wet earth

The Art of Patience

Today’s topic is the art of patience.  I have been to Disney Hall, in downtown Los Angeles, a dozen times over the past eight years for concerts by the L.A. Philharmonic.  Last weekend, I had an experience that gave me a new understanding of those eight years, those twelve concerts.  Allow me to explain.

If you haven’t been to a concert at Disney Hall, I hope that some day you will, for it is difficult to convey in words just how beautiful the interior of the hall is.  The seats, featuring a loopy, colorful, floral design, are arranged around the stage in a series of layered tiers, so that every seat offers both superb viewing and excellent acoustics.  I have sat in various sections throughout the hall, never unhappy with my seat.  Last Saturday, however, I sat in a section that was new to me, and it was an experience that has changed the way I think about Disney Hall, perhaps even about music.  As the saying goes: location, location, location.

From the center of Terrace East (Row C, Seat 49) one has a plunging, bird’s-eye view of the entire orchestra.  This meant that during the performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, I could literally watch the music arise, wave-like, from various areas of the stage.  Mahler’s Fifth seethes with deep feeling and turmoil; there were crashes and roiling movement and surging pockets of drama.  Fabulously, all this upwelling energy below was mirrored above by the dramatically undulating ceiling of the hall, which is made of tawny Oregon cedar that is curved and shaped in such a way as to resemble the billowing furls of a sail.

In the midst of this wildness, this storm of musical power, I sat.  Yet I felt more of a participant than a witness.  In other halls, occupying an orchestra or balcony seat, on the more horizontal or angular plane, I have felt at times slightly removed, distanced from what is happening on stage.  Perched in my aerie, I was completely involved.

The Mahler churned on; we were grateful for the pauses.  The audience breathed audibly and moved their bodies between the movements, and the musicians also breathed and moved, and there was the sense that we were all on this musical ship together, all of us in need of momentary rest before launching into the next wave of musical ideas.

And such ideas!  The orchestra performed the symphony, seventy-five minutes of pure emotion, with magnificent tautness and shine.  (Daniel Harding was the guest conductor.)  Mahler’s score demands a huge orchestra, and I took especial pleasure in watching from above the various percussionists wield their many and fascinating instruments (bass drums, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, slapstick, triangle, and tam-tam).  It was interesting to watch them sit patiently through long unfolding sections of music until the music flowed toward them, and so they rose, and offered a punctual crash, a pattern of hard, snapping sounds, a skittering of low drumbeats, a tinkle of bells.

It was during the famous fourth Adagietto movement, with its lyrical, pulsing heartbeat provided by the harp which was placed plum center of the orchestra, that I saw in my mind’s eye, as if in a rapid montage, all the previous concerts I had attended in this magnificent hall.  I saw how they were the ground for this moment, and that the moment was so thrilling not only because of where I was sitting and not only because of the music itself, but because I had been there, in that hall, before.  We are who we are because of where we’ve been.  And I felt grateful that I already had a history in this hall which is less than a decade old, and that, with continued fortune, this history, this story, will continue to evolve.

I have heard that nothing worth accomplishing was ever done in haste.  Certainly this is true in art.  Even if the execution may be rapid, there are the years and years of practice, of learning, of failing and of persevering, the years of commitment and trust in the process that provide the hopeful soil for something, someday, to grow.  I first heard Mahler’s music when I saw the film “Death in Venice,” which tells a story of unfulfilled gay desire, isolation, and loss.  To myself, and to many gay men who have seen “Death in Venice,” it was as if Mahler’s haunting Adagietto, deployed so effectively in the film, were the very soundtrack of gay sorrow.  I was nineteen when I saw the movie for a college literature class, a teenager terrified by my homosexuality, and in this first exposure to Mahler I heard, and felt, both the yearning desire for love and beauty and the melancholy certainty I would never achieve that imagined happiness.  The music seemed so beautiful, so sad, so lonely.

But with patience, with time, things do grow, things do get better, new perspectives do arise.  Seen from the right angle, all that has gone before may be revealed in a new, clarifying light.

Forum on a Career in Theater

Forging a career in the arts can be a daunting prospect.  In addition to all the individual personal qualities a person must bring to the effort—patience and perseverance among the most important—the ability to connect and learn from others is vital.  A public forum this weekend, presented by the Monterey County Theater Alliance, will offer anyone interested in a career in theater a unique opportunity to find out more about how to chart a successful path as a working theater artist.  Whether you are an aspiring actor or director, set designer or costumer, students, their parents, and community members of all ages will benefit from this one-time event.  This forum is also an excellent example of the kind of collaborative community work performed by the MCTA, which works hard to promote the quality, diversity and community of local live theatre and theatre artists throughout Monterey County.

The panel will feature Elizabeth Broderson, Director of Education for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (ACT), William Wolak, Professor Emeritus at the University of the Pacific, Gary Bolen, Chairman of the Theater Department at Monterey Peninsula College, and Melissa Chin-Parker, Artistic Program Director of The Western Stage at Hartnell College.  Teresa Del Piero, President of the MCTA, will moderate.

The four panelists and moderator will offer firsthand insights into the skills and steps needed for growing and sustaining a career in theater.  A question-and-answer session will follow.

One of the first steps in making one’s hopes and dreams a reality is talking with others who have shared the same dream.  I highly recommend this event.

Where: Portola Hotel & Spa, Two Portola Plaza (Bonsai One, Lobby Level), Monterey.

When: Saturday, October 27 at 11:00 AM –1:00 PM. Doors open 10:30 AM.

