Sunday, March 31, 2013

Iberia, 3: Ávila

Avila, March 31, 2013—
A FAVORITE CITY of mine, Ávila, accent the first syllable, please, is a small old city, still entirely encircled by its great and beautiful medieval wall, only an hour or two from Madrid, but much higher — one of the highest cities in Europe, in fact — and therefore cool, even cold, and rather sober. A perfect place to be at Easter.

It is the home town of Teresa of Avila, of course. Her convent is an impressive site, but we will not visit it again this trip; we content ourselves with a single Sunday and the two contiguous nights, in a very pleasant hotel on the cathedral square. Today we walked the ramparts, which takes two or three hours if you rest and dawdle along the way, as well you might at our age, as the steps are high and shallow and often uncertain.

And, more to the point, the views are enticing. At every step there's something so interesting, or beautiful, or arresting, that you're compelled to take yet a other photo. There's the wall itself, of course, massive, forty or fifty feet high, ten or twelve thick, with its crenelated parapet and its frequent lookouts. The stone is limestone, I suppose, a soft warm beige color, cut into massive blocks, and the details — the triangular caps of the crenellations, for example, which are infilled with brick tile; and the huge corbels, beautifully sculpted with softly rounded edges — are repeated with a precision suggestive of great discipline and thoughtful planning.

Clearly a master architect was at work here, whether an individual or a committee or, very likely, a succession of individuals; the work must have extended over centuries, and involved, as my brother remarked, evolving additions and improvements.

One of the things that pleases me most is the playfulness of the geometry. Watchtowers are often set at surprising angles; staircases climb to them steeply nearly always with fifteen risers, but at angles that are both practical and, to my eye at least, refreshing. No doubt it had to be possible to use these details with alacrity, even in the dark, the rain, in freezing weather: but I can't help thinking even rushing defenders — and for that matter the laborers carrying stones and baskets of mortar or pails of water — must have appreciated the physical beauty of the public work they were defending.
Geometrical beauty like this has a civic function. Its clarity of purpose, its solidity and perdurance, express moral clarity and rectitude. And containing the city it defines its relationship to the resources beyond the walls, the fields and groves, the river and the distant mountains whose grains and fruits, snows and quarries contribute so much to a society organized to common benefit.

The low mountains define a horizon not really that far away. Everything here feels high: the air is cool, clean, crisp; the plains undulate easily, rising to that skyline. The light is utterly clear and transparent but, oddly, soft and luminous. Gazing out from these ramparts over the fields one can't help feeling the kind of certainty, order, and tranquility that must have informed Teresa, whose fine mind resolved sensual and moral sensibilities with so little trouble.

Last night we stood among the rather small, respectful group of onlookers along the street just outside the wall, watching the Holy Saturday procession. It felt very similar to the one in Madrid I described in my previous post, but also very different. For one thing, it was not dark, not at the beginning. And we were much closer to the marchers, more aware of their individual faces and manner.

Again, I was impressed, moved, by the determination they express; by their sobriety and dedication amd purposefulness. Avila was a city before the Romans came; she has seen cults and cultures come and go, and doubtless will see more. The procession reminded me of the slow and generalized relationship of communities and their undertakings to the contexts they inherit from the mountains and the fields and from the great works left to them by their predecessors — whether physical, like the cathedral, the walls, the chapels; or intellectual, like the songs and the literature and the enigmatic sculpture from archaic times.

We live, learn, flourish, and fail, we individuals and the societies and cultures we make; and around us the light and the open skies and the mountains do the same, at their vastly different paces; and I find something hugely comforting in all that.

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Iberia, 2: Processions, buskers, tooth

Hotel Zurbano, Madrid, March 29, 2013—

ACK DOWN TO THE CENTER of town last night, about eight o'clock, to find the streets devoid of automobiles and given over instead to throngs of Madrileños. One didn't know which way to go: from the Plaza de San Luis, some groups strode purposefully down toward the Puerta del Sol, others charged up the dubious Calle de Hortelleza; yet others moved off down the Gran Via toward the Plaza de España.

I think I've never seen so many people massed in streets, all clearly about some very public matter, but none in groups of more than would constitute an immediate family. Parents and children; young couples; grandparents with extended families; sometimes two couples, clearly friends: all went about their ways, purposeful and often intent, but free of any collective partisan or political issue. They weren't demonstrators, or pickets, or even football fans.

