wet earth

Spring Break

Dear Readers:  Arts Alive will be taking a hiatus for a couple weeks.  If you haven't yet seen The Magic Circle's "Of Mice and Men" or the Chuck Close exhibit at La Mirada, note that both close on Sunday, March 31.  Wishing you a Happy Spring!

Musical Abundance

I attended three concerts last weekend, and if I could be two places at once I would attend three more this weekend, but I must make a choice.  Such is the nature of abundance.  “Abundance,” in fact, was the title of one of the pieces performed by the superb pianist Vijay Iyer, who performed with his trio (Stephan Crump, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums) at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, in Santa Cruz, last Saturday.  I discovered Iyer at the Monterey Jazz Festival a few years ago, and now make an effort to hear him whenever he appears in the area.  Iyer’s style is both thoughtful and intense, ranging from a kind of prolonged and spacious quiet to blistering rhythmic hooks that keep on digging deeper and deeper into the possibilities of sound.  It was a thrilling, generous concert.

That was Saturday.  On Sunday I drove to San Francisco for two events presented by San Francisco Performances: an afternoon vocal recital, with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, and an evening solo piano recital featuring Jonathan Biss.  Both Leonard and  Biss are young musical powerhouses who design creative programs that reflect their individual personalities and interests.

Leonard sang a selection of Spanish and American composers (her father is American, her mother from Argentina).  While I enjoyed the Spanish songs, especially the haunting “Sólo las flores sobre ti,” by Federico Mompou, and “Cinco Canciones Negras,” by Xavier Montsalvatge, which I performed with my friend Sally-Anne Russell several years ago, I found the second, American half of the program more interesting.  William Schuman’s “God’s World” is a rolling, yearning cry for life: “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough!” (The words are from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay.)  “When I Have Sung My Songs,” by Ernest Charles, is almost unbearable in its tenderness of feeling: “When I have sung my songs to you, I’ll sing no more.”  Leonard’s voice is remarkably rich and she conveyed the impassioned nature of her repertory with depth and conviction.

Biss’s program was unusual: Robert Schumann’s Phantasiestücke, Opus 12, interspersed with selections from “On an Overgrown Path,” by the Czech composer Leos Janácek.  Biss’s goal is to invite people to listen differently to Schumann, a composer many do not take seriously.  Biss plays Schumann as if in conversation with the music—a respectful dialogue with the tender beating heart that underlies all of Schumann’s music.  The performance was exceptional; I have rarely heard a pianist of such international stature play with such vulnerability.  Many top-level performers play with a self-protective mask of technical excellence.  To be openly emotional in one’s expression is not sloppy or self-indulgent sentimentality; there is nothing sloppy about revealing one’s tenderness to an audience. On the contrary it is courageous, authentic, deeply satisfying—and in my experience, rare.

On to this weekend.  Shall I choose the Ying Quartet, performing Haydn, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, with its ghostly slow movement, and a new work by Kenji Bunch, whose work is celebrated for its whimsical, playful nature?  Or do I want to immerse myself in the unique soundworld of guitarist Leo Kottke, whose music defies boundaries, drawing from jazz, classical, folk, and blues?  I’m leaning toward Kottke (that's him in the photo at the top of this post), who mostly performs without singing—he once described his voice as sounding like “geese farts on a muggy day”—but who can be counted on to share off-the-wall jokes and anecdotes along with his signature finger-picking style.  Both Kottke and the Ying perform Saturday March 23rd at 8:00 p.m. (see below for details).

Also this weekend, Hidden Valley, in Carmel Valley, is opening its barn doors to the public for two free concerts featuring teachers and participants in its chamber music workshop.  I have attended these concerts in the past, and have been impressed not only by the very high level of musicianship, but especially by the enthusiasm and sheer delight of the players.  Many of them have other lives and careers, and come together each year to satisfy their passion for music.  Witnessing this kind of exuberant play is a reminder of how much abundant joy is out there in the world—we just have to ask for it.

The Ying Quartet, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, Saturday, March 23, at 8:00 p.m., at Carmel’s Sunset Center.  Call 625-2212 for tickets or information.

Leo Kottke, Saturday, March 23, 8:00 p.m., Monterey Conference Center, Steinbeck Room, visit ticketweb.com for information.

Golden Gate Chamber Players, at Hidden Valley Music Seminars, Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24, at 4:00 p.m.