Cost: $10.00/person, MCTA members $5.00.

Reservations and Information: (831) 372-0895, www.mctaweb.org, or terry@pblum.com

Kevin Puts's "Living Frescoes"

When we say we are moved by a piece of music, what is the precise quality that moves us?  Is it the melody, the rhythm, the instrumentation?  Does it have to do with the environment we are in, the people we are with, the day’s repertoire of thoughts and feelings that have traveled across our inner pathways?  Does it have to do with our childhood, our personal stories, the hidden complexities of our hearts?  Do certain musical intervals align with certain emotional chords?  Does it have to do with volume, or timbre, or pitch?  Why is it that sometimes music is nothing more than pleasant strains in the background of our lives, and other times we may encounter music that enters us so deeply, penetrating us, moving through and within us, that we are somehow taken, as if possessed, and then restored back to ourselves, transformed?  Why can music be so wildly powerful, so raw, so all-encompassing?  What exactly is going on?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, which greater minds than mine have pondered through the ages, but I do know that in my experience there have been moments when music has embodied truly awesome, mysterious powers.  Such a moment occurred last Friday evening, at Sunset Center in Carmel, when Trio Solisti, joined by clarinetist Jon Manasse, performed the world premiere of “Living Frescoes,” by the acclaimed American composer Kevin Puts.

“Living Frescoes,” scored for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, was commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, and is the second commission in CMMB’s four-part Arc of Life commissioning project.  (The first was “White Water,” by Joan Tower.)  The Arc of Life project was inspired by a 2002 video installation by Bill Viola, entitled “Going Forth by Day,” which was itself inspired by Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.  This continuity of inspiration across the ages— from Renaissance fresco painting on walls, to contemporary video projection on screens, to timeless music heard in a concert hall—is threaded together by the common element of storytelling, a key aspect of “Living Frescoes,” and indeed in Puts’s work in general.

Yet although “Living Frescoes” follows the narrative sequence of Viola’s five videos that make up “Going Forth by Day,” Puts’s quartet has its own story to tell.  For every listener, of course, that story will be different.  This is an account of the story I heard.

“Living Frescoes” begins with some jauntily syncopated music entitled “Going Forth,” a lilting sequence that will return throughout the piece, weaving the different stories of the videos together while also suggesting the spaces in between, the pauses as the viewer moves from one screen to another.  What I heard in this introductory music was a depiction of someone arriving at a gallery space.  There is a feeling of ready openness and curiosity in this music, a genial receptivity that describes what may be the best way to approach and encounter art.

“Fire Birth,” based on images of a nascent human form emerging into stark illumination, occasioned music of extreme intensity and even violence, and introduced a powerful rising motif, an important recurring element of the piece.

For “The Path,” pianist Jon Klibonoff reached over the piano to create pleasing gamelan-like effects with the strings, lending a striking rhythmic element to the video image of people walking in a lightly-wooded forest.  (Selected stills of “Going Forth by Day” were projected throughout the performance.)  All the phases of our lives evolve with different rhythms, and this movement, to my ear, evoked an atmosphere of mid-life progress, that time in our lives when we are buoyed along by the belief in our own capacity to keep moving forward.

“The Deluge” contained the work’s most “challenging” music, with spiky rhythms and sudden melody-breaking turns that gathered into a momentum suggesting crisis.

“Voyage” was a barcarole or boat-song to accompany life’s final journey to the beyond.  Though tonally beautiful and easily (oh, I dislike this next word) accessible, in some ways this was the riskiest movement of the work, in its willingness to slow down the “going-forthness” of the piece to a place of ghostly delicacy and inner quiet.  It was during this movement that I heard the most seat-shifting and throat-clearing in the hall.  For all the public’s demand for undemanding, “beautiful” music, it is sometimes the quieter, more contemplative or meditative forms of art that can be, to the restless, distracted mind, the more difficult to absorb.  And, perhaps there was some discomfort with the death theme presented so open-heartedly.

“Voyage” lays an emotional foundation for the work’s last movement, “First Light,” during which I felt in myself the signs of musical possession: the softening of the heart, the thickening in the throat, the feeling of my body sinking deeper into my seat.  Again, I must ask questions.  How is it that this last movement manages to evoke a spiritual atmosphere of acceptance, of consolation in the face of grief and loss?  Why do I hear in these musical notes a kind of peace that is interwoven out of all the tumult and suffering that has come before?

Perhaps the question “why” is the wrong question.  Perhaps it is enough just to listen, and be still, and accept.

During the intermission, with the last movement’s ascending piano notes still in my ears, I wandered through the foyer amidst the crowd, a bit stunned, a bit dazed, with moistened eyes, caught up with too many feelings to name.  Mostly, I felt grateful.  “Living Frescoes,” performed with extraordinary polish and sensitivity by Trio Solisti and Manasse, manages to convey in about thirty-five minutes a complete, compelling, and somehow authentic musical portrait of birth, life, and death.  To witness and experience art profound as this is rare.  But then Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for his opera “Silent Night,” is also rare.  He is a true genius, a storyteller, a seeker, a composer who listens to what the music needs, rather than impose any kind of system or dogma.  He is, above all, a translator, shaping our deepest, most private human emotions and experiences into that strange artistic alchemy of sound we call music.

This concert, which includes works by Beethoven and Chausson, will be broadcast on KUSP on Friday, October 26, 2012, at 8:00 p.m.  The broadcast will also feature a pre-recorded interview of Puts by Joe Truskot.

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