If it reminded me of anything, it was the passeggiata you see in Italian cities in the hour or two before dinner on a fine Sunday evening. But this was Madrid, and Thursday, and not particularly fine: in fact, rain had been threatening, and the air was damp as well as cool.

We joined those continuing down the Gran Via but soon veered south toward the Plaza Mayor. The crowds grew thicker. It was Holy Thursday, and four processions were scheduled through the city streets; one would proceed right through the Plaza Mayor, and we didn't want to miss it.

We took up a station at a likely-looking corner of the plaza where the crowd had left a wide pathway open for the procession, whenever it should appear. There were no monitors, few police, no barricades. No one had folding chairs. We all stood fairly silently, some conversing, one woman in front of us quietly talking to someone at another position on the route, keeping track of where the procession might be.

Finally we heard drums; we saw distant lights; the procession entered the Plaza Mayor. It moved incredibly slowly, often stopping. There were hooded men, brass bands, drummers, sober women in traditional black mantillas and modest, elegant dresses. Some were barefoot.

Walking, all seemed to sway slightly from side to side. Standing, they were still, looking straight ahead, expressionless — or, rather, expressive of profound sobriety and dignity. We couldn't help but feel moved.

At length a great golden altar arrived, borne along by forty-eight men, eight on each of the three poles fore and aft. The figure of a black-garbed Virgin stood atop the float, which halted just in front of us. Men lit the many candles along the sides, further heightening the gleaming apparition against the prevailingly dark night — for there was little light in the Plaza, only a few lamps at the distant side.

The gold altar was finally lifted again and carried through the arch. After a time another huge float was carried in, paused, and then was carried out; you see it photographed, as well as I could do it, above.

Finally the procession was completely past us. Eleven o'clock: we had been standing in one spot for three hours. People nodded to one another, murmured goodnight, and drifted out of the plaza; voices gre more normal as we entered the surrounding shopping streets; the passeggiata resumed.
There is more secular street entertainment to be found, but all of it reminds me of vignettes familiar from Goya and, later, Picasso. There is of course the occasional beggar, but much rarer than in Venice, for example, or, for that matter, San Francisco.

There's the occasional street musician: a lone accordionist or violinist — occasionally, these days, unfortunately accompanying himself (he is inevitably male) with a boom-box. I prefer them when they play unaccompanied. Now and then there'll be one with very little talent, surprisingly little, but you have to give them grudging credit for at least trying. More often they're pretty good; now and then there's one who's really good, and you feel he may be playing for himself, because he's a musician and can't help it, though the case will be open on the pavement, for whatever thanks may fall into it.

Then at some of the handsome plazas on the Paseo Castillana, when automobile traffic is stopped for a minute or two by the traffic lights, jugglers will run out into the middle of the street, often wearing amusingly colorful clothes; they'll bow or curtsy (for some of these are women), tip their hats, and begin juggling their Indian clubs, throwing them high in the air, picking up the occasional fallen one daintily with an instep and kicking it back into action.

Somehow they know just when to stop, and walk between the lanes of traffic, clubs in one hand, cap in the other; and I'm glad to report a number of windows are opened, and coins dropped into the caps.

We don't contribute. There seems to be a convention at work here: it's car and taxi passengers whose money is sought, perhaps to atone for their vehicular presence. Returned to the sidewalk while thee traffic lights are green, thee jugglers talk among themselves, and smile at us pedestrians and say Good Afternoon, friendly and polite. We feel conspiratorial; there's a bond among us.
My own entertainment on Good Friday was, wouldn't you know, a broken tooth. Nothing to be done but ask the desk clerk where the nearest emergency dentist might be found.

As luck would have it, only a few blocks away, a Clinica Dentista in a white building on Calle Breton de Herramentos. I telephoned and made an appointment for eleven-thirty. I was a little early; his bell didn't answer. Right on the second, though, there he came a shaggy-haired man in his early thirties. He looked at me questioningly; I nodded; he beckoned me to follow.

