Wednesday, December 30, 2015


IMG 2924
The view out our window, Gasthaus Borealis
Puiflijk, December 31, 2015
LONG TIME no blog; sorry: you can do, or you can write about doing; recently we've been doing a lot of doing. Nearly two weeks! Landscape; cities; languages; museums; transportation…

And I think I have been enchanted by Rovaniemi. We spent only three days there, and two nights, and we left three days ago now, but it seems more present in my mind than does Helsinki, which is not exactly short of impressions itself.

Rovaniemi is the capital city of Lapland — the northern half of Finland — with a population of about sixty thousand. About six miles south of the Arctic Circle, it's a bit of a tourist destination even in the winter: it's near Santa Claus Village, which didn't interest us; and it offers viewings of the Aurora Borealis, which did.

Or it should offer such viewings. In fact the town is very brightly lit, and our only serious attempt, walking about in -20° (Celsius: -4° Farenheit) weather for an hour or so, in relative dark, on snow and ice, turned up nothing but a frozen nose.

IMG 2928
IMG 3012
IMG 2933
IMG 2937
IMG 2934

But there were compensations. For one, the museum Arktikum, where this aerial photo of reindeer on the move suggested to me a completely different way of looking at, for example, cave paintings of groupings of animals. Distortion, gathering, orientation, direction — and recalling that the climate of the cave painters was very different from ours, and was undoubtedly glacial-marginal…

You can think about such things forever; there are so many things to see and to think about. The white canvas of the snow helps this, of course, bringing color out more vividly. More to the point, the snow covers all kinds of visual distractions. You can't tell the sidewalk from the street. And there is much less traffic outside; hardly anyone on the sidewalks; very few cars, and they slow.

Then there's the effect of the short day. We knew all about this, of course, intellectually, but it's another thing to experience it actually. Daylight begins to take hold at ten in the morning; by two-thirty it's definitely fading. In compensation, the twilight hours are long, and the darkness itself is bluer than black, and offset by the nearly full moon and the reflective white of all that snow.

Of course we only experienced three of those short days, though the last week had gradually got us used to the idea as we settled in Stockholm, then moved our way over two or three days toward the north end of the Gulf of Bothnia. I'd love to spend a couple of solid weeks here, preferably when the moon is dark, to get a better idea of it; and I regret that Rovaniemi is so much lit, though I understand the desire of its citizens to do so.

I'd like, too, to spend a few weeks this far north in the summer, though I imagine that would be more fatiguing for lack of sleep. The point is, I can't really begin to imagine how formative the radical swings in daylight length are among the influences on the arctic mentality. To what extent does it encourage a desire for sociability, for example; to what extent does it produce a pragmatic kind of fatalism, a sense of human vulnerability in the face of natural elements.

Arktikum is a very impressive museum, with a wide variety of material, whose curatorial presentation encourages this kind of contemplation. The main hall combined artifacts and reconstructions, two- and three-dimensional exhibits, and explanatory panels (in English, thankfully, as well as Finnish) to present a fine introduction to the Arctic life. It included nature, with stuffed bears and muskrats and these three swans flying overhead; and climatology, with clear explanations of the patterns of wind, temperature variation, and daylight; and botany; and anthropology.

The latter included what seemed to me a thorough and very sympathetic overview of the Sami, the indigenous migratory people we used to call Lapps, for centuries reindeer herders but now mostly apparently settled into residential communities of various kinds. We were told later on, in Helsinki, rather dismissively, that only perhaps ten percent of the Sami still herd reindeer, and they do that using helicopters; that there hasn't been an undomesticated reindeer for over a century; that the Sami now live mostly on the dole or by producing handicrafts. I'm sure this is all true from the perspective of the person who was explaining it all to us; but I doubt it is true from the Sami point of view, and I can only reserve my judgment.

As I say, the Arktikum presentation was sympathetic, reconstructing the Sami way of life before "civilization" began to settle the extreme North but also following them into the present. One affecting diorama, for example, showed a meeting of three or four apparently unemployed men in a rural gas station-cafe; they could have been in Nevada or Wyoming.

Another presented the life and career of an itinerant photographer, Valto Pernu (1909-1986), the last market photographer in Finland, who traveled with a wagon studio and a big camera of his own making for years before settling in Rovaniemi for his last twenty years, still photographing in the summertime in a studio tent.

We were dumbstruck confronting one portrait he'd made, I suppose in the 1930s, of an adolescent boy in a visored cap reseting on his bicycle in front of a cabin. He looked exactly like me at sixteen. I know my haplogroup (I-M253) represents peoples who migrated out of Africa eventually through Hungary to northern Europe, with a particular concentration in Scandinavia, so perhaps the proud, sober, rather grumpy teenager posing somewhat self-consciously on his bicycle really is me in an alternative universe; the light, cold, and hours here encourage this kind of thinking.

There's also a quite scientific component of exhibits in the museum, explaining winds, the earth's tilt, glaciology, and all that sort of thing — including, of course, the Northern Lights, still eluding us. But recently it's human history that's interested me the most, and I wanted to linger longer than we could afford over a temporary exhibit relating to the German occupation of Finland during World War II.

When I was a boy it seemed to me we took a dim view of Finland. World War II was on, and in Berkeley shop windows there were lots of propaganda photos and posters. On the maps, Finland was clarly a part of the Axis — I always confused "axis" and "axle," and wondered at the long stretch of black on the maps indicating the enemy, from Finland on the north south through Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Greece… All those territories were The Enemy, Finland included. It's disturbing that the prejudices formed so long ago, if not confronted and examined, tend to remain influential.

Finland was a part of Sweden from the 12th century until 1809, when it was granted a degree of autonomy as part of the Russian Empire. During the Russian Revolution, in 1917, Finland declared her independence, then plunged into civil war between the leftist "Red" Finns and the German-supported anti-communist "Whites." The war lasted only three months, thanks to the intervention of the German army; but it was brutal, involving murders and starvations and the conscription of boys as young as fourteen.

The new Republic of Finland knew peace only until 1939, when the Soviet Union moved against its southeastern coastal and agricultural land. Three wars followed in quick succession: the Winter War, 1939-40; the Continuation War, with Germany now occupying much of the country and continuing war against the Soviets; then, from 1944 to 1945, the Lapland War, when Finland turned against its former Nazi ally. Enraged, the Germans left nearly total destruction behind their retreat.

Rovaniemi was devastated. Two large relief maps in the Arktikum museum present the city as it was before and after that destruction; the photographs and narrative panels in the temporary exhibition brought more immediate and personal insight to the fury of the betrayed Germans, who during their occupation had grown quite intimate with the Finns.

(Finland was important to the German war effort as a beachhead against the Soviet Union, a supply center for the Norwegian campaign to cut off supplied shipped around the North Cape, and for the supply of minerals and lumber.)

After the final defeat of the Axis in 1945 Finland rebounded rather quickly. Unlike western Europe she did not participate in the Marshall Plan, as she also did not join NATO: proximity to the Soviet Union dictated a prudent course. Likewise, though, apart from severe reparations paid to the USSR, she was not completely dominated by Russian authority.

The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was commissioned to design the rebuilding of Rovaniemi, and submitted a plan based on the main existing lines: the railroad right-of-way (all rails seem to have been ripped up), the river, and the tracks of the main roads. Taken together and viewed from above these suggested the outline of the head and antlers of a reindeer, symbolically underscoring Rovaniemi's importance to the northern province.

As an administrative and cultural capital for all of Lapland, the city needed major public buildings. Of Aalto's project, three were realized — administrative center, library, and concert hall. But Aalto and his work will be described here another day…

IMG 3048

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bus to Luleå

IMG 2775
Hotel Amber, Luleå, December 14, 2015—
ON PAPER it didn't seem much could go wrong. After a long night's sleep in a comfortable bed in the home of an old friend's expatriate son and his companion, and a morning lazing about the center of town, and a delicious long lunch (described here), we had nothing to do but charge up the iPhones, write up a few notes, and hop the bus to Luleå, continuing our northward trek in search of the elusive aurora borealis.

I'd already booked the next hotel, this comfortable, inexpensive, pretty little place a couple of blocks from the bus station. True, their dinner closed down at 7:30, but it had been a fine, filling lunch; besides, there'd be a bar or café nearby for a nightcap. There was free wifi on the bus, and I have plenty of reading matter. So we joked a bit with the alternate driver — these long-distance buses apparently routinely carry two drivers — and settled into our seats, mine by the window so I could peer out for the aurora.

The bus went hardly ten minutes, then stopped by the side of the road. I was engrossed in George Packer's engrossing profile of Angela Merkel in The New Yorker and paid no attention for a fair while, but it began to seem we were sitting for an awfully long time…

Finally an announcement was made, but of course in incomprehensible Swedish. We sat and waited. No serious problem here; we aren't making a connection to another bus or train or anything; we just want to get to our hotel.

The alternate driver appeared with a can of ginger cookies and a tray containing cups of coffee — I don't know where he'd found them. We asked what was happening. Problem with the compressed-air supply, he said; when the bus is turning, or the door is opening, it needs compressed air, and there doesn't seem to be enough; he doesn't want to drive the 265 kilometers to Luleå without enough compressed air.

In that case, I suggested brightly, it might be a good idea to get another bus.

Just what we're doing, he said; when there's enough air pumped up, we return to the barn and switch buses.

And so, finally, we did; but the barn was to the south of Umeå, and we lost about an hour. I finsihed the Merkel profile. (I very much recommend it; you'll get some insights into the national mentality of her nation.) Fine, I thought; I'll just get some Internet stuff done. But the wifi did not work on this bus, apparently it does not run on compressed air. We drove through the night, stopping at a few towns and one minor city along the way.

