Posts for:  December 2009

Christmas Gift — The Nutcracker

A Sugarplum Fairy awaits young fans in the lobby

A Sugarplum Fairy awaits young fans in the lobby

My older daughter has been living and working in Germany since August, and I’ve missed her so much that having her home for two weeks was what I wanted most for Christmas. When I asked her over Skype what she wanted for Christmas, she said without hesitation, “Can we see the Nutcracker?”

“Of course,” I said, although I have to admit that normally I would rather attend productions of works I’ve never seen before. However, The Nutcracker is close to her heart, since she danced several parts in the Columbus Youth Ballet production when she was a child. She’s been a Gingersnap, a Candycane, a Soldier, and a Party Guest, and she never tires of it. So I happily got tickets for the Pennsylvania Ballet’s evening performance, the day after Christmas.

Well, folks, it was spectacular. The dancers were in fine form, technically and artistically; the orchestra, under the direction of Beatrice Jona Affron, played expressively and at an almost fearless pace. The Academy of Music, in all its gilt, crystal, and red velvet splendor, is the perfect setting for a ballet that has substance and depth to its layers of confection.

The over-the-top retractable crystal chandelier in the Academy of Music

The over-the-top retractable crystal chandelier in the Academy of Music

The Pennsylvania Ballet performs the famous version created in the ’50′s by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet. Alastair Macauley explains Balanchine’s innovations, both artistic and psychological, in an article for the New York Times that’s fascinating to read. What strikes me watching this production are the wonderful touches of humor in the First Act (the energizer bunny drummer, the tipsy Grandma, the naughty, hyper little boys, the ammunition of Swiss cheese) and the magical transition of Marie’s Christmas Eve party into her dream world of the Land of Sweets. The big corps de ballet numbers, the Snowflake Dance and the Waltz of the Flowers, are, in their moving symmetry, deeply emotional, and remind me of the perfect form of J.S. Bach.

The score Tschaikowsky composed in 1892 still sounds fresh — tension builds in chromatic progressions as monumental as in his symphonies; color and melodic invention continually evolve. Who has ever heard created anything more hypnotic than the music for the Arabian Dance, for instance? I have no doubt that what makes this great ballet endure is Tschaikowsky’s music.

I’m sure it’s worth the expense to mount the fabulous sets (expanding Christmas trees and snowy landscapes,) and the elaborate costumery of tutus, satin, and lace. Most of all it’s well worth the added effort of involving a great number of talented children -– not just child dancers, but child singers as well. What a genius touch, actually, because the audience, even at night, was full of children. Booster seats were available for the tiniest of ballet watchers (and some of them were pretty tiny,) but I didn’t hear a single child cry, talk, or complain during the performance. The average age of those sitting in the seats was far lower than for the usual ballet, opera, or orchestra audience. I think that’s something to dance about.

Perhaps no one understands the Nutcracker better than a musician who’s performed it for 25 years, as has violinist Charles Parker. “If you have to play the same piece 25 to 30 times in a 3 week period, thank God it’s Nutcracker! ” he says. “Any other piece would truly drive me insane. And, any time that it starts to become boring, you hear a child in the audience laugh or say something like ‘Look at the mouse, Mommy!’ You feel privileged to be part of their new memory, and you play like it’s your first performance.”

I’ll applaud that.

Black, blond, and brunette heads among the gray in this audience

More black, blond, and brunette heads than gray in this audience

Heidi and Julia, Part Two

Julia Alvarez (with red boa, center) and Haverford College students. Ida Faiella, soprano far left

Julia Alvarez (center right) with Haverford College students, and soprano Ida Faiella (far left), composer Heidi Jacob and Prof. Theresa Tensuan (far right)

On December 1, Bryn Mawr College hosted a cultural double bill called Julia Alvarez: Words and Music. Last week, I wrote about the first part of the evening, which showcased the four new songs Haverford music professor Heidi Jacob composed to poems of Julia Alvarez. Today I’ll talk about the second half of the show, in which Ms. Alvarez took the stage to read her poems and to speak about her life and unusual literary influences.

What radiates beyond both words and music is Ms. Alvarez’s irrepressible personality, a trait she deliberately tried to tone down when she moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States at the age of ten. At the time, she wanted more than anything to be an All-American girl (not realizing until later that she was already American.) Holding back her warm Latin side was a challenge, as the cultural differences puzzled her. For instance, when one of her teachers said, “Julia, I’m very disappointed in you,” she had a hard time believing the woman because the criticism was delivered in such a controlled, calm tone of voice.