He put a white coat on over his street clothes and, I noticed, changed his black shoes for a pair of white ones. I took my seat in his dentist's chair and watched him meticulously wash his hands before drawing on gloves. He spoke no English, and my Spanish is barely rudimentary, but both problem and solution were pretty obvious, and soon he'd put things right.

I told him not to run, as he dashed between the operating room and the counter serving as his office, but he pointed at the clock, and said there'd be three more patients arriving at noon. I liked him, his work, and his manner. The operation was not cheap: the handsome jacket I'd been thinking of splurging on was now moot. But it's nice to have my tooth back, and the experience was, well, interesting.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Iberia, 1: Chez Nick revisited

Hotel Zurbano, Madrid, March 28, 2013—

A GOOD MANY YEARS ago we found a marvelous restaurant on the Rue Taylor in Paris, Chez Nick. They served only bouillabaisse and a Grand Aïoli, nothing more, and each was superb. The restaurant was very modest and inexpensive, with a bar down the left as you enter, a few tables, the kitchen at the back. Nick, a Marseillais, presided over the kitchen; his wife, whose name I never knew, over the bar and dining room.
We ate there two or three times, then skipped Paris for a number of years. When we finally returned I insisted on stopping at Chez Nick. It's probably gone, Lindsey said, as she always does, throwing cold water on my fondest plans. Nonsense, I said, Chez NIck has always been utterly reliable.
We walked up and down the Rue Taylor but could not recall exactly where it had been — nor did it jump out at us.
Finally, way down the street, I spied an ancient woman with a cane, a young woman helping her at her elbow, slowly hobbling toward us. I fixed my eye on her: obviously a local resident. She must know.
As she drew nearer she eyed me suspiciously, as well she might: bearded, long-haired, not particularly well dressed, and huge compared to her, I might have been trouble, even though I was accompanied by a clearly decent and well-behaved lady.
Pardon, madame, connaissez-vous un restaurant qui s'appelle Chez NIck, I asked in my flawless non-Parisian French. Her look of anguished misgiving dissolved into an expression of sweet nostalgia.
Ah, mussieu, Chez Nick, c'etait un restaurant, c'etait si bon… non, mussieu, je regrette, c'est fini Chez Nick.
So Lindsey was for once right, one couldn't go home again, the snows of yesteryear were melted well and truly. And today we were at Chez Nick again.
In years past we've liked La Fuencisla, in Madrid, on the Calle San Mateo, no. 4. Naturally I looked it up yesterday, our first day here, only to find it was in some question, with only a few references on the Internet. The first included a glowing description, falling in with what I remembered of the place, but was followed by three troubling and enigmatic comments:
Gerardo, 12:34 pm: There was a time I wanted to reserve, but no one answered the telephone. Is it still open?
Anonymous, 1:21 am: It's closed Señora Teresa died and it closed
Anonymous, 12:53 pm: She isn't dead and functions perfectly
Now that last entry is ambiguous, No esta muerta could conceivably refer to either Señora Teresa or the establishment itself, if you stretch a grammatical point. So today we simply stopped by to see for ourselves.
Well, not so simply; I had described the location imperfectly in my book Mostly Spain, which I was ill-advisedly using as a source. Down one street and across to another we went, asking in at shops and apartment-house doorways, finally closing in on the location, where we found a hot-dog-and-hamburger joint-cum-cocktail-lounge, where a young man was perched on a ladder at the front door, washing the transom.
Is this La Fuencisla, I asked, doubtfully. Yes and no, he answered, La Fuencisla was here, but it changed four years ago. It changed, I said, did it change a lot?
Go in and have a look, he said, it's not the same. I peered inside. No, it was not the same at all. No old men playing cards at dusty tables, a bottle of wine at the elbow; no promising dining room beyond. No Señora Teresa of the delicious eponymous soup.
Another traditional Madrileño location has given way to Americanization. Chez Nick at least had the decency simply to disappear; La Fuecisla has not dried up, but been quite polluted. Oh well: there was a perfectly acceptable Asturiana place not far away…
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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A Time in Rome

bridge.jpgNOT LONG AGO we spent two weeks in Rome, first a few days with one couple of old friends, then ten days with another, finally a weekend with a third. I meant to write more about the visit, but in the end only came up with three posts, two on street performers, another on Shostakovich's opera Nose.