There was a movie, but it was on a screen at the front of the bus, some distance away, and I didn't have headphones. In truth I prefer to watch movies on airplanes with the sound off, making up my own story, and I thought I'd just do that here, too — but it turned out the movie was subtitled, so it began to make some kind of narrative sense.

But the subtitles were in Swedish, and appeared only sometimes — when the cast was communicating in Sign. When they actually spoke to one another there were no subtitles. Well, yes, sometimes there were. Was the cast speaking some of the time in Swedish, so no subtitles would be needed for most of us on the bus, and at other times in some other language? French, perhaps — two of the characters were apparently named Nicolette and Quentin.

And why would a pianist be playing music to a young woman who communicates only in Sign? And why were people on a dairy farm? And why so much angst?

Ultimately we pulled into the Luleå bus station, a good hour late. The streets and sidewalks were covered with snow. We walked  v e r y    c a r e f u l l y  to our hotel, which was locked up tight. We were prepared: they'd sent us the front door code. An envelope on the desk had my name on it, and our room number and key inside. There was even a refrigerator in the lobby with free sandwiches and fruit.

Two details remained: to buy tomorrow's bus ticket to Haparanda, and the one from Tornio, across the river from Haparanda in Finland, up to Roviniema. Not much problem with the first, but the second eluded me after much trial: Finnish; then find a translated site; then discover the bus is sold out; then look for the next one; then fill out all sorts of blanks; then find our credit card rejected for lack of some code I never knew existed…

Oh well, it will all come out right tomorrow, I'm sure. We'll get up at 8 or so, have a nice breakfast here, and catch the 10:15 bus to Haparanda. I hope its air compressor works.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Stockholm diary

December 10,2015: up at 8:15, after false start at 7:15. Looks like weather as yesterday. At breakfast (sk170) set agenda: for me, Medieval Museum; Fotografiska; Moderna Museet; concert at Berwaldhall. After breakfast in hotel, took tram, then Metro, then bus to Fotografika, walking wrong way at first up interesting path, then down to the museum. Moving refugee children; interesting huge portraits; nostalgic re-surrealist fashion photography. Then to Master Andre for late lunch; to Central Station to get train tickets to Umea; to Berwaldshallen for tickets to tomorrow night's concert; then back to hotel for the evening. A fine, sober, silver-grey day, most of it indoors, with much use of public transportation. (I'm getting the hang of the apps.)

A thought-provoking set of inputs. The photos, and accompanying captions, and a short accompanying film interviewing a young girl, all centered on the emotional damage done to these poor refugee children, left me holding my head between my hands on a chair in the lobby. Then a 40-minute documentary, Two Hungry Horses, about ex-methheads in Montana, and the isolated but strongly communitarian life they need. Then of course the excesses of the fashion industry.

In the evening we watched live coverage of the Nobel dinner, on tonight, trying to understand the thread of the Swedish commentary and thankful for occasional English when a guest might be being interviewed; and then I watched an hour-long documentary on the history of Swedish armament and defense during the Cold War and afterward — also in Swedish, of course, but some of it understood. Sweden's had a major arms industry for centuries, and faces a crisis of conscience economics, as well as an uncertain place between NATO and Russia. I think the Gun Problem in the US is a parallel of the larger War Problem of the human race, and I increasingly believe it true that you cannot simultaneously work for peace and prepare for war.

Sweden, or Stockholm at any rate, is quite different. The Swedish mentality (I have no right to have any impressions of it) seems to be thoughtful but fatalistic, educated and informed but detached, optimistic but a little tense. The commute hour on the metro is stressful.

And I continue to have trouble dealing with the modernity of technology, the ubiquity of consumer items, the mindlessness of the pop culture, and the complexity of finding my way. I feel older here than I do at home. I look forward to smaller cities and to countryside next week.

I stopped a couple on the street to ask directions today (in fact I've stopped scores of people to ask directions), beginning as I always do with the apologetic "I'm sorry, I don't speak Swedish": "Neither do we," the wife answered with a pronounced accent. Why not, I asked; you seem to live here. Yes, we live here, but we're Finns.

They helped us find our way. Our first Swedish Finns. This is a cosmopolitan city; lots of asians, a few muslims, a few gypsies even. No Sami yet that I've been able to identify, but I've perhaps missed them. Virtually everyone I've talked to speaks English, and good English; only one bus driver today didn't.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Handler of Gravity, iii

PERHAPS YOU'D LIKE to hear the third movement of my Ballet: Handler of Gravity. If so, click here. It's only eleven seconds long.


Handler of Gravity was composed in 1971 as the centerpiece of a concert of instrumental music from an opera, then in progress, based on Marcel Duchamp’s painting La Mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même (usually translated as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even). Duchamp provided his painting with an extensive “commentary” in the form of notes, sketches and memos; and Handler of Gravity is based on one of these.

The “handler” was to influence the Bride’s decisions by responding to changes in a sort of gravitational field ó the details are unclear, and in any case the handler was ultimately left out of the painting. Duchamp’s note is accompanied by a sketch of a six-pointed star-shape surrounding a spheroid body; the six points represent points from which threads would stretch toward the central body, defining its location and shape by their tension. NewImage.pngSix systems of music, each but the third lasting about a minute, were conceived as both linear and textural analogues of these threads. The unsynchronized repetitions and reinforcements in the music was meant to represent the variations and displacements of physical bodies caused by gravitational disturbances.

Much of this was suggested by the curious rhythmic disturbances which frequently characterize organists — or, rather, their performances. The result is a rather different kind of organ writing, a sort of compromise between standard notation and a kind of tablature; the hope is to ensure an idiomatic organ character by harnessing the little clumsinesses of the instrument.

The organist must be the central body who determines but also is subject to these disturbances — by realizing the music as accurately as possible (with respect to dynamics and pitch) while altering “rhythm” by responding to the difficulty of fingering (and footing), to the acoustical circumstances of the room, to the registration possibilities (themselves determined by octave location and dynamic), etc., etc.

The score was written on 10 March 1971 for a concert given three days later, when it was given its premiere by Ted Ashford, organ, with David Smith, chimes and glockenspiel, in a performance superimposed on other music associated with the opera: Screen, En balançant, and Vie lactée for string quartet and Bachelor Apparatus for brass quartet; 13 March 1971; Mills College Chapel, Oakland California. The second of the three pages is reproduced here.

I LIKED THE MUSIC so much I set it in three other versions:

Five Pieces after Handler of Gravity, for solo piano (premiere: Nathan Schwartz; Jan. 17 1976, Oakland Museum). Each of these pieces was provisionally dedicated to one or another of the five music critics on the three major daily newspapers in the San Francisco area at the time, since Duchamp sometimes referred to his Handler as a “Juggler of Gravity.”
     score: FP she03, 12 pp., available from Frog Peak Music

Tender of Gravity, for nine instruments (fl-pic, o-eh, cl-bass cl, bn, harmonium, vn, vla, vc, cb) (premiere: Irene Pruzan, Lenore Sleeter, Tom Rose, Cyrle Perry, Beth Anderson, Nathan Rubin, Ron Erickson, Teressa Adams, Jedediah Denman; 9 May 1974; 1750 Arch Street, Berkeley)
     score: FP she04, 14 pp., available from Frog Peak Music

Ballet: Handler of Gravity, for full orchestra (3-2(eh)-2-2(cbn)/4-2-3-1/pno/hrp/1perc/timp/strings) (premiere: Shere, Contra Costa Symphony, Kensington, Calif., 28 Oct. 1976, as part of a compilation provisionally called Music for Orchestra). This version also stands at the end of the second act of the full-length opera The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. It is the version whose third movement is shown above, and can be heard here.
     score: Ear Press, 14 pp.,available from Frog Peak Music

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Perfection, explanations, and …

WE LIVE IN A WORLD, it seems to me, that believes in explanations, yet more and more of our circumstances defy explanation.

So wrote a person making a comment on a previous blog post, written eight months ago, a world ago, a continent or two ago. It was an obituary post, and there have been deaths since that have affected me, a brother, two colleagues, a cousin… another friend just Friday… but I'm already off the point.

In the last three Sundays, more or less, we've subjected ourselves to three brushes with a different kind of immortality. On November 15 it was Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, performed by a touring company from the Globe Theatre, no less. This was performed on an improvised thrust stage, with a simple façade backdrop, in a huge room, a former brandy aging warehouse in the second floor of Greystone, the culinary school just outside Saint Helena in the Napa Valley.

We found out about it late and were lucky to get any seats at all. Sightlines were not good. The floor, at least where we sat, was reverse raked, because of shallow drainage channels built into it; further, giants in pompadours, some wearing hats, were seated in the rows ahead of us. But the production and its performance were so perfectly fine we didn't really mind. The Globe has been experimenting, I've read, with Shakespeare declaimed in an accent thought to be that of his time (and place) — "Original Pronunciation," this has come to be called, "OP" for short, and there's lots online about it. I don't think this Much Ado was "in" OP, but I think it may have been influenced by the idea: the dialogue seemed faster and clearer than usual, even given the somewhat resonant acoustics of the stone-and-concrete building.

Eight actors made up the cast, half ot them taking two or three roles apiece; even Beatrice had a double job, filling in as Verges. As if that's not enough, they all play musical instruments, most of them more than one: violin, guitar, trombone, and less likely things; and they sing, and dance, and clown — to the point of interfering at least once with the story: when Benedick says he'll do anything for Beatrice, just name it, and she says, shockingly and chillingly, Kill Claudio — that line unfortunately drew laughs.