My friend Ariadne, who was in the audience and who teaches advanced-level Spanish, told me later that she found herself thinking, “Yes! Sometimes I want to say to a student – you turned in such a bad paper, you can do so much better – I want to kill you! In Mexico City I would say that, but of course I can’t here.”

I suspect that Julia Alvarez’s irrepressible nature might have less to do with her cultural background, and more to do with who she is. As a child, she was “overly affectionate,” only allowed to fully express her love for her family members when she ironed their clothes. Ironing, she explained, was a privilege and a step up in the pecking order of domestic chores because “You could be trusted with something you could do damage to.” It’s beautifully shown in the poem she read called Ironing Their Clothes, where she is “forced to express my excess love on cloth.”

Domestic chores in general were the unlikely catalyst for her first collection of poems. She described how, as a young fellow at the MacDowell Colony, with the lofty canon of English literature in her ear (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre” and so on,) listening to the other fellows busily clacking away on their typewriters while she waited vainly for inspiration, she was suddenly freed by the sound of the vacuum cleaner in the hallway. She realized that her first training was in the household arts. She thought, “Why dismiss this?”

And so she produced her first collection of poems, Homecoming, as well as the poems in the following collection El Otro Lado about her muse, Gladys, a warm-hearted maid from her childhood who was always singing (and who, in the poems, abruptly stops singing whenever Ms. Alvarez’s formidable mother appears on the scene – perhaps a metaphor also for parental repression of Alvarez’s natural, exuberant impulses.)

Another of Ms. Alvarez’s muses was the old photographer who had the unenviable job of trying to capture all 24 of her father’s siblings and their offspring in the annual family photo. “You don’t know they are muses until you look back,” she said. Nor is it obvious at first what will become a departure point for writing -– an image as random as “men coming out of holes” (like manholes) has proved a recent whimsical influence for her lately.

The day following the concert and reading, Julia Alvarez spoke even more frankly about her work at an informal luncheon at the Women’s Center at Haverford College, when she spent time with students in Theresa Tensuan’s Contemporary Women Writers class. When Homecoming was published, Ms. Alvarez said, she wanted suddenly to silence herself, afraid of her family’s reaction. However, not a single person questioned her honest portrayal of family life; her aunts and mother even proudly displayed the book on their coffee tables. Since it was poetry, nobody actually read it! But when her first novel came out, exploring some of these events and observations in prose, her family was outraged, her mother especially.

“Why do you have to write about unhappy things?” her mother demanded.

Implied was the larger question, “Why read?” Ms. Alvarez described how, growing up in the outgoing Dominican culture, people told her, “If you read too much, you will get sick. If you read too much, nobody will want to marry you -–” a pointed reference to a bookish maiden aunt, who had given Julia and her sisters a much-loved copy of Scheherezade.

Ms. Alvarez said that as a child, she was not much of a reader; she did not like reading the censored material taught in the Dominican Republic, and she fidgeted in class (she thinks that nowadays she most likely would have been diagnosed with ADHD.) The stories she heard were not found on the printed page, but were told around the kitchen table.

Later, when she moved to the U.S., she discovered books. The kids on the playground were not particularly friendly to her, but in books, she was “welcome at the table” again. In the world of stories, she “could become anybody.” So although she came to reading late, she knew early on that this fellowship of writing, of story-telling, of words and literature, was where she wanted to be.

Julia Alvarez shared other insights into her creative life. Among the folders in her file cabinet, she keeps one called “Curiosities,” and another called “Letters Not Sent.” She writes, not to tell, but to find out about things. When asked why she did not write the screenplay for the movie version of her novel In the Time of the Butterflies, she quoted Chaucer: “Time is so short and the craft so long.”

A wise thing for all artists to remember.

Heidi and Julia, Part One

Heidi Jacob, conductor and composer

Heidi Jacob, conductor and composer

Several years ago, my colleague Heidi Jacob took a sabbatical from conducting and teaching at Haverford College in order to study for her Ph.D. in composition. I was impressed; having earned two terminal degrees myself, I would not want to become a doctoral student again. Heidi was excited by the prospect, though; I could tell she couldn’t wait to plunge in.

She’s been back teaching for a couple of years, but I had yet to hear any of her compositions. So I was delighted to see a poster announcing that four of her songs based on poems of Julia Alvarez would be premiered on the Bryn Mawr College Creative Writing series, with Julia Alvarez herself in attendance.

“Tell me about this!” I said, when we saw each other in the hallway at the beginning of the semester.

