wet earth

Flow and Design

The Carmel Bach Festival is steeped in tradition—2012 is its 75th summer season—but this year one of its most brilliant events is a concert entitled “Baroque to Bluegrass,” featuring the astonishing husband-and-wife mandolin duo Caterina Lichtenberg and Mike Marshall.  If you are reading this before Thursday, July 26th and if you are the type of person who loves the full range of musical expression, from tender melodies to foot-stomping joy, then I highly suggest you stop what you’re doing right now and contact the Festival ticket office.  There may be a ticket left.

Or the concert may be sold out, which would be understandable, but also a shame for those left outside.  I wish every person who ever said they didn’t care for classical music could attend this concert.  They would discover an essential reason why some music is so satisfying and enduring.  It’s all about flow and design.  Baroque and bluegrass composers (as well as some jazz composers) create simple or elaborate structural designs—pulsing rhythms, skeins of harmony—over and around and through which they can pour their melodic ideas.  In the sensitive and dexterous hands of Lichtenberg and Marshall, backed by a fabulous small ensemble of core Festival musicians, all the works on the program, whether by Johann Sebastian Bach or a Brazilian jazzman or Bill Monroe, seemed to emanate from a deep well of musical spirit.  It was one of the most thrilling concerts I have ever attended.

Indeed, this year’s Bach Festival has thus far been richly satisfying, the best in years.  The opening night performance of the B-Minor Mass was powerfully conceived.  Now in his second year as the Festival’s Music Director, Paul Goodwin, from England (photo above), has a more nuanced approach to tempi and dynamics than his predecessor, Bruno Weil, who in my opinion tended to rush the music.  Goodwin allows phrases to unfold and curl like waves; the music feels organic.  Nowhere was this more felt than in the Mass’s always-stunning concluding chorus, “Dona nobis pacem” (Give us peace), in which the voices rise upward, with each fugal layer like the opening of a fan.  This is music with its feet rooted to the earth and reaching to the highest place in heaven it can imagine.

Another highlight was the Monday afternoon performance of Schubert’s “Winterreise,” featuring the superb Canadian baritone Alexander Dobson.  This treasured song cycle, a meditation on loss, loneliness, and the passing of time, is scored for voice and piano, but Dobson performed it with a string quintet, in a transcription by his friend and fellow Canadian Harold Birston.  In the original piano version, the music has a somewhat close and clustered quality, suggesting the prison of the poet-narrator’s unhappy mind.  The effect of the string quintet was to create a more spacious, enlarged perspective: one saw more clearly the poet move through the landscape of his emotions.  Here, too, the soloist was backed by some of the Festival’s finest musicians (several of whom were also on stage for the bluegrass concert).

The Festival ends Saturday, July 28.  Two remaining concerts I am especially excited to attend are “Twilight Bach,” at the San Carlos Cathedral, in Monterey, on Thursday, July 25 at 5 pm; and “Viennese Matinée Concertante,” at Sunset Center, Saturday at 11 am.  “Twilight Bach” features two works by Bach, his Orchestral Suite in C Major and his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, in D Major, as well as three Purcell songs, performed by counter-tenor Robin Blaze.  Blaze was a featured soloist in the opening weekend's concerts.  His beautiful voice has a bell-like purity, with an occasional forced quality of urgency that detracts; I’ve been listening to his gorgeous recording of English songs that I purchased at Sunset Center’s temporary (and quite wonderful) “Bach Boutique,” and am looking forward to hearing his Purcell in the resonant space of the cathedral.

The “Viennese Matinée Concertante” offers some peppy music by Mozart and by Mozart’s father Leopold.  Both concerts feature violinist Emlyn Ngai, one of my Festival favorites, whose pre-Festival recital at the Church in the Forest, with keyboardist Yuko Tanaka, was a winner.

For information about remaining Carmel Bach Festival concerts and ticket availability, contact the Festival office at (831) 624-1521, or visit the Festival’s website.