I may revisit that visit. Looking at the dozens of photos, many impressions come back to mind. Of course many are old friends of impressions, by now; this was our third extended visit to the city, and previous impressions were written up at the time — January and November, 2004 — and subsequently found their way into my book Roman Letters.*

My way of visiting Rome is essentially irresponsible and self-indulgent. We've avoided most of the museums and failed to explore the Vatican. Of course we've been to the major sites, and return to some regularly: I wouldn't visit Rome for a day without stopping in at San Giorgio in Velabro, for example, or crossing the Ponte Sisto into Trastevere. But on the whole we prefer trams to tourguides, back streets to boutiques, cafés to cathedrals.

The perfect illustration of this attitude, and these preferences, jumps out at me in this week's reading. I'm still bogged down in Robert Hughes's history Rome; I may never finish it, and will write about it later, if ever. But I just finished Elizabeth Bowen's marvelous A Time in Rome (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), and can't wait to share it with you.

It is neither guidebook nor history. It's a meditation on Rome, by a gifted observer and writer spending three months there, mid-January to mid-April, mid-20th century. There are extended passages descriptive of streets, quarters: the Forum of course; the via Giulia; the cemeteries. At other times a paragraph or two will be enough to suggest Testaccio, say, or Ostia Antica, or what she still refers to as "1942," Mussolini's architectural fantasy projected for an international exposition, now known as EUR.

There are lengthy explorations of historical periods and the personalities behind them: the Julio-Claudian emperors and then the Flavians; Benvenuto Cellini; Pope Sistus V; a contemplation of Augustus's wife Livia; a detailed account of the end of St. Paul's career.

There are wonderful little insights, often witty in their expression: On political correctness, evidently as irritating mid-century as now:
I am sick of the governessy attitude of our age, which is coming to be more genuinely presumptuous, nosier, and more busybody than the Victorian. Deplore the past if you wish; you cannot do anything about it, other than try to see it does not recur.

or poetic: the description of a
great ripe Sicilian blood orange … in a class by itself: the peel, mottled satin outside, white velvet in, curls away under digs from the thumbs, gladly; the delicate-membraned sections fall asunder like petals, firm flesh not spilling one drop of crimson juice till one bites into them. Such oranges deserve to be eaten as I ate them, in infiltrated sunshine, with wine to finish.

Often of course she contemplates Art. On ancient wall-paintings, for example, like those at Pompeii and Herculaneum (though she does not write about those sites):
Nothing about these paintings, minute and sensuous, releases one into the air of art: if anything, their effect might be claustrophobic. The aim was not to enlarge existence but to flatter it.
Later she touches again on the ineffable enlargement of existence art can engender:
While I stand and regard it, the indifference to myself shown by a work of art in itself is art. In Rome, I was more drawn to statues than to paintings. But, whether it was a statue or a painting, I came to recognize first a disturbance and then a lessening of the confusion within me as I beheld. Partly there was a liberation from the thicket of the self…

She doesn't flinch from facing the difficulty of writing about Rome:

Attempts to write about Rome made writers rhetorical, platitudinous, abstract, ornate, theoretical, polysyllabic, pompous, furious… Language seldom fails quietly, it fails noisily.
or about the fugitive essence of much of its population — especially its ancient population:
'Average' existences, at whatever level, are probably the hardest to conceive of, when they are other than one's own.
Yet some of her most fascinating insight is trained on the underclasses of ancient Rome: slaves, mechanics, women.

She writes about her approach to a description of the Forum:
My route, I have so far found, does not correspond with any recommended by an authority… Mine corresponds with my sense of order: the taking of things as one comes to them, one by one, placing them by their relation to one another. My approach to the Forum was visual rather than historic — even though 'seeing,' the greater part of the time, had to be an act of the mind's eye (or better, that of directed imagination.
and reveals thereby her greater intention: to direct that mind's eye (a particularly penetrating one, I think) to the entire scope of Rome, spatial and temporal, enlarging the reader's existence through her art, not with mere factual information but with gentle encouragement to the reader's own mediations.

Writing about Rome, she necessarily mediates on time and memory:
I wanted to establish the Forum monuments' nearness to or distance from one another in time as well as in space. Clearly some are the seniors, other he juniors. Many of them were one another's contemporaries — for how long, and when, did they share the same term of time?

