, held by people who used them then.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Italy: pictures on the walls

So many beautiful old pictures in this old country are firmly, almost irrevocably part of the walls.

All over Italy, we are seeing the records of the middle ages and the renaissance in fresco : that difficult mode of painting that involved drawing on the wall in sepia chalk, then marking off just enough of the drawing that you could paint in a day, mixing fresh plaster, putting it over the drawing, and then remembering the drawing while you put your paints onto the wet plaster. When it dried, it was there for as long as the wall lasted. 

Mostly, these frescoes are in churches (see the previous post). But some aren't. Since we have been going to a lot of the courts of the Renaissance princes, many of the frescoes we've seen have been part of the palaces these dukes built or renovated out of old fortresses.

In room after room -- banquet halls, ducal reception rooms, private quarters (as private as a 16th century duke could be) -- the ceilings and the upper parts of walls are filled with frescoes. These bring into these often vast rooms a vivid sense of color and light. And a kind of human record: the rooms are often bare of furniture -- it's been sold off or stolen long ago -- but here, way above our heads, are strange reflections of the life these princes thought they wanted to lead.

Myths dominate in these palaces: the life of the gods, leisurely and naked.

Sometimes we actually see the owners of the places themselves, fixed in this plaster. (This is the Gonzaga family, who ruled Mantua).
Whatever is on these walls pretty much stays there. Maybe the water drips in from the roof and ruins it, but otherwise it's part of the decor. What happens with a new owner?

Sometimes when tastes change, one fresco is plastered over, the new on top of the old, like this fresco in a church that changed its mind about what people needed to see.

In times when they actually believed in these images, only one image would have shown at one time. But we in our historical, archaeological age -- having no particular beliefs -- pry out the sequence of layers and show as much of the interweaving of periods as we can.

We saw in one set of frescoes, handy at shoulder height and a little removed from the eyes of the sacristan, vistors' names carved in to the plaster -- some from the 20th century, some (here) from the 15th! The fresco stays on the wall, mutilated or not.

In the museums in Italy, you see an incredible number of painted canvases, oils of saints and crucifixions and martyrdoms, that have been lifted off the walls of the churches they were painted for. They end up on these strange walls  --  strange, because museums are so out of context for what these paintings meant in the first place.

Wonderfully, you can't do that with frescoes, or only with great difficulty. Where they are is where they were meant to be, whatever happens to those spaces.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Italy: a monastery chapel

"Infinite riches in a little room," wrote poet John Donne at about the turn of the 17th century. Many meanings -- primarily, in the poem he wrote, about the beauty of his mistress and how it filled the bedroom they were in together. But with his sensibility about how all things work together ("no man is an island"), he had in mind other ways of packing experience into a single room, a place where we might not expect it.

We walk through Ferrara on a sunny morning, through lanes of old, old houses, brick and stone and tile roofs. Some are inside watching TV (we catch snatches through the shuttered windows next to the sidewalk -- if there is one); many must be off at work or doing the shopping. It's a very quiet morning. Only an occasional bike, and a very occasional car rumbles along these one-lane cobbled streets.

Then a gate near the edge of town, and a small garden of grass and an old tree and some red rose bushes growing the way I'd love to have mine grow at home-- tall and full of blooms. An old portico, and some monuments, and a door that creaks open, opened by a small woman in a nun's habit. She's a Benedictine nun, we know, only because we have read the guidebook about the Monasterio di San Antonio. In Italian, without a pause, she greets us and starts in: we're here to visit, yes? to see the frescoes? follow me.

We walk through a hallway into a chapel. It's not a large room by Italian church standards, and simple. The main ornament are some plaster elements suspended from the ceiling. But there's none of the baroque curlicues, stucco decorations, enormous crucifixion paintings we're used to by now. Mainly white walls, bare floor, and some wooden stalls where the nuns worship. And a dulcimer: one of the nuns must be into new age Catholic music.

The frescoes are in three chapels at the east end of the chapel. The nun shows them to us, narrating them in a quiet voice, almost like a prayer. She tells us of Jesus on the cross, and Saints Benedict and Catherine watching; of the flight to Egypt, with Joseph carrying the baby on his shoulders, and Jesus reaching back to his mother who rides on the donkey; of martyrdoms, St. Stephen patiently being stoned to death, and of the innocents in Bethlehem silently massacred by two fierce Herodian thugs. And with just a little inflection in her almost unwavering recitation, she proudly shows us the wonderful crucifixion where Jesus climbs brave and strong up the ladder set on the cross, a hero rather than a victim.