It's a line I always look forward to, and am always surprised by — shocked, even, in a good performance. Like so many pivotal moments in Shakespeare it is unpredictable beforehand, perfectly inevitable once met. It's pure energy and no substance; the flash accompanying the destruction of matter, the shock of recognition.

Perhaps because the audience was — well, less sophisticated, less theater- and Shakespeare-adept than those we're used to, at dedicated theaters like Oregon Shakespeare and California Shakespeare and, in Pasadena, A Noise Within. Those companies, though, would do well to book in this Globe touring company from time to time. They were a reminder of how effective the master's plays remain when you just play them, simply and directly, engaging the audience with the words and the situations, and letting symbols and relevance and meaning simmer on a burner well to the back.

A WEEK AGO it was another timeless genius's turn: we went to a marvelous performance of the Mozart Requiem. This too was a local, small-town production, by the Sonoma Bach Choir and the Live Oak Baroque Orchestra (playing in period style, at A=430), directed by Robert Worth. The inspired idea here was to play the piece twice: first the score as Mozart left it on his deathbed, only a few parts fully composed and orchestrated, others present only via chorus and the first violin line, or a little basso continuo. This is of course heartbreaking: clearly Mozart knew he was dying, that the piece would be left incomplete. And this was disastrous for more than merely artistic reasons: the piece was a commission, and his widow would need the money — which would not be paid for an unfinished torso.

Mozart: Requiem, K 626, Kyrie, last page.
Mozart's hand in black, Freystädtler's in top five staves;
Süssmayr's in the trumpet and drum staves
As is generally known, the torso was of course completed, by Mozart's friend and occasional student, the composer Franz Xaver Süssmayr. What is not known, and probably never will be known, is how exactly this was accomplished. Wikipedia has an insightful comment on the reason for this:
The confusion surrounding the circumstances of the Requiem's composition was created in a large part by Mozart's wife, Constanze[citation needed]. Constanze had a difficult task in front of her: she had to keep secret the fact that the Requiem was unfinished at Mozart's death, so she could collect the final payment from the commission. For a period of time, she also needed to keep secret the fact that Süssmayr had anything to do with the composition of the Requiem at all, in order to allow Count Walsegg the impression that Mozart wrote the work entirely himself. Once she received the commission, she needed to carefully promote the work as Mozart's so that she could continue to receive revenue from the work's publication and performance. During this phase of the Requiem's history, it was still important that the public accept that Mozart wrote the whole piece, as it would fetch larger sums from publishers and the public if it were completely by Mozart.

It is Constanze's efforts that created the flurry of half-truths and myths almost instantly after Mozart's death. According to Constanze, Mozart declared that he was composing the Requiem for himself, and that he had been poisoned. His symptoms worsened, and he began to complain about the painful swelling of his body and high fever. Nevertheless, Mozart continued his work on the Requiem, and even on the last day of his life, he was explaining to his assistant how he intended to finish the Requiem.

Nor is Süssmayr's the only current completion, though it remains the most frequently performed (copyrights and licensing fees may have something to do with that). There's plenty of interesting comment about all this on line: I recommend Peter Gutmann's note, the source of the image reproduced here; and another, by the conductor Kenneth Woods, particularly attractive for me for its reference to my late teacher Gerhard Samuel, whose performance of the Requiem with the Oakland Symphony, forty-odd years ago, was the first live performance I heard, and remains in memory.

But, again, I'm distracted. The point just now is that we heard the Requiem twice: as Mozart left it; then, after intermission, as Süssmayr completed it. It was a very good performance indeed: the soloists (Dianna Richardson, Karen Clark, Kyle Stegall, Ben Kazez) were well matched, nimble, earnest, modest, accurate, and possessed of beautiful voices. The chorus was also light on its feet, negotiating fast fugal passages easily, pious in the presence of Mozart if not necessarily of the Christian God. And the orchestra was wonderful: six violins, two each violas and celli, one contrabass, two basset horns, two straight (unkeyed) trumpets, three trombones, two bassoons, timpani, and harpsichord continuo.

Süssmayr's oft-noted errors of voice leading and orchestration were, I think, somewhat cleaned up, though occasional passages clearly reveal his less inspired imagination. But the Requiem succeeds to such an extent! Mozart seems to have been reaching beyond himself — occasionally recalling previously composed material, but relying often on counterpoint clearly inspired by, and learned from, Bach and Handel. His orchestration, for those marvelous dark winds, especially as revealed by these period instruments, presents a sonic world no successive composer save Berlioz could match for a hundred years. (Well, the von Weber of Freischütz, maybe: an isolated case.)

THE PERFECTION OF Mozart and Shakespeare, of course, defies explanation; when attempted, such explanation is necessarily dull. The lesser genius of a figure like Giacchino Rossini, the lesser perfection of a work like Il barbiere di Siviglia — that can be explained. In Rossini was inspired by Mozart's example, more adeptly than was poor Süssmayr; Rossini's bright melodic invention, rhythmic precision and interplay, certainty in writing for the voice, and orchestral enterprise and expertise — all that can be explained by his knowledge of Mozart, both Mozart's composition and his example as a hands-on opera collaborator.

We saw Il barbiere yesterday, at San Francisco Opera; again, an afternoon matinée. The performance was satisfactory in every respect. I thought Daniela Mack, as Rosina, took a few minutes to lock into voice; when she did, she was fine, a true coloratura mezzo with a low range that bordered on contralto and pinpoint accuracy at the high end of the range. Her Almaviva was René Barbera, a light coloratura tenor with ringing top notes and an affable, very pleasant demeanor. Lucas Meachem was perfectly adequate as Figaro, though hardly the central character on the stage; Alessandro Corbelli was nicely detailed and vocally secure as Bartolo; Andrea Silvestrelli was a commanding Basilio; Catherine Cook a winning Berta.

Llorenç Corbella's physical production is striking, the most striking visual staging I've seen here since Pierre Luigi Pizzi's bizarre Semiramide back in 1981: a white, two-storey, vaguely Art Deco Seville house, with grillwork and a second-floor window in lieu of balcony, angling away dramatically from downstage left to upstage center, raked, and fronting on a black street, also disappearing at a parallel angle. The building was so Sevillian I missed millstones set into the plaster along the street. The period seemed timeless; bicycles were featured; the ballet danced faux-flamenco; the happy couple left the opera at final curtain in a sports-car coupe de théâtre.

For all the striking staging, or maybe even because of the physical concept, this was the most static Barbiere I've ever seen, accentuating Rossini's nearly isolated, formal arias and set-piece choruses. This is neither classical opera nor Romantic: it's bel canto, revealed here as the late-stage Baroque form it essentially is. It's a type of theater I particularly love; I live always with memories of Racine's Bajazet, stunningly staged at UC Berkeley forty years ago or so, and of Last Year at Marienbad, and of the Hippolytus in Italian in the Greek Theater in Siracusa.

The Hippolytus in Siracusa.jpg
Hippolytus in Siracusa, May 2010

At their best these theatrical moments — extended through the forced perspective of heightened emotions voiced with restraint, whether in song or architecture, dance or verse — these moments are inexplicable. When things happen to us in daily life we want to know why; much of the time we cannot. Deaths, departures, dislocations — we attribute reasons for them, causes, agencies, primarily I think so we can then absorb them in order to dismiss them. We know, much of the time, that we're deluding ourselves. We search for meaning but frequently we're thunderstruck,

Freddo ed immobile
come una statua…
and it's funny — Guarda Don Bartolo! — because if we're not laughing, we don't know what to do. Which reminds me of a Duchamp anecdote I just read somewhere. He was touring an art school in San Francisco (I hope it was the old California School of Fine Arts) and saw a young man flailing away madly at a canvas. What are you doing, Duchamp asked. I don't know what the … I'm doing, the young man answered. Duchamp patted him on the shoulder: Keep up the good work!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Stockhausen at the Concertgebouw, 1980

Eastside Road, November 9, 2015—
FOR VARIOUS REASONS there's no reason to go into here I've been re-reading a journal from thirty-five years ago, from which I have pulled thoughts on a production we saw at the Concertgebouw on June 14, 1980:
STOCKHAUSEN: Michaels Jugend / Michaels Heimkehr

The house was pretty well full, but one took the seats one wanted. Stockhausen was at his mixer in the center of the Concertgebouw. The concert began pretty well on time. Michael is the protagonist of Donnerstag, the (third?) of a seven-opera cycle called Light. “Michael’s Youth” is the first act, “Michael’s Legend” is Act III scene 1.

It’s hard to get an idea of the effect of the finished work, of course — except that it’s Teutonic, long and rambling, introspective (fictionally autobiographical), philosophical but not intellectually so. It made me think, often, of Hitler: a film from Germany: intelligent bricolage spun out. Stockhausen ran the whole show, credited with regie, costumes, choreography, everything in Heimkehr (save Mary Bauermeister’s “lichtcomposities”), the texts in both included traditional Hebrew texts, but were otherwise — therefore mostly — by Stockhausen.

Michaels Jugend was for very small forces and developed a sort of childhood-of-Siegfried narration. Three protagonists, each represented by three performers: singer, instrumentalist, dancer-mime: Michael (Robert Gambill, T; Markus Stockhausen, trumpet; Michèle Noiret); Ea (Annette Merinweather, S; Suzanne Stephens, bassethorn; Elizabeth Clarke); Lucifer (Matthias Hölle, B; Mark Tezak, trombone; Alain Lonati). Three continuous scenes: Childhood, Mondeva, Examen.

