It started unraveling a month ago at the Kronos Quartet concert in Berkeley. Isabella and I were seated in front of a very odd couple. Everything they said, all of which was spoken quite loudly, was just off. She asked banal questions and made silly observations in a whining, Queens accent, which he answered with great pronouncements, of which half had little if anything to do with what she had said or asked. After a few minutes of this I had to turn around to see what these two looked like. She was slumping in her seat, almost to the floor, with her eyes closed. He was a bear of a man who looked like there was a large spring from the axle of an automobile stuck in his ass. They both appeared to be close to 70 years of age.
I whispered in Isabella's ear, "Just kill me now. Seriously."
Isabella, who has a way of silently mocking me with a look she perfected at some other time and place in her life, smirked, which meant she was mocking me with empathy.
The lights went down, Kronos takes the stage, and began an unnecessarily amplified performance of Michael Gordon's Clouded Yellow- a work for string quartet that could be a pop song if someone loaded a drum track behind it. It was catchy, it was pleasant, it was a pop confection. For a string quartet. I was a bit confused.
Then came something truly awful: an arrangement by Phillip Glass of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," again amplified, with accompanying non-live accompaniment by a theremin, mandolin and harpsichord. The last time I heard something so completely dreadful in concept and execution was this.
That train wreck was followed by a piece called Oasis by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, which yes, was amplified- in fact everything was amplified in a hall that doesn't need it- and it was an interesting piece except for the canned drips of water that plopped all the way through it, making it sound like a jingle by Enigma for bottled water.
Now, during all of these pieces the two behind us kept on chattering to the point where I turned around and asked them to cease talking. The woman replied,"we're not talking." And then she said something to him about Bob Dylan, to which he replied he didn't like Dylan. All of this took place during the performance.
Then the Alim Qasomov Ensemble came out to accompany Kronos in the Azeri traditional Mahur Hindi Destgahi. Led by father and daughter vocalists Alim and Fargana Qasimov, this piece was interesting for the first five of its twenty minutes and then felt like an endurance test for both the performers and the audience.
The man behind us had been making strange, squeaking and chirping sounds for the last ten minutes. No one else in the full house seems to be disturbed by this. Isabella turns to me and says, "let's go outside."
We sit down and she says, "I need to talk to you about something important."
Inwardly I release a sigh. She's going to want to go home. She's tired and this is terrible. This is actually perfect, because it's exactly what I'm thinking. But it's not what she's thinking.
She tells me something else entirely which has nothing to do with the concert and doesn't mention wanting to leave.
So we go back inside and there's screaming and shouting coming from inside the auditorium. People are saying "Call 911!" I enter the hall to take a look (she doesn't want to see whatever is happening) and there's the man who was sitting behind us being wrestled to the ground by four or five men, somewhat unsuccessfully, since he keeps kicking them and shouting obscenities. The woman is beside herself and I expect her to start keening any moment. We decide to call it a night after 20 minutes of this and no ambulance in sight. I have no idea if the rest of the concert was as dismal as the first half.
The next night, Monday, Isabella and I have a major row.
Tuesday and Wednesday disappeared into a blur of the past colliding into the present and a desire to obliterate it all.
On Thursday I attended the Leif Ove Andsnes concert with The Swede, who had just returned that afternoon from his vacation in Pakistan. That's right- The Swede's idea of a vacation is to travel to Pakistan. Actually, our fine ally, harborer of terrorists and fanatics, was his second choice for a vacation spot, but he couldn't get a visa for North Korea without agreeing to such a rigid itinerary the whole idea became unpalatable to him. Nevertheless, he had a marvelous time celebrating the Prophet's birthday and eating ice cream with young, horny men and told me all about it over dinner and Manhattans before the concert.
I'll admit now that I did enjoy making him spit out a good portion of his drink through his nose when I timed an anecdote about my last visit to this restaurant with the Femme Fatale just right, causing him to exclaim afterward, wiping the bourbon from his chin, "That's why I love you. I thought only gay guys did that shit!"