All I think about convents is overturned here, in this room. This quiet nun, away from the world, is also part of the world. The place itself, unadorned in so many ways, functional for these religious women who pray for the world, is also part of the world. The frescoes make it so: a brutal, tragic, difficult life for people like Joseph, Stephen, Mary, Jesus, exists here too. It is so humanely rendered -- with little touches of humanity and ordinariness -- that the heroism of these stories is more accessible in these small and unassuming chapels than in the grand cathedrals.

I think for a moment of Shakespeare's great play about life in and out of a cloister -- Measure for Measure -- with its intrusion of hypocrisy, lust, and betrayal on a novice who at the start of the play just wants to leave the world behind. (Here in William Holman Hunt's 19th-century painting of Isabella, the novice, with her brother, whose imminent execution is what pulls her out of her isolation). This being (in a strange way) a comedy, it turns out to be a good thing for her that she abandons  her incipient vows and moves towards an apparently richer life (she marries the duke). But we know all the way through the play, that in the convent, too, is infinite beauty in a little room.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Italy: Bergamo and the layers of history

I like how geography -- so baffling when you first arrive in a place as a stranger -- yields up ideas after a few hours of your putting yourself into it.

We stopped in Bergamo, in the foothills below the Italian lakes. It's a medieval town on a hill, still surrounded by its original walls. It is preserved because the modern town developed on the flat land below and basically left the old town intact. By the 18th century, there wasn't much defensive potential to being up on a hill behind medieval curtain walls, so the point of settling uncomfortably up there was gone. Modern towns needed roads, canals, railways, and room to grow.

The old town is criss-crossed by little streets, no more than alleys, tight canyons of masonry faced by unrevealing little windows and well-locked doors. But then you turn a corner and you're in a piazza; space opens up, maybe just a little; and the buildings open up, too.

You realize, walking these old alleys, why piazzas were so important for the Italians. In the streets, you can't really communicate with more than a couple of others; in the piazza you have room for a crowd. You can throw a party.

The Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo is fairly big, and very communal. On the north are the porticos of the public library; on the west, the entrance to the old university (Bergamo struck us as a pretty studious and serious town). On the east are cafés; we ate lunch at the Caffé del Tasso, "since 1476" (what would they have served then? not espresso, for sure).

On the south, the piazza is bordered by an interesting building, the municipal hall, or Palazzo del Ragion. Above, this is essentially one large room, an amazingly wide and high room with complicated medieval trusses, apparently the place for town debates, policy meetings, banquets, etc. Underneath, at piazza level, is an open portico. Thus you can look right through the building to a smaller piazza beyond. The piazza is both enclosed and permeable at the same time.

What you reach by going through the portico is the religious center of town -- the Piazza del Duomo, with its cathedral as well as a very large Romanesque church of Sta. Maria Maggiore, baroque-ified inside to beat the band. Literally next to this is a third church, a chapel that holds the tomb of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a Bergamasque mercenary mostly working in the pay of Venice. ("Bergamasque" is the adjective form of Bergamo, and became used for a famous Renaissance dance.)

So beyond the portico lie two big forms of organized power - church and army. But back in the big piazza, power seems much more diffused: library, university, commerce, city government with its traditional neighborly squabbles.

In the portico itself, where the city council used to hold hearings, there's a nice reminder of how history changes. In the late 18th-century, some scientifically inclined citizen created a complicated sundial (an "analemma") on the floor, in inlaid pieces of marble. It doesn't tell the time, but the days of the year. Each sunny day at real-time midday (not noon, but apparently 12:21), the sun streams past the cathedral to shine through a hole at the top of one of the arches, and hits a long line in the pavement at some point that tells you what date it is. Aside from being a useful check on the less-than-reliable calendars of the day, it's a visual reminder of the tilting of the earth: in summer, close into the front since the noon sun is high in the sky; in winter, a ray stretching some hundred feet into the portico, since the sun's down near the horizon even at noon.

History layers itself: Medieval (a town walling itself in for its own life in a fierce environment of marauders); Renaissance (Colleoni putting his energy and guts -- sprezzatura, he'd have said -- up for sale to the Venetian Republic); Enlightenment: a rationalist creates a visual emblem of the predictability of Galilean planetary motion.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Italy: the lakes

As we flew south from Dusseldorf to Milan, the thick clouds broke over the Alps, just as we must have passed over the high point of the range, maybe over Piz Bernina. It was stunning to see these peaks, below us but not very far below. The ground, so far away when we were up in the lowlands of the Rhine and Dussel valleys, was suddenly rising to meet us.