Telling the Truth

When 52% of California voters chose in 2008 to remove the rights of same-sex couples to marry, rights which had been granted the previous June in a decision by the California Supreme Court, they were passing judgment on the lives of others.  Their vote for Proposition 8 stated, in effect, that gay men and lesbians do not deserve to experience the kind of stable happiness that a legally-binding, socially-recognized marriage may provide.

Judgments are also passed in court.  Before a judge, we are exhorted to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  The point of this truth-telling is to arrive at a state of justice—a judgment based on the truth.

8, a play by Dustin Lance Black which the Western Stage is presenting in a staged reading on Friday, July 20, is another exercise in truth-telling.  It recreates, in dramatic fashion, the trial that sought to overturn the passage of Prop. 8 on the grounds that the proposition was discriminatory and unconstitutional.  8 gives voice to what one might call the community of the trial: its plaintiffs and their families, its defendants, lawyers, judges, and media.  Yet by transforming this landmark trial into a theatrical event which is currently being staged in theaters and college campuses around the country, Black has contributed a crucial element to this community, one that was missing from the original trial—an audience.

The defendents of Proposition 8 “fought hard to make sure this trial was never seen,” Black (photo at right) told me in an email interview.  “They argued all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court to have cameras banned from the court.  So this historic trial was hidden from view.  Truth was hidden from public view.”  Black recognized that a play could be written, cast and produced more speedily than a film; by using the transcripts of the trial, he was able to create a work of art that speaks in real time to a timely subject—one whose arguments the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will, in all likelihood, soon be hearing.

8 was premiered in New York, in September, 2011, and received a second production the following March in Hollywood, directed by Rob Reiner and featuring an all-star cast, including Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Jane Lynch, Kevin Bacon and Jamie Lee Curtis.  For the production in Salinas, TWS Artistic Director Jon Selover has gathered a large cast of Western Stage alumnae, many of whom have not seen each other in years.

“It’s one of the most exciting things we’ve had come our way,” Selover says.  He describes 8 as “living theater,” a kind of art that responds to what is happening in society: its pressures, hopes, desires, needs.  Even those who are already committed to marriage equality, for instance, need art of this kind.  “It’s not preaching to the choir,” he says, “because the choir doesn’t know all the notes of the song.  A play like 8 helps.  It gets at what is really involved and what is not involved.  It is balanced, showing all the arguments as they were presented.  We can see and understand who is saying what, and then apply it to our own life experiences.”

For Black, the arts play a key role in the effort to achieve marriage equality.  Through storytelling, “the arts are a way for the minority, the outsider, the misunderstood to share his or her experience in a way that can be understood universally,” he says.  “Through the arts we find common ground, we find our common humanity and we dispel the myths and lies and stereotypes about LGBT people that have plagued us for so many generations now.  It is through the increased understanding created by our work in the arts that we change hearts and minds.”

Art has always been about transformation, whether of materials, attitudes, experiences, even transformation of the self.  This is one reason why providing access to the arts can be especially important for young people on the margins of social acceptance.  Black was a painfully shy boy who came to the theater “kicking and screaming,” he says.  It was also where he found his community, as well as the skills and tools that have served him well in his career as an Oscar-winning writer in Hollywood.  Black himself is a Western Stage alum, having appeared in a 1990 production of Peter Pan that was directed by Selover, and he will return to Salinas for this production of 8 and will participate in a post-show audience Q & A.

The Western Stage presents a staged reading of 8, by Dustin Lance Black, Friday, July 20, at 7:30 p.m.  Tickets are free, but this performance is fully booked.  For last-minute stand-by tickets, contact the Western Stage at 831-755-6816.

A Cabaret on Fisherman's Wharf

It’s an old story: a naïve young American travels to a foreign country, falls in love, and discovers the harsher side of life.  In Cabaret, in a production by the MPC Theatre Company directed by Gary Bolen, playing for one more weekend at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre, the American’s sentimental education takes place in a Germany about to fall into Nazi madness, lending a sinister edge to the tale of the innocent abroad.

