wet earth

Musical Storytelling

Art is about storytelling, and storytelling is about relationships: to oneself, to another, to a place, an idea, a god.  Music is the most abstract art, its storytelling qualities often hard to discern.  Yet we need only listen, for even music is about relationships: one note to another, one instrument to another, melodies and harmonies interacting and connecting in the limitless medium of space.  And in these relationships, these musical shapes, we can hear stories.

A fantastic journey of musical storytelling was presented last Friday at All Saints Church, in Carmel.  The husband-and-wife duo Edward Arron (cello) and Jeewon Park (piano) presented a traditional concert, featuring well-known composers and performing with commitment, polish and flair.  Yet what emerged, for me, was a sequence of musical meditations on how two people, two voices, can relate to one another.

In Mendelssohn’s op. 17 “Variations Concertantes,” the communication between the two voices was largely amicable and equal, as the cello and piano traded sweetly romantic melody lines back and forth.  At one striking moment, however, Arron played a long, sustained A note while Park busied herself developing an elaborate theme on the piano.  That long A note, played for many measures, sounded to me like the musical equivalent of listening, of waiting patiently, supportively, while one’s partner, who may have a lot to say, goes on and on.

I was not familiar with the Sonata in C Minor, op. 32, by Camille Saint-Saëns, but its unsettled, agitated, at times skittery energy reminded me of the dancing skeletons in his “Carnival of the Animals.”  Here the storytelling evoked not so much a conversation as a joint instrumental effort to plunge forward, hurrying and side-stepping obstacles along the way.  The effect was more orchestral than is typically found in chamber music, as the combined sounds of the two instruments seemed to merge as if to form a third instrument, whose sole purpose was to find its way amidst considerable turbulence to the crashing resolution of the final C-minor chord.

Another sonata, this one in G Minor (op. 19), by Rachmaninoff, displayed the Russian composer’s signature atmosphere of moody charm, created by a ceaseless shifting between major and minor tonalities, as if the notes were layers, each sliding above and then below the other, moving and merging with perpetual instability.  People like Rachmaninoff’s music because it reminds them of the human paradox, how the heart can hold deep joy and deep sadness at the same time.  It was a beautiful, passionate performance.

The most interesting work on the program, played after the Mendelssohn, was “Fratres,” by the living Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.  Pärt has arranged “Fratres” for a number of musical combinations; this was the first time I heard it for cello and piano.  It was a haunting piece, in which the two instruments played music so highly contrasting they seemed to be playing on opposite sides of a great landscape.  There were distant bell-like ringings from the piano as the cello moved through a series of exploratory musical pulses, now fast, now drawn out.  The effect was mesmerizing.  If there was a relationship here, perhaps it was our relationship to time, and space, and the mystery of what they contain.

Painting with All the Parts

When Judith Swartz (left) was a theatre student at MPC, she would bring her young daughter Kirsten Clapp (right) to rehearsals with her.

“She was a theatre mascot,” Swartz says.  “From the age of two to six she would be on set with me while I was working.  She even helped me with lines.”

Today, the mother-daughter pair are engaged in a new collaborative expression of their love of theatre: together they have created the Stardust Playhouse, an intimate theatre in Monterey that opened in December 2011 with a production of “Rabbit Hole,” directed by Clapp.

Clapp, who studied Theatre Arts at MPC before transferring to CSUMB, where she is currently majoring in Teledramatic Arts and Technology, had wondered aloud to her mother, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had our own theatre?”

From there it didn’t take long for Clapp to locate a suitable site; after contacting the City of Monterey, the family took possession of the space, on Fremont Avenue, in October 2011.  They mounted their first show two months later.

“Overall the response has been very good,” Swartz says.  “We even have repeat customers who want to bring friends or family members to shows they’ve enjoyed.”

The Stardust Playhouse has thirty-nine seats.  Swartz’s father was involved in the construction of the stage and seating area.  He also indirectly contributed to the choice of the theatre’s name.

“Kirsten wanted to pick a name that evoked the glamour of 1930s Hollywood, an era she loves, so she came up with Stardust.  And I remembered how as a young man, my father had performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, so we used ‘Playhouse’ instead of ‘Theatre.’”

Since opening last December, the Stardust Playhouse has presented “Marijuanalogues,” directed by Clapp, “You’ve Got Hate Mail,” directed by Swartz, and “Pillowman,” guest directed by Breanna Donofrio.  Swartz enjoys directing but prefers acting.  Her favorite role to date was the Blue Fairy in a recent MPC Storybook Theatre production of “Pinocchio,” directed by Carey Crockett, in which the title character was performed by her grandson and Clapp’s son, Peyton Whetstone.