We are drawn to Rome and its past because, unlike the past we studied as children in history class, fixed with precise dates and determined by sequence and succession, the Roman past attested by its living ruins is a continuum. Wars, assassinations, births, and treaties are momentary affairs, however long the moment may be: but the past that is Ancient Rome encompasses a thousand years; where the Coliseum was built in Hadrian's day (CHECK THAT), and stands still today, swans floated on Nero's lake a century or so earlier.

In the face of such contemplation a certain elegiac note is hard to evade.
The Forum, I said, leaves one with little to say — I could have as easily said, with nothing. Silence seems the only possible comment on finality. I do not think you or I feel less, but we feel, because more resignedly, more calmly.
(One thinks of Wittgenstein: "Of that we cannot speak, we must be silent.")
Though certainly not intending to write a History of Rome, she is mindful of her responsibility to History:
One must be on guard against misconceptions, when trying to grasp the movement of the history of Rome — untruths are thieves, robbing us of a birthright.

Yet she is willing to abstract, to generalize, to interpret; often through the novelist's method of construction from observation. She recalls an April in 1939, when she was enjoying an afternoon on the Palatine:
The idle yet intense air smelled of honey; Rome shimmered below with hardly a stir, and bluer than the sky were the Alban hills. There was a harmony between the distances. I was sitting on a broken ridge, reading and sometimes not reading a book. Low but clear voices, coming across the irises, told me that a couple who had been wandering ad set down behind me — students, by their serious young tones; friendly lovers or loving friends, familiar with one another as with the Palatine. If not born Romans, they had acclimatized. They talked metaphysics, for whose discussion the lucid Italian language is so perfectly framed. 'This beautiful house of sensation in which we live…' he said.
('Questa bella casa di sensazione in qualie viviamo…') The words made me their neighbour: I looked round, to see, stamped on the air, his profile intently turned, her full face abstract and calm with thought. Since, what has become of him? I must not forget him. Killed in the war against us? (Soon after that April, the war came.) If he still lives, I hope he still finds the house fair. It is still here. Is there so great a gap between the pure in sense and the pure in heart?It is a haunting book, A Time in Rome, and I'm grateful to Giovanna for directing me to it.

* Roman Letters: available at Lulu Press as a paperback or an e-book; it is also available at the iTunes bookstore.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Death and the oboe

February 28, 2013—
MY BEST FRIEND in high school, from 1949 to graduation in 1952, was Merton Tyrell. We were bandmates together: in this photo we sit in the front row center, me with my bassoon across my knees, Merton with his oboe sitting on my right.

Merton — I don't think anyone called him "Mert" — was intellectual, rather formal, quite elegant, his dark hair slicked back from a high forehead, a lively eye but a rather cautious expression on his face. He played oboe, as I've said, and excelled at math and science. He drew the single “A” in our physics class, when the rest of us all got “C”s, except for one poor fellow who failed in order to establish a perfect bell-shaped curve when the final grades were posted.

I only visited Merton’s home once, when I think I was dropped off to be taken to some event together with him. It was a small but very neatly maintained cottage on a gravel driveway, neatly clipped shrubbery in place, a smiling mother in an apron. And Merton, as I recall, never visited my home; I was probably too embarrassed to suggest such a visit.

In fact I held him in considerable awe. I spent far more time with my other friend, Richard, who played French horn. All three of us lived in the country, miles from town and our high school, but Richard lived on the same bus route as I, and Merton did not. And Merton was socially well above me, better dressed, better educated, much better spoken; and a year older, too; whereas Richard lived in rather a squalid shack with poorly educated parents, and was a year behind me. And then there's the difference between the oboe and the French horn, especially in a band. (Now that I think of it, the bassoon can often be heard mediating between the other two.)

I saw Merton only once after high school. At graduation he announced that he was going to become a rich man, and would study geological exploration to that end; I on the other hand was sent to Los Angeles to a religious college, where I went seriously awry for a few years. I thought of him often over the years, but never looked for him. By the time I did, after the Internet made such searches fairly simple, I found he had died, just 65 years old, in Ukiah, only an hour's drive north of me. I know nothing else about him: whether he'd made his million, whether he left a widow and children, whether he'd kept his oboe.

