Santa Barbara, California is not the sleepy town that many outsiders assume. On the contrary, it offers a more diversified and sophisticated array of cultural events than most communities of its size. Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures, the University of California’s outstanding presenting organization, both the scholarly and residential population benefit greatly each year from a broad spectrum of hot-topic academic lectures as well as dance, music, and theatre performances, ranging from innovative, cutting-edge companies and ensembles to high-profile, beloved traditional institutions.
“We Are Women: A Bernstein Cabaret”, a concert of Leonard Bernstein’s songs in The Colonial was one of the two or three best things I have heard this summer. Many thanks to the Berkshire Theatre Group for giving this to us. Here were four singers – here were four actors. I have rarely seen such a finished understanding of how one kind of vocalism becomes another. With the excellent Michael Barrett on piano, Alan R. Kay on clarinet, and John Feeney on contrabass, we heard a great deal of one of the maestro’s finest compositions, “Trouble in Tahiti”, and a superior selection from other shows. The songs were introduced by Leonard Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein. There was not too much talking. All was natural as if the songs were new-minted. Each of the singers made a comprehensive narrative of the material and seemed to be singing it before they made any sound, and long after. This concert wasn’t a succession of excerpts, but searing moments that also had naturalness. I wish each of my students could have heard this concert.
Dr. Johnson famously refused to re-read the play for some years, remarking that it “did not keep faith with the chronicles” referring, I suppose, to an older play on the same subject. Shakespeare’s alterations were radical. Cordelia’s death is the issue. Nahum Tate saves her, and his version ruled the English stage for decades. These days it is either the bleak version where all hope is banished, or what critics quaintly call the Christianizing version. Like today’s pols, it’s one or the other; the middle lies empty. But there is a middle, very possibly a transcendent one. We have already seen the end of Shakespeare’s Lear twice, first in Pericles, and then The Winter’s Tale. Check the Quarto text of King Lear and you will read that music is called for in the awakening scene of Act 4 – just as Paulina does in the corresponding place in Winter’s Tale. Is there a chance the playwright is out to show that Lear’s so-called hallucinations in his final moments are true vision? This is not bringing a statue back to life – a statue that never died. This is seeing a dead person in a new life. Was this a deliberate challenge the playwright set himself – nothing less than all from nothing? Can we believe it? Was the dying King Lear the only one with the ears to hear? And finally the eyes to see? Is his own awakening scene a dress rehearsal for the promised end? Why are we so willing to deny Lear’s seeing? He himself tests it, puts the glass up to her nostrils. He despairs, but this is not the finality. The finality is open. “It is required you do awake your faith,” as Paulina says in Winters Tale. Pace Dr. Johnson, maybe the old faith is kept, just not shown – forcing the imagination still further, the way that music brings us to the edge of the thing and we hear it in the silence after. Kelly Galvin’s Cordelia made us hear this every time she spoke, gave us an assurance of it. Her speaking was partner to her silence.
They looked like a normal Broadway audience, these adults attending a matinee of Seminar. Then ten minutes into the play, when Alan Rickman, the star, made his entrance, they went berserk—screaming as if he were Professor Snape, his Harry Potter film character, instead of an actor on stage—and stopped the show in the middle of a tense scene.
One day Beethoven got up and went to the house of Dorothea Ertmann, a woman he clearly loved. Her child had died. She had lost her ability to speak. The composer sat at the fortepiano and played for her a concert of late Beethoven that no one else will ever hear. She began to speak. Beethoven thought of music as a changer of things—a power—at its most powerful, a healer. The tale insists that Beethoven spoke no word to Dorothea. Anecdote? There is good evidence. And think of that other more important evidence—the motto he wrote at the top of the Missa Solemnis: “from the heart, may it go to the heart.” Think of the fundamental importance that actual physical sound had for Beethoven, how he relates in the Heiligenstadt Testament that losing his ability to hear made him suicidal. (Think of this also the next time you hear an expert say that he can hear the Beethoven 9th better reading the score than he can in the concert hall.) What healed Dorothea was a performance. The whole occasion was about sound. She made none, Beethoven made the sacred sounds; she spoke.
I should most likely not distract you from giving a subscription to The Berkshire Review as a holiday gift. We need subscriptions to carry on our work, but there are a few items that have come in for review that I can warmly suggest as excellent gifts. These are not systematic, and they are not always serious, but we do recommend them. Some of them will be reviewed in detail over the following weeks.
Hats off, ladies and Gentlemen! A conductor! And a great symphony!
Vasily Petrenko’s recent electrifying week with the San Francisco Symphony reminds the listener that Gustavo Dudamel is not the sole “conducting animal” to be found on the musical circuit these days. Esa-Pekka Salonen coined the term a while back, with the impassioned Venezuelan in mind. And indeed, Dudamel is the sort of refreshing performer who has the winds jumping to their feet like jazz musicians and bass players twirling their instruments. He is all about emotion as vitality. But physically, apart from the energy with which he beats time, his manner is unremarkable.
The fascination of Petrenko, by contrast, is his ability to reflect every quivering moment of the music somewhere on his face or body, as though he were a disembodied hologram. We joke about people who are “double-jointed.” But Vasily Petrenko might as well be quadruple-sprung and then some…this is a man who’d have no trouble tapping three heads, rubbing five tummies and signalling with numerous eyebrows at the same time!
My immediate reaction to Michael Miller’s commentary on the Karajan centenary [Oh no! He’s not back again, is he? – May 2, 2008] was rather choleric, but I’ve settled down a bit since then and can write this from a relatively balanced perspective.