Clapp’s passion lies in directing.  “With directing, she’s painting with all the parts,” Swartz says.  “A director is really creating something.  She has a vision and sees the whole picture.  Set design, prop design, costume design—she really loves how with directing you are putting together an entire work of art.”

Their current show, running through June 10 and directed by Clapp, is “Den of Thieves,” by Stephen Adly (cast at right).  “It’s a dark comedy about criminals,” Swartz says.  “It takes place in New York City and the main characters are in a 12-step program for criminals who want to mend their ways.”  Upcoming shows this season include “Extremities,” “Zoo Story,” and “Speed of Darkness.”  For Halloween, they will present a murder mystery, “The Hilarious Hillbilly Massacre.”

As their first season reaches its halfway mark, Swartz admits she has been surprised at how much work is involved in putting on shows.  “It’s not just choosing a cast and rehearsing and having the performances,” she says.  “There’s all the administration, the marketing, the website—it’s quite a bit of hard work behind the scenes.”

Fortunately, the new enterprise has already attracted some young theatre angels who have quickly become part of the Stardust family.

“Timothy Samaniego, who was in our first show and was recently in “Prometheus Bound,” at the Paper Wing Theatre, has been very helpful and is a delight,” Swartz says.  “And Tiffany Torres, who was our stage manager for “You’ve Got Hate Mail,” is very capable and dedicated.”

Live theatre is a lifelong passion for Swartz, who has also studied art and holds a Master’s degree in education from CSUMB.  “Theatre is so magical,” she says.  “It’s all right there—the audience is right there in the room with you.  I love movies, too, but with theatre you can really transport people.  And as an actor, you can become someone else.  There is something uniquely special and creative about live theatre, something you can’t get anywhere else.”

The Stardust Playhouse is located at 2115 Fremont Avenue, Suite C, in Monterey.  “Den of Thieves” plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 10.  For tickets and information, visit www.stardustplayhousemonterey.com or call 831-402-8940.

In Light of Father and Son

In Warren Chang’s first self-portrait, executed in 2000, the year he decided to leave the commercial art world to focus on fine art painting, the artist’s eyes appear to be unfocused, in shadow.  There is a roughness to the work that seems not so much casual or deliberate or tentative as exploratory.  The sharpest edge in the image lies at a corner of the artist’s easel, as if to point the way forward.

Chang, whose paintings of the last dozen years have been gathered for a superb exhibit at the Pacific Grove Art Center, works in a precise, luminous style inspired by a lineage of painters going back to Rembrandt.  His paintings of people at work glow with empathy.  That glow is also present in his beautiful rendering of the complexities of light on the Central Coast.  Examine the gray, lowering sky in “Twilight in Santa Cruz” (2009; shown above), in which the heaviness of the fog above and the vastness of the field below are reflected in the weary eyes of a man who gazes out from the image: a lone man containing multitudes.  The painting speaks of suffering and toil, yet there is something resolutely alive in his face, an openness to connection, a desire to have his burden acknowledged.

Another self-portrait, this one with his young son (“Father and Son,” 2009), frames a scene of the artist and his child in a golden light.  Books, art, nature, the importance of family and the steady pursuit of beauty and meaning—these elements contribute to an atmosphere of focus and calm, making the painting something of an idyll for the viewer. 

That quality of focused calm is also present in a wonderful companion exhibit by Namgui Chang, Warren’s father, lending a spirit of generational resonance to both men’s shows.

Born in 1925, Namgui came to study at UC Berkeley as a young man; the onset of the Korean War prevented him from returning home, and he was soon recruited to teach Korean to American soldiers at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey.  He settled there and raised a family.  A self-taught artist, his paintings reveal a kind of soft attention to the things unseen, to the deeper quiet under the surface. 

In the watercolor “Morning at the Temple” (1997), one of several paintings depicting Chang’s native Korea, birds fly to and from a nest against a gorgeous yellow sky.  It is a painting about home, the nests we leave and those we return to in our memories.  In “Rocky Hills in Autumn” (1988), another watercolor, the sky itself is liquid, as if the entire scene were underwater, a foregrounded red bush brilliantly aglow with reflection.

Namgui has also painted scenes of Monterey, including the striking “Deforestation; Tears of Pines” (c. 1960), which depicts how the land was gouged open to create the quarry in Del Monte Forest.  The furrowed rivulets of soil weep downward to a layer of blood-red earth, exposed and stripped-bare, still speaking to the viewer of its pain.

Warren Chang and Namgui Chang, at the Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Avenue, through May 24.