The intimacy of the Wharf Theatre enhances the illusion that we, the audience, are inside the Kit Kat Club, the decadent Berlin cabaret where the play opens.  Its Master of Ceremony (Peter Hoffman) is both character and ghoulish guide to the unfolding of the plot.  “Bleibe, reste, stay,” he creepily croons in the opening number, encouraging the club’s patrons, and by extension the audience of Cabaret, to forget about the world outside, no matter how menacing.

Indeed, denial is as common as schnapps for the characters who make up the small, insular world of Cabaret (music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb).  Cliff (Rob Devlin), is a struggling writer who has restlessly moved from one city to another, desperate to find the inspiration that will translate into success—that age-old American imperative.  On the train to Berlin, he meets Ernst (Erik James Morton), a young German who advises him to stay at a boardinghouse run by Fräulein Schneider (Phyllis Davis).  Later, he meets the Englishwoman Sally Bowles (Jill Miller), a talented and brassy singer, at the Kit-Kat Club.  The high-strung, impetuous Sally is delighted by his impromptu recitation of “Casey at the Bat,” and before long—she is a woman always in search of a new adventure—she convinces Cliff to let her move into his room.

Devlin is appealingly grounded as the earnest Cliff, and he and Miller exhibit a fine chemistry in their scenes.  Yet it was the play’s subplot, involving Fräulein Schneider and another of her tenants, the Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz (Mitchell Davis), that proved the more compelling romance of the production.  There is a tender scene involving the gift of a pineapple that for this viewer sums up the tragic world of Cabaret more than its flashier numbers: doom and destruction are but moments away, and still a couple growing in fondness for each other, neither of them young, can turn toward each other, and gently, hopefully, dream of the future.  Phyllis Davis and Mitchell Davis are superb in their roles, subtle and nuanced and very moving.

It’s the flashy numbers, of course, that provide the context for the play’s evocation of Germany’s slide into evil and chaos, while also entertaining the audience.  Hoffman is excellent as the Master of Ceremonies, the all-knowing, satiric conscience of the play, teetering between malevolence and mischief.  He appears in several scenes with the gaudy Kit Kat girls (Michelle Boulware, Lara Fern, Stephanie Woods and Marissa Merrill; Camila de la Llata was ill at the performance I attended), who dance and smirk and thrust with marvelous confidence.

Miller has a fine voice and gives a winning performance as Sally, belting out her big numbers (“Cabaret” and “Maybe This Time”) with aplomb.  Sally lives on the surface of things, her mind perpetually alight, uninterested in the darker currents gathering around the Kit Kat Club.  Only near the end, in an argument with Cliff, do we see a sharper edge in Miller’s portrayal, when she accuses him of living in as much of a dream as he thinks she does.

Tara Marie Lucido is the devious Fräulein Kost, one of Fräulein Schneider’s tenants; the ensemble performers Marc Layus, Nico Abiera, Clark Brown and Jesse Huston round out the strong cast.  The accomplished choreography is by Susan Cable, with musical direction by Barney Hulse.

One of the most chilling numbers in Cabaret is “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a sweetly melodic tune that takes on a darker hue when it is revealed as a Nazi anthem.  It is first sung (quite beautifully) by Isaiah Boulware, a young Brownshirt; gradually, others join in, rising to a chorus that will soon drown out the diverse voices of the Kit Kat Club and Fräulein Schneider’s boardinghouse.  I thought of this song as I exited the theatre and was plunged into the seething crowd of summer tourists on the wharf.  Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret is almost fifty years old; it was first produced in 1966, a mere twenty-one years after the liberation of the camps.  Yet its message is still fresh: how easily a crowd can be seduced, up to and past the brink of evil, into believing the old song-and-dance that someone else is to blame for our troubles, that we are better than they are, that if only we could get rid of those people, why then everything would be grand.

Cabaret, presented by the MPC Theatre Company at the Bruce Ariss Wharf Theatre in Monterey through July 15.  831-646-4213 or www.mpctheatre.com.

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