Although my instrument was the bassoon, it was the oboe to which I always aspired. The oboe has always struck me as the supreme woodwind, perhaps because of my awe of the elusive, intelligent, handsome, super-cool Merton Tyrell. Played well, it is focussed, clean, present. It lacks the wide range of the clarinet, which can play much more quietly in the low register, more shrilly in the high. The oboe can't reliably play more than two and a half octaves, the most restricted range of any of the major woodwinds. But there is something in its sound that suggests intelligence, wit, authority. Wallace Stevens would not have written Asides on a Flute, or a Clarinet: only Asides on an Oboe makes sense.

My first attempt at a composition of any ambition was a concerto for oboe, French horn, and strings, imagined and partly written in my first year of college, when I was seventeen. I didn't get far, of course. I'm sure it was Merton and Richard I had in mind, them and the lovely pastoral Vaughan Williams oboe concerto.

William Bennett
THIS MORNING ANOTHER OBOIST died, William Bennett, principle oboist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He joined that orchestra in 1979, when he was only 23, and became principle eight years later, succeeding Marc Lifschey. His death was particularly tragic: he was stricken by a cerebral hemorrhage in the Symphony concert Saturday evening, toward the end of the opening solo of the Richard Strauss oboe concerto.

The concerto opens with a couple of beats of quiet rustling in the strings, then a long unbroken phrase for the soloist, over two minutes long with few opportunities to breathe. The oboe is a peculiarly difficult woodwind in that the player generally has too much air in his lungs, not too little; lungs and sinuses can suffer from the resulting pressure. Of course Bennett was a master of the instrument and well used to these problems. Furthermore, he had played the concerto the previous night, and the afternoon before that. It would be presumptuous to blame his attack on the oboe, the concerto, or the concert.

But, much as I have always loved this concerto, it will be hard to hear it in the future — especially that long, graceful, pensive opening phrase — without a kind of regret. Strauss composed four masterpieces in his last four years: Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, from August 1944 to March 1945; the Oboe Concerto, 1945; the Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with string orchestra, 1947; and the transcendent Four Last Songs of 1948. He was in his eighties when he composed these pieces; his country was in ashes and its culture nearly as extinct; his music, which had been extravagant, then discordant forty years before, had finally come to terms with, had nearly mastered, its surrender to the rueful lyricism of Mozart.

It's notable, I think, that he followed the funereal Metamorphosen, composed for solo strings — with its transtion, at the end, into a quote of the "funeral march" of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony — with two major scores for solo woodwinds. The story of the Oboe Concerto's composition is well known: an oboist, John De Lancie, was one of the American soldiers directed to occupy Strauss's villa at the end of the war; he asked Strauss why he had never written a concerto for his instrument, and the aging composer responded favorably.

The Duett-Concertino is less well known, perhaps because it is somehow less autumnal in character. Its solo clarinet and bassoon seem to me to represent a Zerbinetta kind of mentality in response to the Ariadne of the solo oboe in its concerto. Together, though, the two works sum up Strauss's fully mature, rather remote expression of the range of human emotions: playfulness, wit, amour, awareness, maturity, age, regret.

By all accounts William Bennett was the emblematic oboist. Those who knew him mention his intelligence, his intellectual curiosity, his good humor. Joshua Kosman's obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle and his predecessor Robert Commanday's remarks in a story in the online San Francisco Classical Voice hint at the admirable man Bennett apparently was.

I lost Merton, and I never knew Bennett. I heard him many times, of course, but rarely as principle oboist; he took on that appointment the year I retired from music criticism. Perhaps that makes my mourning particularly poignant.

Radio station KDFC broadcasts San Francisco Symphony performances on Tuesday nights, and the concert including William Bennett's performance of the Strauss concerto is scheduled for this next Tuesday, March 5, at 8 pm. Yan Pascal Tortelier is the conductor; the Strauss is flanked by Debussy's Petite Suite and Mendelssohn's early Symphony no. 1. I don't know whether the entire concert will be broadcast, but no finer farewell could be imagined than hearing this gifted, complete musician repeat his last public gesture for an even wider and certainly more fully engaged audience.