The plane followed a valley south from the high peaks, narrow and twisting and with what probably was a torrential stream in the center of it, then gradually widening and including some farmland. We were probably in Italy by then; in a moment we started seeing on both sides of the plane the Italian lakes -- Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como. (I'm writing this on the roof garden of our hotel on Lago di Como, looking north at sunset to the still-glowing Alps.)

Then, as we approached Milan's northern airport, the land flattened dramatically. It was that rich farmland of Lombardy, fields squared off with lines of those dark Lombardy poplars, rich old tile-roofed barns. The fields were flooded: we guessed that it might be the rice fields where that wonderful smooth arborio rice grows that we use for risotto.

Now, spending two days in the lakes, I've been thinking about the relationship of the mountains, the lakes, and the plains. Here is a mountain range that is practically impenetrable, until modern days: where the trucks now cross the St. Bernard pass on an autostrada, until very few years ago there were only winding roads. When Wordsworth walked across the Alps in 1792, there was only a track (and he got lost).

The Alps are the great defense of Italy -- along with the sea that surrounds the rest of the peninsula. They are the divide of the continent, Italy becoming the "Cisalpine" -- below the Alps -- region of Europe.

Then there are the lakes, long north-south lakes carved by the glaciers. They remind me of the other north-south lakes I've been around -- the Finger Lakes of New York, our Lake Dunmore in Vermont, Windermere and Wast Water in the Lake District of England. Going about here in the past two days, I've realized how wonderful they are as highways. Driving around them here is terrible -- narrow roads, suddenly made one-lane by jutting-out corners of houses, twisting and dangerous. But on the lake, in a ferry, you're on the level and in the wide-open spaces.

It's in The Last of the Mohicans that the north south lake of Oswego figures so strongly -- the canoes sweeping down from the north onto the barely-tenable fort at the south end (if I remember it rightly). My image may be wrong, but every time I look up a lake like this of Como to the north, I imagine boats paddled by folks who would rather that they lived in the place that I currently inhabit.

Lake Como is y-shaped like Lake Keuka in New York. At the crucial juncture is the town of Varenna, across from Bellagio where we are staying. Above Varenna, a pretty fierce half-hour climb for us (the guidebook called it "a brisk 20 minutes"!) is the Castello di Vezio: a fortress to defend this lake-highway against marauders. Sometimes thought to be Roman, sometimes Longobardian (that is the name of the post-Roman migrants who settled this area, now called Lombardy after them); certainly it's medieval in the form we saw it, with crennelated battlements, a high watchtower-keep, and curtain walls.

So the Alps, I was thinking, are a great wall to the north. But the lakes are highways that -- if you could breach that wall -- take you right down to the goodies to the south: fields, factories, river power, ports. No wonder you work hard to build a fort like that: you need to keep the access control.

And I was thinking, too, about directionality around here. Does the threat come from the north, usually? I was thinking about Napoleon coming down from Paris to "liberate" Italy from the Austrians (they welcomed that, for a little while). I was thinking about the Emperor Charles V, I think (I don't have internet access, so I can't fact-check very well), rampaging down to sack Rome in the 16th century. And the Germans in the mid 20th century, moving south when their incompetent partner Italy folded, to fortify the Appenines against the Allied advance up the peninsula from Sicily. Maybe even Hannibal, who brought his elephants around from Carthage (through France?) and crossed the Alps south to attack Rome.

Where the threat comes from probably depends on where you are at the moment. If you were a Gaul in 40 BC, you probably saw the threat coming north from Rome in the form of Caesar's army.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Italy: mapping our flight

During the night on our flight to Dusseldorf, we hit some rough air and the pilot took us up to 39,000 feet. When the sun came up, i opened the window and saw the curve of the earth, bending down in front of us and again behind us. . It was a gentle curve, not like the beachball rotundity that the astronauts see, but a curve nonetheless. I'm not sure I'd ever been up that high. It made me feel a long way from the ground. (the picture is one from 90,000 ft up, not mine).

As a map fanatic, I like to know where we are while I'm flying. It gives a (fictitious) sense of groundedness, of connection to the real earth, while my suspended life consists of this bizarrre cigar-shaped polystyrene cabin shared with a few hundred others including the screaming 2-year-old in front of me.

