wet earth

Service to the Arts

I’ll be back next week with a full post, but in the meantime, as I juggle a few scheduling issues, please enjoy a piece about volunteering from the archives (a.k.a. “The Basement”).  Every arts organization I know relies on the generosity of volunteers to stay afloat.  Volunteer service to the arts, or to any cause that makes our hearts sing, demonstrates faith in our ability to make a difference and keeps alive what matters most.

Here is the link: “Four Volunteers”

The KLR Trio and Danielpour's "Child Reliquary"

American composer Richard Danielpour’s exceptionally beautiful “Child’s Reliquary,” which will be performed by the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in Carmel at Sunset Center on Saturday, February 16, owes its existence to a merging of elements that have been at the heart of so much enduring art: grief and love, tragedy and healing, sorrow and acceptance.  A musical exploration of the death by drowning of the 18-month-old son of conductor Carl St. Clair, a friend of Danielpour’s, “A Child’s Reliquary” fearlessly embraces and transforms into art the unspeakable sadness evoked by the death of a child.

During a recent phone interview with Joseph Kalichstein from his home in New Jersey, the pianist, who is also a revered professor at the Juilliard School in New York, tells me that the KLR (piano, violin and cello) has performed “A Child’s Reliquary” many times since its 1999 premiere, without any lessening of the work’s profound impact.

“The audience response is amazing,” he says.  “People try to hold back their tears.  It’s a cathartic piece.”

The first movement opens with an immediate emotional quality, both sweet and haunted.  Kalichstein describes this opening as “liturgical”; from the work’s first notes we are in the presence of spirit.

“The second movement is the live child,” Kalichstein says.  “Playful and mischievous, through many variants of mood.”  This movement is a scherzo, and Danielpour (photo above) uses the traditional structure of a scherzo to explore varying aspects of childhood.  The middle section, a gentle waltz, reminds me of a mobile hanging above a crib, its shapes slowly drifting above the infant’s watchful eyes.

Kalichstein calls the third movement “the emotional kernel of the piece.”  It is here where the music confronts the actual drowning.  “It is unbelievably beautiful,” he says, “haunting in the best sense.”  Listen for the fragment of Brahms’ beloved lullaby, heard as if from the bottom of a pool.

For this concert, presented by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, the trio chose to open the evening with a work by Mozart, one of his “optimistic sunshine pieces,” Kalichstein says, to provide contrast.

Contrast is also provided in the monumental, soulful piano trio by Peter Tchaikovsky, to be heard after the intermission.  Kalichstein says that this piece, too, was inspired by grief, as it was written in memory of Nikolai Rubinstein (no relation to Arthur), a close friend and colleague of Tchaikovsky.

I ask Kalichstein if he senses that audiences are still resistant to new, unfamiliar music, or if that is changing.

“It is changing,” he says.  “Though some times people won’t buy a ticket if there’s an unknown composer’s name on the program.  But the problem also exists on the other side.  There are some contemporary music aficionados who believe that if the music is not complex, it must not be very good.  This is why Dvorak is consistently underrated.  ‘Simple,’ in fact, is a great and difficult thing to achieve.  Mozart and Schubert knew how to achieve it.”

I suggest that the simplicity in which “A Child’s Reliquary” opens is why it is so powerfully moving.  Kalichstein agrees.

“Some people are afraid to let themselves be moved by music,” he says. “They only want to be ‘challenged.’  But art is not an acrostic puzzle.  We should always look to be moved.”

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, Saturday, February 16, at 8:00 p.m., at Sunset Center, in Carmel.  For tickets and information, call (831) 625-2212 or visit chambermusicmontereybay.org.


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By which he meant Everybody

Listening to the gay Cuban-American writer Richard Blanco present his poem “One Today” during President Obama’s Second Inauguration, I was struck by its similarity in certain aspects to Steinbeck’s famous description of Cannery Row:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

In such an evocation, the poetic language serves as a musical through-line that wraps its sonorities around the disparate elements, crafting a diversified whole: e pluribus unum (a phrase which calls to mind the great speech on that theme by Barbara Jordan, the magnificent Congresswoman from Texas who has no equal on the national stage today.  Click here to enjoy this amazing speech and join me in lamenting the decline of American rhetoric.)

But back to Blanco’s poem, in which apples, limes, and oranges are “arrayed like rainbows / begging our praise.”  It is a profoundly American belief that by simply listing a diversity of types—whores and pimps, martyrs and holy men—through the power of association these diversities add up to Everybody, or one sun, one ground, one sky, as beautifully mapped in Blanco’s poem, which draws from personal history in a manner more vulnerable than Steinbeck could.  (Click here to read Blanco’s powerful account of the verbal abuse he experienced as a young gay boy.)

“One Today” is a loving and hopeful poem, written to celebrate a nation whose actual lived values too often push aside hope and love in the name of an individualistic, self-absorbed pursuit of success or security.  Still, the poem is wonderful to read; here it is:

“One Today”

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars,
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.