"Of Mice and Men" at the Magic Circle Theatre

“I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy,” a character remarks in Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck’s enduring novel adapted for the stage and currently showing in a riveting production at the Magic Circle Theatre, in Carmel Valley.  Lennie and George’s unusual bond stands in stark contrast with what seems to be the natural condition of man, especially man’s attitudes toward other men: suspicious, competitive, and separate.  But Lennie, a mildly retarded man with great physical strength and a hunger for tenderness, and George, the homeless “bindle stiff” who has chosen to look after Lennie, share an authentic connection that suggests the redemptive possibilities of friendship, as well as its potential for sorrow.

Directed with emotional clarity by Elsa Con, this Mice and Men unfolds in an atmosphere of intimacy that befits its subject.  The opening of the play evokes the velvety beauty of the Salinas Valley, where Lennie and George are en route to a job at a farm in Soledad.  (The gorgeous, ingenious set design is by Dani Maupin and Laura Cote.)  They have escaped from a troubling episode at their previous employment in Weed, and are looking to make a fresh start.  Lennie’s first action in the play is to kneel down excitedly before a pond and scoop water into his mouth.  He is like a child, brimming with enthusiasms he cannot control.  George is more rational.  He knows they are soon to begin another period of hard, poorly-paid labor, and decides to delay their arrival and spend a night in the open country, free men, if only for a few hours.

It is here, as they ready for sleep, that Lennie asks George to tell again the story of their dream, how one day they will have a place of their own, and “live off the fatta the lan.”  Lennie is obsessed with the idea of taking care of rabbits—small, fragile creatures he yearns to hold and cuddle and stroke.  But Lennie already has a history with such creatures, and George makes him give up the dead mouse Lennie has been carrying in his pocket—dead from the uncontrollable strength of Lennie’s hands.

The acting in this production is superb.  Avondina Wills masterfully inhabits the character of Lennie, portraying the vulnerability and swift mood-changes of a man-child, a sweet soul in a body capable of violence.  Richard Boynton is excellent as George, an intelligent, quick-tempered but ultimately compassionate man who almost does not dare to wish for a better life yet cannot help himself from dreaming.  George often complains what a burden Lennie is, yet even this talk is a form of affection.

At the barley farm in Soledad, the two are soon caught up in dramas not of their making; the action in Of Mice and Men moves as swiftly as a Greek tragedy to its wrenching conclusion.  Inside the workers’ bunkhouse, Candy (the sensitive Bob Colter) has an aging dog whose smell enrages Carlson (Ron Cacas).  The Boss (Alan Zeppa) is suspicious of Lennie’s reluctance to speak.  The wife (the compelling Taylor Thorngate) of the boss’s son is lonely and has a habit of lingering around the farmhands, hoping for attention.  Before long, Lennie’s propensity towards violence is exposed in a scene with her husband, Curley (Garland Thompson), a jealous and insecure man in a state of perpetual agitation.  Curley is yappy and ineffectual, played by Thompson in a dramatic, overheated style somewhat at odds with the more naturalistic proceedings of the production.

Although we never learn her name, Curley’s wife is a key player in the story’s unfolding.  Steinbeck once said of this character that “her craving for contact is immense,” and it is this quality of craving, which is shared by Lennie, that drives the story to its tragic end.  As Crooks (James Porter) says, “A guy gets too lonely, he gets sick.”  Crooks knows of what he speaks: as a black laborer, he is forced to bunk down in the barn, separate from the other men.

Other characters, such as Slim and Whit (Brandon Burns and David Norum, both first-rate), function as a kind of audience within the play—sympathetic witnesses who cannot prevent the bad thing from happening.  The sensitive, painterly lighting (by Dennis Randolph) and effective sound design (by Garland Thompson) also contribute to the atmosphere of tenderness surrounding Lennie, George, and their sorrowful fate.

Steinbeck continues to be celebrated for his focus on the lives of the lowly, the marginalized and the dispossessed.  Here, in a memorable production no one should miss, he elevates the story of two impoverished drifters to the level of myth and high tragedy, offering tearful catharsis to any viewer who has ever experienced the comfort of friendship, and the pain of loss.

Of Mice and Men, now showing at the Magic Circle Theatre, in Carmel Valley, through Sunday, March 31.  Call 831-659-7500 or visit the theater's website for tickets and information.