Earlier in the flight, while we were still over North America and the sun had not set, something went wrong with the plane's entertainment video system. That meant not only that I couldn't watch episodes of Friday Night Lights, but also that the cool flight map that some flights give you was not working. So, with a lot of cloud cover and only intermittent views of the ground, it was harder than usual to figure out where we were.

At one point, we were launching out over lots of water, with a curving peninsula to the south of us that I thought might be the Gaspé just where the St. Lawrence River meets the North Atlantic. Then the clouds hit again; an hour or so, later we saw ground again that was obviously still the farmland of Canada. The water had been, I'm guessing, Georgian Bay, off Lake Huron. Oops.

Knowing where you are on the map is nice, but the accuracy of that "knowing" really doesn't make any difference, except for the folks in the cockpit.

Eventually, the mapping system was working again, as we ate breakfast over the Irish Sea and started sloping southeast across England. I watched it of course, while also hunting for breaks in the clouds to corroborate what the map was telling me about where we were (as if it could be wrong!).

I love that instant mapping screen. For one thing, I love the stolid repetitiveness of its numbers: distance to destination, 3,204 miles; a few minutes later, distance to destination, 3,125 miles, our inevitable progress (we hope) plotted in sequential announcements, like the daily sextant readings in a China clipper's log book.

I also love the way the screen flips through various views, from local (maybe 500 miles) to regional (maybe 2,000 miles) to global (our plane, a tiny dot, on its trajectory across a screen that flattens the earth, a great ice cap on top and bottom, continents and oceans striping vertically across, and the big waveform that indicates night finally running away from us at 1,000 miles an hour or so.

And I love even more the grounding that comes when I turn from the screen to the window, glance ahead of the wing, and identify the curve of the Norfolk coast as we head across the Channel. [again, not my picture, but it is Norfolk].

Yes, I know where we are! And yes, apparently so does the pilot!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Glorious organ sounds

Last night we went to a recital at Oberlin's Fairchild Chapel, where Italian organist Francesco Cera played gorgeous early Italian music. Entering this chapel is already like going back in centuries -- stone, austere shapes, a rounded apse in front, a sense that the electronic "media" world has been completely shut out.

For a little over an hour, we heard the music you might have heard in a (probably more ornate) church in Mantua or Bologna from about 1540 to, say, 1620. The music had a grandeur and precision that seemed to sharpen my senses.

Even the names of the pieces engaged me, because they kept me coming back to the process of creating : "toccata" -- that which is made by touching; "ricercar" -- that which asks you to seek, and seek again; "fantasia" -- that which asks you to use your imagination; and "canzon" -- that which calls on you to sing. And finally, amazingly at the end of a profound and spiritual Organ Mass by Frescobaldi, a "bergamasca" -- a boisterous dance from Bergamo, which in those times was an Italian Hicksville. Like putting country music at the end of a concert of Beethoven! Nothing seemed fixed, nailed down. It was being created at that moment, four hundred years after first being conceived.

I love it when concerts take us past what we are used to. The regularities of Mozart are pretty engrained in my ears at this point. But these were different. Was it the tuning of this organ, which I gather is in a different temperament than I'm used to? or the skill of the organist, who combined steadiness with flexibility? or the writing, frankly different from what we mostly hear today? Certainly VERY different from a standard diet of Bach, great as his music is!

What I especially heard were suspensions and runs. Suspensions -- the held notes that suddenly become lucious dissonances when another close note sneaks in from somewhere. And runs -- the fast sliding intricacies of scales, up and down, underneath a held chord, like the curlicues of a Baroque church made alive and given color and movement.

Here's Cera on a different organ: I hope you enjoy as I did last night!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Oberlin at the Metropolitan Museum

Oberlin's art museum is closed for renovation, and in the meantime works are at Akron, Cleveland, and now, just opened, in a show at the Metropolitan in NYC. "Side by Side" puts 20 Oberlin works in the galleries of the Met with their own (incredible) collection.

I went last week and loved the show. It didn't hurt that Central Park was buzzing with blossoms and bicycles as well.

I loved especially how the paintings that I have worked with for years at Oberlin now take on new meanings when they are in a new context.