So: music began with a drone from the loudspeakers — a dozen or so — surrounding the audience. Drone largely electronic (and vocalized chorus?), one pedal, [illeg.] a mosaic of various overtones. House lights dim; Soprano, then Tenor enter; she sings the fifth of the pedal, he the sixth below her. Two or three times in the course of the act the pedal rose or fell a alf-step, and it [pedal] wasn’t always present, but it defined the “tonality” of the piece throughout: and tonal relationships began to dominate — even including Picardy thirds! — by the end of the act. The loudspeaker music was very quiet most of the time. The singers’ music was well written for voice — idiomatic and very effective, both solo and ensemble. Instrumental music was not like the vocal, but not as arbitrary as, e.g., Zeitmasse. A prominent piano part played by Majella Stockhausen served obbligato in scene 3. (Se program for further notes on articulation of scenario.)

IN GENERAL: mostly through-sung in traditional vocal technique, the three instruments often doubling voices. Harmonically tonally grounded, though approaching conventional major-minor tonal practice only at end. House loudspeakers very subtle reinforce, or counter, or punctuate, or accompany stage sound. Very simple, naïve; a childlike masque. Rather well received.

“Festival” (sc. 1) from Michaels Heimkehr (Act III). Full orchestra on Concertgebouw stage, with five eight-voice choruses. Soloists as in Michaels Jugend, but Michael Rosness replacing Robert Gambill. Musical material as in Jugend, but greater resources (still including the house loudspeakers) lead to more complex sound. Still, music is much more conservative than [for example] Aus dem sieben Tagen, often recalling Momente, Mixtur, Klavierstücke.

The melodic material was the organic result of a montage — mélange of tonal phrases, a process similar to Hymnen. And the “Biblical” sound often derived from parallel clusters, a rather Messiaenic sound. “Festival” more developed, varied, episodic than Jugend. The action more varied, with more subsidiary roles, and articulated by arbitrary activities: devil-mime [emerging] from globe, old lady with cane from audience (the rhythm of her stick leading the orchestra into a new “moment”), toy tank up inclined board, the three film segments (camera panning across Mary Bauermeister paintings, occasionally finding childlike drawings of a face, a figure). The music is clearly retrospective, and the action recalls Originale: Stockhausen seems bent on summing up his musical life in an operatic version, cosmically ambitious, of the late [Beethoven] quartets.

The performances were superb. A violist told me they rehearsed it for three weeks — too much, but Stockhausen insisted. The vocalists were magnificent, not only technically, but tonally too. “Heimkehr” got an extended ovation, with some ostentatious booking. Stockhausen directed the bows, pushing out various soloists from the lineup!

Stockhausen looks older, slacker, heavy, otherwise much the same. We talked some after the performance; he gave me his address. He seemed, well, a little spacey, but the evening must have been exhausting — and he’d been nervous as a cat before “Heimkehr,” which had been given its premiere.

What about the music? Interesting; slow; naïve; often uneventful; a little soft. Reserve judgment for the full piece until next year’s Milan premiere.

WELL, I NEVER got to the Milan premiere. I don't recall, now, if I was on the job at this performance; perhaps I took these notes in order to write a review for the Oakland Tribune, which actually paid me to attend occasional out-of-town performances — Carmel Bach Festival, Santa Fe Opera, even the Holland Festival if I paid my own transportation and per diem, while otherwise on leave or vacation. Imagine a local daily newspaper doing that today!

Monday, November 02, 2015

Inez Storer

Inez Storer: Allow Nothing To Worry You. Gallery 16 Editions, 2015. 104 pages. ISBN 98-0-9827671-5-3
Paintings by Inez Storer are on view at the Seager/Gray Gallery, 108 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley, through November 8.

Eastside Road, November 1, 2015—
IS_Greta at Gatchina,40x48_press (1).jpg A CORNER OF THE BLEAK Gatchina Palace, outside St. Petersburg, as painted earlier this year by the California artist Inez Storer. And this is just a corner of the painting, too — or, rather, a detail taken from nearly the center of the painting, the entirety of which I'll set at the end of this post.

Before going further I should mention that I've known Inez for more than forty years, and that over that period she and her husband Andrew Romanoff have become friends. We don't see them often: They live in their corner of the area, we in ours; we're all busy; we all travel … but they're good friends, the sort with whom there can be silences, even quite long ones, and then the conversation resumes.

I met Inez in 1974, when she participated in a group show at the Mills College Art Gallery. In those days I taught a course in music history at Mills as an adjunct instructor, and I wrote cultural criticism, especially art criticism, for the Oakland Tribune. I was particularly struck with Inez's work. Reading the stuff that Charles Shere wrote can sometimes make me cringe now, but here's what I had to say:

A real find In this show is a painting by Inez Storer: "How to Land a Plane on a Painted Mountain.” The title may actually read "Pointed Mountain": the calligraphy is ambiguous, and so is the painting itself. Flatly executed in the lusciously “crude” style associated with Joan Brown, Fred Martin and Richard Diebenkorn, the picture is intelligent and sumptuous.

Storer's corner of the show is rich in many respects. There's a considerable variety to her work. expressed in paintings, drawings and assemblages. Her work is idea-oriented, but not merely cerebral: it always gives the eyeball its own rewards.

Many of the assemblages seem to parlay a methodical, almost compulsive rhythm, generated by continuingly accumulating details, into a fearful expression of emptiness and domesticity. "House Plans and Diagrams" is a three-level shallow wall-hung box, " each of the three “floors" strewn with glass marbles, each with a figure: a clock-gear-bellied, headless representation of pregnancy on the top; a doll's head on the middle; the beheaded doll standing on the lower level. Photos of a woman suddenly thrust out of the walls. The total picture is unnerving.

How to Land a Plane on a Painted Mountain
A series of drawings and paintings on the subject of dreams shows how introspective this painter is. "Dreams" presents a drawing of a bed, its headboard collaged in fabric scraps, a photograph of a sheep on the bed, a fragment of an old letter in sepia copperplate ink leading off the bed to an old-time group photo of a bunch of men in a campsite out West.

"Mountain Dream" incorporates a picture postcard into a painted landscape which turns into a bed somehow. The intellectual, "conceptual” aspect of the composition is underlined by two indications of size in the margins, making the final work part a painting, part its own sketch.

I liked How to Land a Plane on a Painted Mountain so much that I bought it. I bought a number of paintings during the years I worked as an art critic. I never ran the idea past my publisher: I wouldn't be surprised if he would have objected, citing the appearance of conflict of interest — an objection I generally disagree with: I think community of interest is closer to the mark. In any case since I've never sold, or wanted to sell, any work of art I've bought, no "interest" is really present.

I bought paintings because living with them continually reminded me to look, and taught me, I think, how to try to understand, and to make use of, the things I saw. This is the great gift of painters, of artists: they respond to the world for us. "The highest function of music," J.W.N. Sullivan writes, "is to express the musician's experience and his organization of it." (Beethoven: His Spiritual Development (Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), p. 34.) True of all the arts: he goes on to say "art is not superfluous… it exists to convey what cannot be otherwise conveyed."

LET'S COME BACK to the painting at hand, Greta at Gatchina Palace. Like How to Land a Plane on a Painted Mountain, it incorporates painting and collage on the technical level, and personal memory and meaning when it comes to the content. Inez's father was a pilot and an art director in Hollywood; he had emigrated from Germany to evade the Third Reich. Her husband's family, the imperial Romanovs, were deposed and indeed executed during the Russian Revolution. The Gatchina Palace was, I understand, one of their residences, and Inez and Andrew toured it recently.

There of course they took a number of photographs. Inez makes prints at Magnolia Editions in Oakland, and there, on their huge flatbed scanner, she was able to make digital photocollages; one result was layered on gesso on canvas to serve as the ground for the painting.

I think of many levels of meaning emerging from this technique, whose layers of both image and technical handling are like the layers of significance latent in our personal memories and experiences. Again, and forty years later, the final work is part a painting, part its own process. And as the viewer's eye explores it, particularly when the eye is informed by awareness and knowledge of the personal meaning within the work, the viewer repeats the painter's journey into and through the work.

I spent a fair amount of time with Greta at Gatchina Palace. (For me, that is: I'm an impatient attendant, always in a rush to experience more.) I investigated it close to; I crouched near the floor to look up at it; I backed slowly away from it; I approached it in a spiraling trajectory, with one eye closed, focussing on one detail or another. (Fortunately my patient companion was the only other person in the gallery at the moment.) I found a favorite focal point: the stanchion that can barely be made out in the corridor beyond the doorway in the corner of the room. You may be able to see, in the detail reproduced above, a white rope supported by that stanchion. You cannot see, unfortunately, the amazingly true depiction of the metallic shine at the base of the stanchion.

Inspected this actively, many aspects of the painting jump into relief. The lintel above the doorway thrusts away from the wall, and the marble lining the doorway jumps back and forth, now holding the picture plane, now flipping into perspective, helping to draw the eye through the passageway into that corridor.

This alternation is helped, of course, by the collision of the photorealist perspective of the walls and corner with the arbitrary flat grid of the checkerboard floor. Again the viewer, like the painter, is poised between two ways of interpreting what is seen. This is what contemplation leads to: the fuller understanding of what is seen, resulting from the superimposition on objective reality (if any such there be) of accumulated layers of meaning brought in from memory, from learning, perhaps from misleading commentary, certainly from interpretation. INFORMATION.

To look actively at a painting, both physically as I've described my gymnastics in the gallery and intellectually as I've suggested through the consideration of supplementary information — this is one of the great pleasures. It recapitulates one's confrontation of life itself. It's an indispensable part of criticism, and criticism, I'm afraid, is an indispensable aspect of my own approach to life. Criticism: "the study of the meaning and the value of art works." (Joseph Kerman: Contemplating Music: challenges to musicology, Harvard University Press, 1986.)