At intermission the Swede hit the wall and had to leave, which I understood, as I was already surprised and impressed that he even wanted to go in the first place, since he had just got of the plane hours earlier. After he left I spotted Patrick in his usual spot in the front row and went over to say hello. Patrick wrote a most brilliant post about the concert wherein he wonders at one point if he was coherent while we were talking, completely unaware that I was thinking exactly the same thing, but for different reasons.
On the walk home I noticed the Chevy's on Van Ness had called it quits, and this surprised me for some reason, though it probably shouldn't have- after all, who wants to eat at a Chevy's when you're in San Francisco?
The next night was Gatsby.
Now I must confess to a dilemma concerning how much of this story I want to reveal. On the one hand, I'd like to put it all out there in an effort to be done with it, as it's colored (and explains) so much of the last eighteen months. On the other hand, the last time I wrote something like I've intended to post here, it seemed to freak some people out- some actually stopped talking to me and I felt a frost for months afterward. Apparently I had crossed a line by revealing too much of the backstory of my relationships to the characters found here. And what I wrote back then is nothing compared to what I've detailed about what went on at the Gatsby performance, and other things I've considered writing and then thought better of it, realizing it belongs in a different blog, if not another medium entirely. Conflicted, I asked two people whose opinions I trust- Isabella and Lily Bart, if I should write it and they both said write it, but don't publish it. Isabella felt even more strongly about this after I let her read the finished piece. So what follows is only the beginning of what I originally wrote and intended to post, and that's all there's going to be.
Isabella and I had really been looking forward to attending this performance together but the row dashed that plan. CC couldn't make it, so I ended up going stag. I picked up my ticket and as I was making my way toward the door the I saw the Femme Fatale ahead of me in all of her carefully constructed glory- a sight I had come to expect, since it was recurring with an ever-increasing frequency. I quickly looked around for the Cuckold and spotted him ten feet ahead of her.
I came up behind her shoulder and said quietly into her ear, "Why don't you just introduce us?"
She looked at me steadily, as if she had expected this to happen.
"Okay, I will," she said, with an unsettling coolness in her voice and expression- as if this was all going exactly according to her plan....
She caught up to him and turned him around by the shoulder,
"I want to introduce the two of you," she said...
Use your imagination to fill-in the gaps from there. Was it ugly? Yeah, it was. If you think about what happens in Gatsby, add a heavy dose of adulterous noir, you'll have a pretty accurate picture of what followed. At the conclusion of the show, they went one way and I went another- just as we have for the past year, except for the brief interludes when she left his house for mine.
The next day I went to see the broadcast of Gotterdammerung- another outing planned with Isabella which I was now doing solo. Afterward I ran into Jim, an old theater guy from New York whose niece I dated shortly after I first moved here in 1992 and for another stretch a dozen years ago. I expected to see him, as he had also attended the other three installments of the Met's Ring broadcasts, and I was glad he was there. He's full of amusing anecdotes and strong opinions. We went for coffee after the broadcast and chatted for a couple of hours. It was the first time in the nearly twenty years I've known him we didn't talk about opera or theater and on that afternoon I couldn't imagine better company than that 80 year old man.
At this point I'm beginning to feel like Corky Corcoran- not the musician, but the character in the Joyce Carol Oates novel (read it if you haven't- it's a marvelous book).
Two days later it was Valentine's Day and Isabella and I decided to stick with a slightly modified version of our original plan, which was to go hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who were visiting town for the first time in over 20 years. The concert began with Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231, a six minute piece ostensibly about locomotives which was thoroughly delightful in its chugging glory, but when the train reached the station, the subtlety of the "locomotive" euphemism disappears completely into an orchestral orgasm more obvious than the trombone exhalation ending the rape scene in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Some enterprising stripper should use the piece in a routine.