Oberlin's museum has its own blogsite, so I wrote a piece for that -- this click should take you there. Here I am in front of one of my favorites:

Friday, March 19, 2010

Weeds and Peepers

So I'm taking something of a vacation from research today, and blogging is part of that vacation. So is biking. I took a picnic and a book, and my camera, on my bike, pedaling west to the little farm town of Kipton, 5 miles from Oberlin, on the old railroad, now bike trail.

What to report?

  • Clouds and jet trails blowing east in a stiff breeze above the old Town Hall. 

  • A chorus of spring peepers in a little swamp next to the bike trail. 
The noon sun slanting through trees on the bridge across the Vermilion River.
And weeds. . .

"Spring and all," by William Carlos Williams, one of my favorite poems. It sounds gloomy on first look, but it's not. It's about tenacious life, like the peepers. Williams was a doctor in New Jersey; the contagious hospital was part of his rounds.
By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast-a cold wind.  Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines-

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches-

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter.  All about them
the cold, familiar wind-

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf
One by one objects are defined-
It quickens:  clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance-Still, the profound change
has come upon them:  rooted, they
grip down and begin to awaken

Thinking about the 1790s

The Takacs quartet came to Oberlin last night -- well, actually only three of them. They played two duos and a trio, and though I'd been hoping for string quartets, the concert was pretty great. The duos were a Mozart for violin and viola (a chance to hear string music without the cello, an airier listening) and a Kodaly for violin and cello (the cello was essential, inspired, and characteristically celloistic).

The trio was the first in Beethoven's Opus 9 set, written, according to Peter Laki's notes, between 1796 and 1798, in Vienna. This piece, even though it was no quartet, was a next-best thing. It's virtuosic, demanding, exciting. Especially live, especially with these players -- lots of horsehair on the floor of the stage; lots of rhythm; the bows sometimes soothing, sometimes pounding on the double-stops that Beethoven wrote in to make the trio sound closer to a quartet (thanks to first violinist Edward Dusinberre for demonstrating).

Afterwards, I was thinking about two aspects of that decade, the 1790s, since I have just finished a draft of a chapter of my book about paintings and poems that focuses on London in that period:
  1. Beethoven started writing and publishing his chamber music then, and as far as I can see it instantly raised the bar for performance standards. These trios are HARD to play! The piano trios that he labeled "Opus 1" are, as well. And while some of us amateurs can manage facsimiles of performances of his first set of string quartets (Op. 18), they are pretty demanding, too, even if there are fewer double stops than in the trios. It seems to me a watershed moment in dividing amateurs from professionals. Haydn can be played by amateurs, though there are tough parts and the first violinist has to manage a lot of notes. But Beethoven... can be played, but it's a different ball game. Last week a friend came over to play with us, and I pulled out some trios by someone named Crémont from a few years later, helpfully labelled "leichte" -- "easy"! They weren't easy, but I'm guessing he was intending them for the amateurs who had been left high and dry by Beethoven. Is it a good thing that Beethoven raised the bar? Sure, it gives us great music to listen to now, by great quartets like the Takacs. But it also meant the end of the intimate connection with the top music of the day that comes when music lovers are also performers of the music they love.
  2. When I saw the date of the trio in the program notes, I was excited. These same years in London saw the work of the great early Romantic writers - Coleridge, Wordsworth, Wollstonecraft and Blake in particular. In England, these radical poets were responding to an incredibly tense moment in history, as the English government simultaneously declared war on the new French Republic (the revolution only a few years old and immediately seen as a threat) and clamped down on liberal/radical thought at home. Comically, the government's spy who followed Coleridge on his walks reported that he kept talking about someone called "Spy-Nosy" (Spinoza); more seriously, critics of the government or of the existing patriarchal order were in danger of being silenced or jailed. As a result, the work they were writing was tense, fraught with the contradictions of their situations, not unlike the US in the Vietnam war era. So, back to the concert and Beethoven: here was this trio, from the same period, the 1790s, and it was -- exciting, flamboyant, showy -- but for my ears at least, not tense the way I feel tension in, say, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It's a complex issue, I know, but I'm interested in how we might explore that difference: How was Vienna different from London? how was Beethoven different from Blake or Coleridge? How is music different from poetry? 
One of the great poems I've been reading from the 1790s -- and short enough to fit in a blog -- is Blake's "London," from Songs of Experience. Here's the text and also Blake's engraving itself, which if anything manages to increase the tension in this already tight-strung little "song."

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning Church appalls;
And the hapless Soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot's curse
Blasts the new born Infant's tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.