Inez and Andrew's personal experiences draw on Europe and America, the Third Reich and the Russian Revolution, Hollywood and Buckingham Palace, the events of the 1960s, the art and social setting of the San Francisco Bay Area, teaching, family, and the usual vicissitudes that accumulate in eighty or ninety years of life. By turns funny, absurd, sad, nostalgic, improbable, these experiences of course inform their work. In a sense their work is incomplete without the experiences, though of course the work also, contradictorily and fortunately, stands perfectly well without one's knowing of them.

Fortunately, an attractive, small, coherent, copiously and well illustrated book has just been published, presenting a fair number of Inez's paintings and prints, together with short but useful (and entertaining!) accounts of her life and work. Allow Nothing to Worry You is a small-format book, 8-¼ inches square, 104 pages, case-bound in hard covers, with texts by Bonnie Gangelhoff, Timothy Anglin Burgard, Bill Berkson, Maria Porges, Barbara Morris, and Inez herself, along with the expected lists of exhibitions and biographical notes.

I particularly like Berkson's comments, with its final paragraph:

Storer has spoken of her vistas as having "no perspective, no beginning or end." Even so, seeing what happens within them, the viewer knows the size and distance appropriate to any detail, and the scale of the territory at large. Props — a ladder, a dinghy, a family of chairs, a cap, a monkey dropped on a Parisian thoroughfare — lend leverage, both graphic and psychological. That fabulations so thoroughly nuanced can come across as declarative throughout, so all-there at a glance, is a measure of Storer's commitment. Poise, the work invites us think, amid the indignities of human self-awareness, is no soulless window dressing, but a wonder regained by turns.

BUT LET'S LOOK, finally, at the painting we started out with, Greta at Gatchina Palace.
IS_Greta at Gatchina,40x48_press.jpg
Inez Storer: Greta at Gatchina Palace (2015). Mixed media on panel, 46x46 inches
The room is seen as it is, abandoned and in disrepair, and as it was or might have been, opulent in its rococo decoration. Hollywood, and things not being as they seem. An improbable blue kitchen chair (Berkson felicitously refers to it as "perennially talismanic"). A painting of Greta Garbo, recognizably in Inez Storer's style. The inevitable red carpet, leading inexorably to that doorway, and the passageway to an unintended destination out of sight around a corner. A large window illuminating the interior while concealing the world beyond, and its source of light. Vermeer's incessant and obsessive tilework floor.

Hans Hofmann would recognize the "push-pull" of the planes of color and pattern, though he'd be unlikely to approve the possibly narrative implications of the imagery containing them. Even on my computer screen I fall into this painting as I gaze at it; my gaze is itself a passageway leading me into it. Seen with one eye, while my head moves slowly before the image, or quickly approaches, then backs away from the screen, the perspectives change and develop. Somehow the contradictions of planes and perspectives enter into a kind of conversation, exploring various possible arrangements, of resolutions.

Storer's work has been called "magic realism" — the term comes from literary criticism, specifically describing such Latin American authors as Borges — but I think this painting disdains questions of category. It doesn't matter, either, that the work involves so many techniques. Since Picasso and Braque glued newspaper clippings to their paintngs, a century ago and more, painting has meant more than the application of colored pastes to flat expanses of cloth or paper. Painting is the act of bringing color and texture to a visual consideration or expression of meaning.

A painting like this, a life like Inez's, can instruct us in the possibilities, perhaps even the methods, of resolving apparent contradictions; of enlarging meaning; of expanding our awareness, not only of a painting, but of our own lives, and of the world they engage.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Three Plays in Pasadena

Eastside Road, October 28, 2015—
•Georges Feydau: A Flea in Her Ear.
•Jean Anouilh: Antigone.
•Arthur Miller: All My Sons.
A Noise Within, Pasadena, seen October 23-25

Rafael Goldstein (Camille), Jill Hill (Lucienne), Geoff Elliott (Chandebise): A Flea in Her Ear at A Noise Within
Photo: Craig Schwartz
Plays seen at A Noise Within

2001: Hay Fever (Coward)

2002-03: Macbeth; The Triumph of Love (Marivaux); The Cherry Orchard (Chekov); Bus Stop (Inge); Measure for Measure; The King Stag (Gozzi)

2003-04: Coriolanus; The Miser (Moliere); The Price (Miller); Electra (Euripides); Twelfth Night; The Matchmaker (Wilder)

2004-05: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Homecoming (Pinter); A Flea in Her Ear (Feydeau); Julius Caesar; The School for Wives (Molière); Mourning Becomes Electra (O’Neill)

2005-06: Othello; Picnic (Inge); The Master Builder (Ibsen); Ubu Roi (Jarry); Arms and the Man (Shaw); The Tempest

2006-07: Phaedra (Racine); A Touch of the Poet (O’Neill); As You Like It; Romeo and Juliet; Loot (Orton)

2007-08: The Winter’s Tale; Waiting for Godot (Beckett); Dear Brutus (Barrie); Henry IV, Part One; Don Juan (Moliere); The Night of the Iguana (Williams)

2008-09: Hamlet; The Rainmaker (Nash); Oliver Twist (Neil Bartlett); The Taming of the Shrew; Ghosts (Ibsen); The Rehearsal (Anouilh)

2009-10: Richard III; Crime & Punishment (Dostoyevsky, ad. Campell & Columbus); Noises Off (Frayn); Waiting for Godot (Beckett); Much Ado About Nothing; Awake & Sing! (Odets); The Playboy of the Western World (Synge)

2010-11: Measure for Measure; Blithe Spirit (Coward); Great Expectations (Dickens); Noises Off (Frayn); The Comedy of Errors; The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Williams); The Chairs (Ionesco)

2011-12 (inaugural Pasadena season): Twelfth Night; Desire Under the Elms (O’Neill); Noises Off (Frayn); Anthony and Cleopatra; The Illusion (Corneille, ad. Kushner); The Bungler (Molière, ad. & tr. Wilbur)

2012-13: Cymbeline; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Shaw); The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck, ad. Frank Galati); The Beaux’ Stratagem (Farquhar, ad. Wilder & Ludwig) (we did not see Eurydice (Ruhl))

2013-14: Pericles, Prince of Tyre; The Guardsman (Molnár); Endgame (Beckett); Tartuffe (Molière, tr. Richard Wilbur); Macbeth; Come Back, Little Sheba (Inge)

2014-15: The Tempest; The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde); The Dance of Death (Strindberg, ad. & tr. Conor McPherson); The Threepenny Opera (Brecht-Weill); Le Mariage de Figaro (Beaumarchais, ad. & tr. Charles Morey); Julius Caesar

2015-16: A Flea in Her Ear (Feydeau, ad. & tr. David Ives); Antigone (Anouilh, ad. & tr. Robertson Dean); All My Sons (Miller).

Scheduled for spring 2016: Romeo and Juliet; You Never Can Tell (Shaw); Six Characters in Search of an Author (Pirandello, ad. & tr. Robert Brustein)

WE REMAIN ENTHUSIASTIC about this professional repertory theater company, to the point that we devote a fair piece of change to our subscriptions, drive hundreds of miles to see their productions, and do what we can to persuade friends to do the same. A Noise Within — hereafter ANW: the name is a stage direction in Hamlet — rewards us with six plays a year, scheduling them in repertory so we can see them all on two jaunts of (usually) four days each, three plays in the fall, the remaining three in spring. We met them in 2001, when we chanced on their exuberant production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever; we subscribed the next year, and you can see our rewards — over eighty performances seen! — in a box here. (Many of them have been discussed in previous posts here.)

WE BEGAN with farce. Farce: French for "stuffing," in the sense of minced food stuffed into a cooked dish. Usually that's some kind of cheap filler; and the first "farces" in the theatrical sense were in fact comedies played between the acts of a more serious drama.

A Flea in Her Ear is, I think, the quintessential French farce: fast and ironic, with a complex sex-based plot set on a cast of urbane, petty-bourgeois people driven by confusion and hypocrisy. The plot rests on a wife's belief her husband is dallying with another woman: a friend writes a letter for her, purporting to ask the husband to an assignation; the wife will be there, of course, to catch him out. (Cf. Beaumarchais: Le mariage de Figaro.)

The cast is large. Act 1: Husband, wife, husband's business partner, wife's best friend, her Spanish husband, nephew-with-speech-defect, doctor, butler, maid. Act 2 (dubious hotel): hotelkeep, his slatternly wife, his senile uncle, a drunk porter, a maid. In Act 3, of course, everyone is involved. To give an idea of the plot, here's a paragraph from the program's synopsis:

Meanwhile, Camille, the young nephew of Victor, is overjoyed to have his speech impediment corrected by a new silver palate from Dr. Finache. In celebration, he and the household cook, Antoinette, also hurry to the Frisky Puss Hotel, followed by Étienne, the jealous husband of Antoinette. Dr. Finache, also looking for a bit of fun, decides to go to the hotel in search of his own afternoon rendezvous…
Mistaken identities, secret walls, runs up and down stairs, recognized handwriting, familiar fragrances, kicks in the behind. It's a very physical comedy, skillfully directed (Julia Rodriguez-Elliott), evenly cast, and played with the precision that allows improvisation that you find only in repertory companies.

For all its riotous humor — you think of the Marx Brothers — their are affecting passages, moments when aging, or uncertainty, or class distinction passes quickly across the action, like a quick cloud across the summer sun. And Feydau is particularly good, I think, at presenting the feminine point of view: there are strong parts here for actresses.