With an enthusiasm she usually expresses for a particularly talented student we share, Heidi talked, eyes shining, not about herself, but about the great Dominican- American author’s work. “Gladys,” Heidi said. “Remember Gladys? The first song is about her.” We agreed we both loved How the Garcia Girls Got their Accents. And In the Time of the Butterflies. And Yo!

Accelerando to December 1, the evening of the premiere, which Bryn Mawr appropriately named “Words and Music.” When I arrived, a crowd had already gathered at Thomas Great Hall, on the majestically gothic Bryn Mawr campus.

Stepping into Thomas Hall is like stepping into a minor wing of the Houses of Parliament -– it is an enormous, rectangular space with a soaring ceiling, stone walls, and high mullioned windows. Acoustically it can be tricky, but the sound produced by L’Ensemble (the professional chamber group made up of Ida Faiella, soprano; Barry Finclair, violin, and Charles Abramovic, piano) was clear, focused, and full.

“Gladys sang as she worked

in her high, clear voice”

began Faiella, in her commanding, expressive soprano. Radiant, harplike colors produced by pianist Abramovic, and playful, sweet trills from violinist Finclair, gave Gladys Singing the compelling sound of tropical bird song.

However, nothing remains easy and amiable in this piece. At the end of Gladys Singing, the mother of the singer/narrator roars up the driveway in her powerful car, and in her high heels click-clacks up to the front door to enter the suddenly silent house. The birds stop singing, the music becomes static as a “tomb,” and the listener understands why Gladys, warm-hearted Gladys of the author’s childhood, became a muse and a symbol of life to her.

In the next song, Folding My Clothes, Heidi Jacob has changed the structure of Alvarez’s poem so that the bitter-sounding phrase composed to the final words

“until I put them on, breathing life back

into those abstract shapes of who I was

which she found so much easier to love”

is redeemed, musically, by the re-appearance of the rounded, berceuse-like first line, “Tenderly she would take them down and fold the arms in and fold again…”

Are we all ill with acute loneliness” is the shortest song, yet terrifying in its bleak and deliberate use of pizzicato descending minor seconds (doubled by the piano) and the use of Sprechstimme to harshly speak the question, “and we are all well?”

The most dramatic song in the cycle is the final one, Beginning Again. In this complex piece, the listener is brought face-to-face with the immigrant girl’s sense of anxiety and loss, depicted by restless shifting meter and spiky dissonance. Gradually, the listener travels with the immigrant singer/narrator through reconciliation and hope, depicted by the use of an open-sounding descending modulation by thirds, an oasis of A major, a celestial-sounding B-flat major texture, and at the end, a sprightly and regular rhythmic pattern which brings us –- and are we not all immigrants, in our own way? — to the acceptance, and anticipation, of home.

With this last statement, Heidi Jacob achieves a satisfying symmetry for the cycle: the first and last songs are the longest, and, as the mood of the first song begins with comfort and ends with a sense of desolation, here, in the last song, the composer begins with unease and ends with hope.

Julia Alvarez address the audience in her musical voice

Julia Alvarez address the audience in her musical voice

There was a pause following the enthusiastic applause as Julia Alvarez mounted the stage and took the microphone. With her high cheekbones and petite frame, she bears a resemblance to Bryn Mawr’s most famous alumna, Katherine Hepburn, though the glamour this night was endearingly softened by a green pencil stuck into her upswept bun. Clearly touched by the musical tribute, she looked straight into the audience and said, “Who needs a funeral?”

She then began to read her poems with the poise, timing, and phrasing of a fine musician.

It was ear-opening to hear the author read the same poem that Heidi had set to music with such different results, most notably in Folding my Clothes. The inflections were in different places, the cadence hypnotic. Occasionally I have found myself at poetry readings, brain straining, wishing I were at a concert instead, but not in this case. The pure words, as read in Alvarez’s musical voice, held the audience captive with phrasing as seductively compelling as a Chopin melody.

Her introductions to the poems she read and the pearls of wisdom she bestowed on young writers will be discussed in my next post.

After the reading, I asked Julia Alvarez what it was like to hear her words re-interpreted through music.

“Like I said, who needs a funeral?” she said, glowing. “Heidi was able to bring out the emotion inside the lines.”

I thought about that. Emotion is outlined, heightened and dramatized by music in a way that enhances the words. Music makes us listen in a different way, forces us to experience the words with greater intensity –- that is, when the words are good, and the music’s good. They certainly were that night.

Julia and Heidi, words and music

Julia and Heidi, words and music

Manhattan Diary – Holiday

Manhattan Diary – Holiday

Winter's Eve on Broadway

Winter's Eve on Broadway

Friends and I often muse about how we may have wanted to live in Manhattan when we were younger, but now that we’re older, we know it wouldn’t be worth the noise, the commotion, nor, most of all, the expense. Yet after spending a magical day there, I change my mind again.