Next came Mason Bates' Alternative Energy. It's easy to be skeptical about seeing Bates as a serious composer. First, he comes off too easily as an orchestra's dream of who could lure in a younger audience- he's young, good-looking, and cool (lives in Oakland, and he's also a club DJ as well as a composer). Second, he incorporates electronic elements into most, if not all, of his compositions. But I really enjoyed his B-Sides, commissioned by SFS a couple of years ago and I was looking forward to hearing this new work, commissioned by Chicago, where he's currently one of two young composers-in-residence.
Don't let anyone tell you differently- Bates is the real thing. Alternative Energy turned out to be one of the most interesting and engaging contemporary works I've ever heard and if one were available, I would buy a recording of it tomorrow. The twenty-five minute, four movement piece was engaging from the first note, moving from Coplandesque hoedown to thumping beats that caused 70 year old conductor Ricarrdo Muti to show us his disco moves from the podium, baton in hand, as Bates' work stopped in four distinct places and times during an aural history of how things will fall apart in the future.
Sadly, Cesar Franck's Symphony in D didn't have the same impact after the intermission.
The next night I returned to see Chicago's next program, this one featuring Night Ferry, a work by their other composer-in-residence, Anna Clyne. Again, this proved to be the highlight of the evening. Clyne's work begins with the most evocative musical rendering of the sea I've ever heard and just grew more interesting as it went along. By turns hypnotic and violent, it ends with a gong being struck which dissipates into nothingness like a black sea left behind at night on a moonless night. I'd like to thank whoever decided to bring Bates and Clyne to Chicago- their works were wonderful to hear.
Again, as it was the night before, what followed was decidedly less interesting- Schubert's The Great Symphony, with its endless repeats, just felt tedious after Clyne's piece. This made it hard to really come to a conclusion about the Chicago orchestra- they gave excellent performances of works no had yet heard, but the familiar didn't leave much of an impression. I was seated next to Axel that second night, who marveled at what he described as their "blended" sound, but I found it more difficult to get an impression of what made the orchestra unique beyond the obviously high-caliber playing from every section.
Two nights later I was back at Davies, this time with Lily Bart, to hear former music director Edo de Waart conduct a program that proved to be much better in the house than it looked it on paper, which was a strange brew indeed.
It began with the Prelude of Franz Schreker's marvelous opera Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized), which in de Waart's hands sounded even lusher than I had remembered it when I saw it performed by LA Opera under James Conlon a couple of years ago. Schreker's music nods to Wagner, but the debts to Mahler and Strauss were what really came through in de Waart's hands. One can only hope the glory of this music encourages the company across the street to one day bring the whole thing to town.
This was followed by Simon Trpceski as the soloist for Rachmaninoff's fourth piano concerto. Trpceski gave a magnificent performance of a difficult but flawed piece- the fourth lacks almost everything which makes the second and third concertos so thrilling and absorbing- the decadent, lush melodies and over-the-top solos. Still, his jazz-influenced playing style was impressive and I look forward to his return. de Waart and the orchestra sounded fantastic alongside him.
The last piece was Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3, Organ, featuring Jonathan Dimmock as the soloist- an almost ridiculously over-stuffed work that was delightful to hear and played with serious earnestness. It worked remarkably well. de Waart hasn't been on the stage of Davies in a very long time, and I hope this strong performance, and the justly tremendous reception it received from the audience, causes the powers that be to bring him back again soon.
The next night Lily took me to a small salon out in the avenues, where we were part of a tiny audience watching two performers doing a spin on the theme of "Death the trickster"- one by a singer-songwriter whose cycle had a decidedly David Lynch-like quality to it, the other by a marvelously gifted magician with a flair for the dramatic and theatrical. The theme struck a chord with me, and a couple of days later, taking in everything that happened in those previous two weeks, and how it felt like the culmination of the past two years had just been bluntly pushed through the end of funnel lined with razor blades, something shifted inside my mind and I went undergound for awhile. But I'm back. And that's all there is.