I'll introduce you to the principals with just a few adjectives; they're all great fun to watch, both for their acting and for the characters they represent:

Etienne, the butler: Alan Blumenfeld, stately and arch
Camille, the nephew: Rafael Goldstein, quite hilarious
Dr. Finache, resourceful and amusing
Lucienne, the wife's friend: Jill Hill, nimble, suave, and affecting
Raymonde Chandebise, the wife: Elyse Mirto, often deep, quick, affecting
Victor Emmanuel Chandebise, the suspect husband
Geoff Elliott, solid, untiring, well-rounded
Romain, the business partner: Jonathan Bray, amusingly bland and self-involved
Don Carlos Homénidés de Histangua: Luis Fernandez-Gil, stock Spanish and very funny
Ferraillon, the hotelkeep: Jeremy Rabb, fully in character and unexpectedly funny…
They're all funny; no one actor runs away with this play. What's intense is how they manage to be entertaining: with the lines and situations, of course, that's a given. But beyond that they're making fun of the French, of the subject of the play, of farce itself. When the two young women meet and begin their conniving they are so Parisienne they brought a number of Paris friends to mind. The second-act slapstick laughs at its own tradition. At the close of the play, Romain's total unawareness reveals the unimportance of everything that's happened (or, likely, ever will happen).

All this is heightened by Fred Kinney's scenic design and Angela Colin's costumes that seem absolutely perfect. The Chandebise apartment is a marvelous portrait of the 1950s, the most recent time, Blumenfeld noted in the talkback after the performance, that the play could be set in, before the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism but recent enough to be enjoyed with a bit of nostalgia. Everything from wallpaper to candy-dish seems thoughtfully chosen to suggest both the taste and the folly of the time. And the costumes! You have to see to believe.

Lorna Raver (Nurse); Emily James (Antigone): Antigone at A Noise Within
Photo: Craig Schwartz
THE DIAMETRICAL OPPOSITE of French farce must be the co ol intellectual French drama of the 1930s and '40s, and no better example of that could be found than Jean Anouilh's Antigone. It is based, of course, on Sophocles' early tragedy, part of the Theban cycle, in which Antigone disobeys Creon's shocking and sacrilegious order that her fallen brother Polynices not be buried.

Anouilh's setting of the story, though, was written and even produced in occupied Paris in the early 1940s. You could see the writing and production of the play as a parallel to Sophocles' story: attention to the sacred rites, whether burial or theater at its most moral and civic, in the face of tyrannical censorship and manipulation.

This Antigone is as French as Feydau: clear, formal, neutral, cool, measured. In this adaptation it begins among the ruins of war, and Chorus — the understated Inger Tudor — summons the cast forth with her introductions, rather than identifying already present actors. Much of the quality of this production depends on a counterpoint between Chorus's narrative neutrality and emotional realism in the other major characters: Emily James's determined Antigone, Eric Curtis Johnson's bullish yet finally defeated Creon; Kyla Garcia's supporting, finally comprehending Ismene (sister of Antigone); Rafael Goldstein's simple, troubled Guard.

This production presents a new adaptation and translation, by Robertson Dean, a longtime affiliate of ANW (and an impressive actor). I haven't read the original French, but spot-checking suggests the translation (which Dean says is the first into English since the 1950s) is faithful to Anouilh, both his script and his intentions; and the scenic adaptation goes a long way to bridging a gap that might easily separate mid-century French and postmodern American audiences.

The opening tableau, for example: fragments of columns, broken furniture, toys and dolls, anonymous weapons; a tinny prewar radio console: we know we're in the ruins of war; it's vaguely of our time; but the anguish is due as much to our awareness of its timelessness and inevitability as it is to any direct impact on ourselves.

Dean's direction carefully tiptoes another discontinuity, that between drama and contemplation, exactly in parallel with Anouilh's intent, I think. Perhaps it is too careful: the audience comes away from the performance, I think, not exactly sure of what it has witnessed, or how it should respond. But as often happens, the significance of this Antigone, its moral weight and persuasion, grow in one's mind in the hours after leaving the theater.

I thought, while watching the play, how odd it was that A Flea in Her Ear should seem up-to-the-minute and crisp while Anouilh's cool Antigone seems a bit dated: fifty years ago it would have been the other way round. A few days after seeing them, I no longer consider the question. Good theater — and this borders on great theater — does that; it encourages the mind to forget about topicality, immediate relevance; to attend rather to timelessness and universality.

Deborah Strang as Kate, All My Sons, A Noise Within.
Photo: Craig Schwartz
WE WERE BROUGHT home from France with an early play by an established midcentury American playwright. In spite of his own address to universals, to my taste at least Arthur Miller's plays are dated. In setting his universals on detailed and specific American situations, Miller risked losing view of those universals. We think of Willy Loman as his character, not his significance. The virtue of course is that the character is more than a straw man, a type: in good directoral hands (as here) Miller's work is gripping whatever its period.

All My Sons is a fairly early play: 1947, two years before Death of a Salesman, which it often foretells. Its plot is centered on its recent history: Joe Keller owns a machine shop which provided some defective parts to the Air Force during the (Second World) war; he shifted responsibility to a partner who was imprisoned; his older son was lost in that war, and his wife clings to the belief her son will return.

Into this setting Miller introduces the younger son, Chris; his girl friend Lydia — who had been the older brother's intended — and Lydia's brother George. Thinking him guilty, Lydia has spurned her father, the falsely imprisoned partner; George has been persuaded of the facts of the case; the drama plays out to its inevitable conclusion.

It's a well-made play, even to Chekhov's familiar formula; and the rich detail of Miller's characters (I haven't mentioned lesser roles just as well fleshed out) and their middle-America small-town setting make it interesting, even absorbing. You like most of these people so much you're disturbed (as you're intended to be) by their anguish, by the hopelessness of their yearnings and evasions.

The play was directed by Geoff Elliott, who also plays the leading role, the factory owner Joe Keller. We've seen Elliott in a lot of plays: with his wife Julia Rodriguez-Elliott he founded A Noise Within, in 1992; and he's been the central lead actor in the years since. His portrayals are deep, complex, yet directly presented; they come (as do others in this repertory company) both from sympathetic and seemingly intuitive understanding of the roles and from intelligent and committed awareness of the theatrical tradition.

Opposite him was another company stalwart, Deborah Strang, whose portrait of Kate Keller, the wife and mother, was both intense and affecting. Strang is a magnificent actor; we've seen her dominate many productions — never stealing scenes, but energizing productions even when upstage and silent.

Maegan McConnell and Rafael Goldstein were just as solid, gripping even, as the young couple. (This was the third role we'd seen Goldstein play in three nights, all very different, each penetrating and endearing and intelligent.) The supporting cast were capable, but Miller, I think, depends more on a cast divided between major and minor roles than does either Feydau or Anouilh, a quality that threatens sometimes to move his theater closer to journalism than literature.

Again, the physical production was absolutely first-rate: Frederica Nascimento's scenic design, Leah Piehl's costumes, James Taylor's lighting, and the music and sound by Robert Oriol. All three of these plays were thoughtfully installed in the ANW venue, a half-thrust stage in a house offering fine sight-lines and no distant seats (though occasionally acoustically flawed).

I'd willingly go back to any of these three productions; they reach, I think, an unusually consistent level and a very high one at that.

• A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Boulevard, Pasadena, California; 626-356-3100;

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

West Edge Opera

•Alban Berg: Lulu.
Jonathan Khuner, music director;
Elkhanah Pulitzer, stage director
seen July 25 and Aug. 2, 2015.
•Laura Kaminsky: As One.
Bryan Nies, music director;
Mark Streshinsky, stage director;
film by Kimberly Reed
seen July 31, 2015.
•Claudio Monteverdi:
Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria
Gilbert Martinez, music director
Mark Streshinky, stage director
seen Aug. 1, 2015.
Eastside Road, August 3, 2015—
IF OPERA AS WE (I) know it has a future in our country, the oligarchic United States of America, then I think West Edge Opera, headquartered in the culturally forward San Francisco Bay Area of California, is showing the way. The repertory is exploratory; the means are practical and well scaled; the artistic direction is secure and expert. Productions are mounted in various venues, chosen for cost effectiveness, marketing value, and I believe appropriateness to the work in question.

West Edge is an outgrowth, I believe, of Berkeley Opera, founded in that enlightened city some years ago by the Berkeley conductor Jonathan Khuner, a musical genius (in my opinion), heir to a great musical tradition, seasoned opera worker (coach, prompter, conductor), a graceful intellect and a true enthusiast of musical modernism. I've known him, though not well, for many years. I played bass drum in Ravel's La Valse under his direction, many years ago in a community orchestra. I narrated, as a sort of compère, a production of Beethoven's Fidelio under his baton more recently (but again a number of years back). And I recall running into him after a San Francisco Symphony performance of Gurrelieder : when I enthused at the accuracy and spirit of the performance of the long and complex piece he agreed, but noted that a flute note had been transposed an octave in a chord in a loud tutti passage. Khuner is attentive, observant, quick-witted, and utterly modest; his musicians enjoy working with him.

Earlier this year we saw a West Edge concert production of Rossini's Zelmira (reported on this blog in February), and I've already reported here on this month's Lulu, which impressed us so much we bought tickets for a repeat performance yesterday. The result was that we saw the entire summer season, three operas, in three consecutive days, each time driving an hour each way for the experience. And I retain my enthusiasm for the company, and look forward to next year.