Case in point: last Monday, I drove up from Philly to hear the American Composers Orchestra perform my colleague Curt’s new piece at Zankel Hall. It was 2 p.m. when I arrived in New York, and pouring rain. I parked my car, decided not to wait for a cab, took the subway from the Port Authority station and zipped up to Columbus Circle. Fortunately, the rain had eased by the time I walked up Columbus Avenue to meet my friend Deborah Jamini at Alice’s Teacup on 73rd.

Debbie had suggested Alice’s Teacup as a quintessentially New York place to nosh. You descend a small flight of stairs to enter the teacup. The floorboards are worn, the bakery cases simple, there are fairy wings for sale displayed on the wall. There are hundreds of varieties of teas to choose from, buttery scones, and delicate tea sandwiches and salads, which a waitress in the aforementioned fairy wings cheerily brings to your table. The place was packed, not with “ladies who lunch,” but with “ladies (and men) who tea.”

Debbie and I hadn’t spent time with each other since high school and music camp, and it wasn’t until last summer, at a memorial celebration for our teacher William Appling that we met up with each other again. Debbie looks as if she’s in her twenties, and can wear leather pants in the rain with aplomb. (She credits her vegan diet for her eternal youthfulness.) Debbie’s career has evolved far beyond piano performance, which she majored in at the Mannes School. She is also a marvelous alto, a cantor at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and composer-in-residence there. She teaches theory and conducts a choir at a branch of the New School and has published a theory textbook. I’ll be profiling Deb’s versatile music career in a future post.

Starry Time-Warner Center

Starry Time-Warner Center

I met another friend for dinner at Bouchon Bakery in the Time-Warner Center, where the Christmas stars floated like swans in the air, a children’s choir sang in the background, and the enormous expanse of front windows looked onto twinkling lights enwrapping the bare-branched trees outside. All along Broadway, nearly every restaurant of note in the Lincoln Center area had set up a tented booth, festooned with lights, from which they served something delicious, as part of the Winter’s Eve at Lincoln Square festival. The line of people waiting to taste treats from such restaurants as Picholine and Bar Masa snaked down the sidewalk.

I was in a festive mood by the time I took my seat in Zankel Hall (the smaller, newer performance space at Carnegie.) Here’s a brief summary of the new pieces I heard.

Curt Cacioppo’s When the Orchard Dances Ceased: lush orchestration, evocative use of Navajo melodies and percussion, pictorial use of army trumpet calls, haunting Navajo chanting by the composer. I admire Curt’s compositional integrity, which is without gimmick and always deeply felt. He hits the right balance between mental rigor and emotion, I think.

Huang Ruo’s Leaving Sao: Here is another composer who can sing; this time, Peking- opera style. There was an arresting duet between the solo vocalist and one of the orchestra’s percussionists, using two “hummers,” tubes that create a high-pitched, fluctuating tone when swung in a circle high up in the air.

Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece xiii: Mathilde of Loci, Part :This composer too vocalized – her work was preceded by a video presentation describing her process of breaking down vocalization into its most elemental parts. The sounds she created reminded me, interestingly enough, of the U of Penn a capella group, Off the Beat.

Donal Fox’s Peace Out for Improvised Piano and Orchestra, with the composer at the piano: This brother can play! As a pianist, I appreciated Mr. Fox’s fearsome technique and power at the keyboard. The three movements of this jazz-inspired concerto are not unified in theme, at least not in any readily apparent way, but they were each appealing, and the audience, which included school kids, went wild for it.

Conductor Stefan Lano deftly held all these disparate pieces together, as well as two Tone Roads by Charles Ives.

There were warm welcomes by the president of the ACO, Robert Beaser, and an executive from Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesy, which is sponsoring the orchestra for 2 years. The audience was invited to Twitter in the lobby. After the concert, I attended a reception at an elegant upper floor space on 57th, where guests descended a spiral staircase carpeted in ice blue. Plenty of Moet-Hennessy champagne abounded. I drove home listening to good jazz. At that hour, only about three other cars shared the New Jersey turnpike with me, and I made it home not too long after midnight.

The next morning, I took my dog for a run in the woods near my house. The air was crisp, and we passed not another soul on the pristine trails. I’d gotten very little sleep the night before, but still I felt rejuvenated. Was it the fresh air? Or the ten-hour holiday I’d had in Manhattan? Maybe I do have the best of both worlds.