That's not to say I thought the run an unqualified success. Laura Kaminsky's As One is not really an opera, I think, but a dramatic song-cycle, cast on two singers and accompanied visually by a film projected onto panels behind them, musically by a string quartet playing busily throughout. The lyrics, by Mark Campbell, in English, are basically a series of more or less dramatic monologues in which the protagonist of the piece evolves from a twelve-year-old boy to a mature woman. The subject matter is gender identity, and in my opinion the most valuable aspect of the subject and its treatment here, after of course the matter of tolerance for individual means of coping with identity and society, is the awareness that in most of us there are moments, awarenesses, and attitudes that are both masculine and feminine as our society has conventionally typified such things.

The two singers who together portrayed the protagonist, Hannah Before and Hannah After, were winning, persuasive, musically secure: mezzosoprano Brenda Patterson and baritone Dan Kempson looked similar enough (stature apart) to portray a single character, and their voices blended seamlessly in the occasional duet and more frequent overlapping solo lines. Their physical acting, too, handled Mark Streshinsky's low-keyed staging persuasively.

There are however two problems with As One : the libretto is pedestrian, more a description of an individual's character than a portrayal; and the music too often lacks — well, edge and character. Not always: I was intrigued by the Janáček-meets-minimalism quality of the opening scene; and the long aria toward the close, rhapsodic in its confrontation at last with Nature (the Norwegian fjords) rather than Society, seemed finally to get off the ground, to soar in vocal skies I normally associate with Richard Strauss and Mahler. In the intervening hour, though, the music was mostly vocal cantilena accompanied by literally descriptive and rhythmically busy string-quartet writing, tonal, consonant, and to my ear aimless.

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, known to its Oakland audience simply as Ulysses, is a very different kettle of fish. Premiered in Venice in 1641, it is with the same composer's L'Incoronazione di Poppea one of the oldest operas in the working repertory but not, of course, frequently produced. West Edge proved the error of this, as it was entertaining, often moving, often very funny, and always both interesting and refreshing.

Where As One had been produced in a sort of warehouse nightclub setting (though with conventional row seating and without table service, which would have improved things), Ulisse was mounted on a platform thrust stage, its runways embracing the improvised pit, in an immense former steel-mill in industrial Oakland. This is a long way from the splendors of Renaissance theater, of course; but it did point up the stock theatrics which underlie more evolved theater. Strashinsky's staging made me think from time to time of Shakespeare's mechanicals' production of Piramus and Thisbe; of commedia dell'arte; even of traditional Italian puppet theater.

Opera is classically defined, by Italians at least, as dramma per musica, drama through music. Every member of this cast moved and expressed himself physically with real acting skill, whether dramatic or comic: but the success of the event was above all musical. Monteverdi's vocal lines are superficially not that far from Kaminsky's: cantilena, consonant, generally conservative in dynamic and pitch range. They are very different though in terms of definition, structure, variation of tempo and dynamic; and melodically they have character and contour, steering one's attention rather than lulling it. And the accompaniment, while similarly string-oriented, modest in number, and steady in its support, is refreshing and supple.

Music director Gilbert Martinez, who directs the Berkeley organization MusicSources, Center for Historically Informed Performance, led the pit band from one of its two harpsichords, turning also to a small reed-organ to accompany the angry sea-god Neptune in his two appearances. Otherwise the instrumentation comprised two violins, two violas, a viola da gamba, and most prominent of all harp and theorbo: plucked instruments whose range and resonance supported the singers with great resonance and rich color. (The theorbo, especially the bass theorbo, must be one of the most eloquent inventions of all time.)

Monteverdi's libretto, by Giacamo Badoardo, is generally faithful to Homer's Odyssey, but reduces Penelope's many suitors to three comic characters, their protracted and relentless slaughter to a momentary burlesque. Ulysses's emotional return to his homeland shore, however, and Penelope's poignant constancy and suffering, are quite moving both in Monteverdi's (and Badoardo's) treatment and in this production's performance. Baritone Nikolas Nackley's Ulysses was secure, melodic, often tender; mezzo Sara Couden's contralto-directed voice gave Penelope a grave, innig quality that was very affecting.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the opera is its depiction of the gods, whose interference in human affairs portrays in theatrical terms the inner weaknesses, proclivities, desires, and ambivalences our own time explains through psychology and, increasingly, politics. In this performing edition the action is framed by discussions in which Jupiter, as god in chief, acting at the urging of Minerva, protectress of the Greeks and especially Ulysses, persuades Neptune, who'd favored the Trojans and punished Ulysses for the last twenty years, to let the poor man go home.

Of the three, Minerva is by far the most important, appearing at pivotal moments throughout the drama. The role was brilliantly sung and effectively acted by soprano Kindra Scharich; tenor Gary Rushchman was a pleasant Jupiter; Aaron Sørensen an effective Neptune. Those two were also two of the three suitors, Pisandro and Anationoo, and Sørensen's bass voice was as strong as a buffo as it was dramatic in the villainous role.

Michael Desnoyers was sympathetic as the shepherd Eumete; Johanna Bronk supportive as Telemaco; Jonathan Smucker effective as Anfinomo; Charlotte Goupille Lebret affecting as Melanto. The Leandra Watson's costumes were simple for the most part, decorative in the case of the gods.

Of the three productions, though, it was that of Lulu that was especially impressive. Complex, big in every way, daring in every way, Berg's opera and West Edge's production seemed logical, effortless, inevitable. Both audiences I saw were moved, gripped by the opera and its performance. West Edge is a company to watch, not only for fascinating entertainmemnt for its local audiences, but for what it suggests for the future and for other communities. The great heritage of music theater can be adapted to present needs and resources: it requires nothing more than nerve and talent.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015


•Alban Berg: Lulu.
West Edge Opera,
Jonathan Khuner, music director;
Elkhanah Pulitzer, stage director
seen in Oakland, California,
July 25, 2015.
repeat performances:
Aug. 2, 2 pm; Aug. 8, 8 pm
information online:
Lulu First Scene Hi Res.jpg
Philip Skinner as Dr. Schön, Emma McNairy as Lulu; Act I of Alban Berg's Lulu.
Photo: Lucille Lawrence
Eastside Road, July 28, 2015—
We saw Alban Berg’s opera Lulu the other night, produced by the East Bay’s West Edge Opera in the abandoned Southern Pacific railroad station in Oakland (California). I can only say the event was phenomenal: we were so impressed we immediately bought tickets for a return hearing, this coming Sunday (August 2).

Berg wrote the opera, his second, between roughly 1930 and 1935, leaving it unfinished at his death. For years it was known only by its first two acts though the third act was virtually complete in short score and much of its orchestration had been completed for the suite Berg had extracted from the opera for concert purposes. Berg’s widow refused access to the manuscript, however, and it was only on her death, in 1976, that advances could be made toward realizing a complete performing version of the opera.

The opera is scored for twelve singers and large orchestra: woodwinds in threes plus saxophone; four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba; an active six-performer percussion section including vibraphone; important harp and piano parts; and a full string ensemble; a 16-piece off-stage jazz band including banjo (most of these can come from the pit orchestra).

Many of the vocal roles are quite demanding; the music is written in Berg’s version of Schoenberg’s “twelve-tone” system and is often dissonant, wide-ranging, and precise; the subject-matter of the opera is dark, violent at times, and discomforting; and Berg’s stage directions are carefully calculated and expressed in detail.

The result, certainly here in California, has been a very limited number of performances and productions, and those I’ve seen (San Francisco Opera, 1965 with Evelyn Lear; 1971 with Anja Silja) were truncated, rather routine in their staging, and frustrating.

A pity, because Lulu is one of the great operas of its or any century. On the first level, it’s arresting, fascinating, with a “story” that speaks to both its and our time and a score that resourcefully exploits the most fascinating and athletic possibilities of its voices and instruments.

This first level will leave many of us confused and either fatigued or exhilarated, possibly both. It’s a pity many do not go on to explore the work further, as Lulu is as fascinating intellectually — both as a historical document and as a work of art — as it is telling emotionally.

Perhaps it will become better known now, as in 2009 the Eberhard Kloke, one of two or three composers who have tackled the problem of orchestrating the third act, completed a reduction of Berg’s orchestration. West Edge used an orchestra of only twenty musicians: single winds (two clarinets), one percussionist, harp, piano, and nine strings.

I can think of few opera performances I’ve seen as impressively rewarding as this Lulu. Every member of the cast brought real intelligence to his role, projecting character and drama both physically and vocally, and looking the role perfectly persuasively. In addition, the voices themselves were marvelous: accurate, the vocal lines nicely phrased, the leaps landing persuasively on pitch, the dynamic contrasts well managed, ensemble singing (and fast-intercut interpolations, which Berg’s often conversational style requires) thoughtfully and effectively handled.

The opera centers of course on its title role, and I can’t imagine a better Lulu than Emma McNairy, who sings and acts with utter conviction and fabulous technique. But the rest of the cast is equally successful: Philip Skinner suave and controlling as Schön; Alexander Boyer as the warm, sympathetic, vulnerable Alwa; Buffy Baggott as a tender, at times uncomprehending Geschwitz; Bojan Kneževič as the sinister, shadowy Schigolch; Zachary Altman strutting and cynical as the Animal Trainer, strutting and stupid as the Athlete; and lesser roles were equal, taken by Erin Neff, Joseph Raymond Meyers, Michael Jankosky, Michael Crozier and Audrey Douglass.

The entire effort was Jonathan Khuner’s baby, and he conducted it not only well but apparently effortlessly — having, I’m sure, rehearsed and coached it with precision, economy, and persuasion. His orchestra supported the production with impressive élan.

And nearly as welcome, in some ways perhaps even more: Elkhanah Pulitzer’s stage direction, on Chad Owens’s economical and resourceful set (and with Christine Crook’s admirable costumes), respected Berg’s indications almost to the letter. Opera is supposed to be a total art form, appealing to eye, ear, heart, and brain with an integral, focussed event. Too often stage directors (and the producers who engage them) are willing to subvert the composer and librettist — in the case of Lulu, Berg is both — by superimposing a third artistic vision on an already complex work.

That did not happen at West Edge, and the result was a Lulu its composer would recognize and, I think, approve enthusiastically. The lagniappe to all this perfection and authenticity was the setting, a huge, brooding, used-up railroad station that seemed to be — visually, architecturally, even acoustically — a metaphor for the ruined first half of the twentieth century; the worn-out, no longer appreciated or maintained shell of what was once an elaborate, beautiful, and even practical accommodation of men and women of all classes of society.

There’s much more to say. I haven’t mentioned the admirable film, for example, cunningly structured by Jeremy Knight to accompany Berg’s ingenious centerpiece interlude, a forerunner of Robert Wilson’s “knee play” device articulating the drama’s exposition and calamitous resolution. I haven’t mentioned the intelligently translated supertitles, alas too frequently fading out against the buff concrete walls on which they’re projected (can the text-stye be changed to “outline”?)

I haven’t made an attempt at presenting the opera itself, which Wikipedia will do for me; and, beyond, George Perle’s fine book on the opera; and, for those who can use it, Erwin Stein’s masterly piano reduction of the first two acts, available for the downloading online.

Most unhappily of all I haven’t sufficiently sung the praises of conductor, crew, and cast; I don’t think I can rise to the task. This was a superb evening of theater, a magnificent interpretation of a masterpiece, a provocative and absorbing performance with what will be, I know, a long-lasting finish.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Hotels in Italy

Eastside Road, June 7, 2015—

IN A MONTH in Italy, May 6 through June 3, we stayed in thirteen different apartments, hotels, and agriturismi, relying on four sources for suggestions: Airbnb;;; and previous knowledge. During that time the euro hovered at about $1.20. The most expensive lodging we found was €77, for an apartment with kitchen; a couple of other places were in the neighborhood of $75 to 80 a night; many others were significantly less. I list all below:



Naples and vicinity: 


•Parco Eva (Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 167/6, Naples). We were here seven nights, 6-12 May 2015. It is a comfortable apartment with a good-sized sitting room, an almost equally large bedroom, with a small, efficient kitchen separating them. We found the place through Airbnb ("Spacious Apartment in 1900s Palazzo"), and the hosts were charming, helpful, and attentive. The apartment is on the second floor of its building, which is reached from the top (fifth) floor of another building in front; both have elevators, though a few steps must be climbed to get to the first. The building entrance is perhaps a fifty-meter walk up a fairly steep driveway leading from a guarded gate on the busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele, but the apartments are very quiet.
While the buildings are a good way from the center of the old city — a half hour's leisurely walk, I'd say — one of the three Naples foniculare is a five-minute walk from the gate; it leads down to the Chiaia area, with its shops and restaurants, and up to the rather staid but very rewarding Vomero quarter, from whence another funicular will drop you quickly into the heart of the old city.

A half hour's drive south of Naples will bring you to •La Vecchia Quercia (Via Montevetrano 4, Località Cantina di Campigliano, 84099 San Cipriano Picentino (Salerno); We spent one night there, May 13, having remembered it from a stay five years ago; and we found it all we'd recalled and then some: a fine, spacious bedroom with its own little terrace, on a farmstead out in the country, with an excellent dinner and a copious breakfast provided by a gracious, intelligent, cosmopolitan hostess.


Here we stayed in two agriturismi and one apartment. Nothing could have been more different than the two agriturismi, lodgings on working farms, found through the Italian website, which offers a useful iPhone app. •BioAgriturismo Tenuta Montenuovo (Contrada Montenuovo, 85030 Calvera (PZ); +39 0973 198 5022) offered a comfortable but rather bare-bones room, WiFi only in the restaurant dining-room and on its terrace, but an absolutely marvelous dinner and a fine breakfast. (14 May 2015) •Masseria Cardillo (SS 407 via Bassentana km 97.5, 75012 Bernalda (MT); +39 0835 748992;, on the other hand, gave us a stunning room — huge, with a vaulted brick ceiling, elegant furnishings, and a private terrace with table and chairs. And a public sitting room big as a soccer-field and much more elegant, with fireplaces and groupings of sofas; as well as huge lawns, a pergola, a swimming pool and tennis court. Dinner was good though not as exciting as Tenuta Montenuovo’s; and the Roman ruins at Metaponto were conveniently close. (15 May 2015)

In the touristy town of Matera we stayed in •Apartment Casa Tonia (Vicolo Fornaci 7, Matera, 75100; +39 331 1541555), an apartment carved out of a storefront, with a kitchen, sitting room, and bath downstairs, bedroom-loft upstairs — rather an awkward arrangement for an extended stay, I’d think, but reasonably comfortable for a short one. We had trouble finding the place, as our GPS insisted on taking us to Vico Fornaci Vecchi, and we never could determine whether the apartment was on a Vico or a Vicolo. Whatever it is, it’s a pedestrian street, but a covered parking garage is nearby. (16 May 2015;


Just when we were wondering where we’d spend the night we noticed a roadside sign advertising •Agriturismo La Crianza (SP per Torchieroto, km. 3, 73018 Squinzano; +39 328 2487622;, not far from Lecce. Our room was so comfortable and the farm so quiiet that we spent two nights here, using the place as a base from which to explore Lecce and even Gallipoli. The breakfast was nothing to write home about; we dined out; I didn’t notice any swimming pool in the extensive olive grove; but the people were very nice and our room pleasant and comfortable. (17-18 May 2015)

Lazio and Rome:

On the drive from Puglia to Rome, encouraged by a Slow Food restaurant recommendation, we drove by way of Campobasso, where provided us with the •Cascina Garden Hotel (Contrada Tappino 61, Campobasso, 86100, Italy; +39 087 498024). The hotel’s high in a hilltop suburb, with parking in its courtyard, a reasonably good breakfast, WiFi in the room, and a comfortable bed. (19 May 2015)

Outside of Rome, not wanting to deal with parking issues, we stayed at another suggestion: •Villa Del Patrizio (via di Castelfusano 21, Ostia Antica 00124; +39 06565.57386). The place looked pretty sketchy to me at first, a little like Santa Monica in the 1950s, raffish and unkempt from the outside, with parking on the shoulder of the street; but the one-flight-up room was very nice, with its own little outside terrace, a comfortable bed, clean bath, and good WiFi, and there was a pleasant, cheap little trattoria next door. (20 May 2015)

In Rome itself we had a room from Airbnb ("Bright Room With Balcony Up vatican") in the quiet, primarily residential quarter of Monteverde (Viale di Villa Pamphili, 132 Int. 4, Rome), a big bedroom with balcony, two bathrooms shared with the other three bedrooms (one of which is occupied by the host), with a fine cafe across the street for breakfast but also a well-equipped kitchen for providing our own (and even a simple supper of pasta and salad when we wished). Our host, a young actor, was charming, intelligent, and very helpful, and I’d spend another week here any time. Parking on street; a city bus stop in front of the building. (21-27 May) 


The provincial capital Grosseto provided a convenient overnight on the several-hour drive from Rome to Monferrato, and there we spent the night at the •Grand Hotel Bastiani (Piazza Gioberti 64, 58100 Grosseto;  +39 056 420047). This was a real bargain found on The deskclerk told us we’d booked perhaps the most beautiful room in the hotel, a very well maintained and updated old hotel a two-minute walk from the main square and the cathedral in this quiet, walled old city. The room was utterly quiet and very comfortable, handsomely furnished, and had windows on two sides, overlooking the quiet streets. Parking is outside the city wall, a block away except on market day, when you have to park farther off. Fine breakfast, but WiFi didn’t reach to our room. (27 May)


Arriving in Monferrato, near Asti, the day before our extended booking, we crashed in the •B&B La Riviera, via Orlassolo 18, Arignano, Castelnuovo Don Bosco 10020; +39 3332263640) near the small city of Chieri. Our room was again quiet and comfortable, the breakfast decent, the WiFi acceptable, and parking no trouble at all on what seems to be a horse-training estate run by a handsome and intelligent young man who couldn’t have been nicer. (28 May,


Our mainstay in Monferrato, though, is the •B&B I Mandorli (Via Troglia 1/3, Cardona di Alfiano Natta; +39.335.6197718; We first stayed here fifteen years ago and have returned several times since. (You can read more about it on my website.) The proprietors, Gabriella and Franco Rampi, are a delightful, thoughtful, humane couple dedicated to an ethical country life. The rooms are quiet, comfortable, beautiful; and the setting is one of the most enchanting landscapes I know. Breakfasts are copious and delicious, and the countryside abounds in good, authentic, traditional restaurants. This will always be one of our favorite places in the world for a relaxing sojourn. (29 May-2 June)

The evening before flying from Torino’s airport we stayed in the •Hotel Cascina Di Corte (Via Castellamonte 2, Venaria Reale 10078; +39 01145932783), found through and chosen for its location, ten minutes or so from the airport and fifteen minutes or so from a remarkable restaurant. The hotel turned out to be right around the corner from Venaria’s amazing Reggio, perhaps Piedmont’s equivalent to Versailles, with beautiful, huge gardens. Our room was, again, quiet and comfortable, with a fine bath, quick WiFi, enthusiastic and helpful desk service, and a fine breakfast. (3 June)

Notes on restaurant dining can be found here