Saturday, February 12, 2011

Two very dissimilar days

I spent most of yesterday, Friday, in the car running errands; I took care of nine in all.  That's what comes of saving them up for one big, choreographed day.  I need hardly say that I got nothing done at the loom, but since one of them was a haircut now I am not only caught up but spruced up, too.

Today was not a loom-based day, either, but a wonderful one nonetheless.  This morning I went to the local theater carrying the Live-from-the Met HD broadcast of John Adams' Nixon in China.  This evening I went to the Utah Symphony concert.  Twentieth century music all day long!

The orchestra at the Met was conducted by John Adams, himself.  Stage direction and the direction of the videography were done by Peter Sellars.  Because of the way the opera was photographed I think that in some ways my experience in a movie theater in Salt Lake City was even better than what those in New York City had.  In the opening scene, where the chorus stands on stage and sings what is essentially rules of behavior  written by Mao, we see close-up shots of the heads of people in the chorus blown up on the screen so they are huge.  The composition of these shots is wonderful.  Sometimes we see only a part of a face so that I was strongly reminded of Alex Katz's huge paintings of faces.  I knew right then that we were in for a rare treat.

And I was right.

The opera follows the three days that Richard and Pat Nixon and Henry Kissinger were in China in 1972 on that historic trip.  This is the first time that I have ever seen an opera about events that I can remember and I wonder if that made it more moving.  We saw the meeting in which Mao tottered in (during an intermission feature we learned from the man who was ambassador at the time that Mao had been bedridden for some time before the visit and had to be taught to walk again for the meeting). 
The words sung were those--in the beginning of that scene at least--that were actually exchanged.  In the second act we see Pat on tour at the Great Wall, a glass factory, at a farm and seeing "children having fun".  She is guided on this tour by three women, dressed in blue suits wearing utilitarian glasses who are present throughout the opera who nearly always acted and sang in unison.  They were a chilling trio and struck me as almost reptilian.  Later in the act there is a ballet that upsets Pat Nixon who got caught up in it and tries to intervene to stop a flogging, among other things.  Some aspects of the ballet and its aftermath were a little confusing because the cause of the melee that ensued after the dancing ended wasn't clear to me.  During this act Madam Mao flips out--there is no other way to say it succinctly.

The third act takes place on the night before the Americans fly back to the United States.  The Nixons,  Chou En-Lai and Mao and Madame Mao (who is frankly pretty scary) are in it.  The three groups, if you will, do not interact with each other

Present throughout is Chou En-Lai (I am using the spelling used in the opera) who at the time was dying of untreated pancreatic cancer, a fact evident his behavior as well as the white lilies in the third and final act.  The last words of the opera are his.  In his last aria he wonders whether anything good had been accomplished by this visit (I'd say yes!) and his last words after singing about the fact that he has had no children haunt me:  "The chill of regret lies heavy on the morning grass".  A lot of the libretto, other than the verbatim parts, seemed to me to be very poetic.

It was a brilliant production that left me limp at its end.  I have thought about why it was so affecting and am still turning that over, but isn't that a sign of good theater?

I got home in time to feed my cats, prepare and eat my dinner and finish reading the paper before it was time to leave again this time for the symphony concert.  I went early enough to go to the pre-concert lecture given by the guest conductor, Pascal Rofe.  As his name suggests, he is French and although young has already had a distinguished career.

The program was all 20th Century music:  Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, Shostokovich's Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra. and Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra. The Stravinsky was short and enjoyable.  The program said that the concerto had been performed here at a time when I should have heard it but I cannot recall it.  (Was I out of town?)  The orchestration is quite unusual: the full complement of strings and one trumpet plus the piano, of course.  Our soloist was Joyce Yang who played well and with good energy--just the right amount. 

I had been waiting, I confess, for the Bartok.  I first heard this piece quite by accident.  When I was 13 or 14 we had our first television set and just after I got home from school the Ernie Kovacs show was on.  He was a brilliant and innovative man, I think, who died much too soon.  One entire show was given over to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra played while there were images on the screen.  I recall the first image very, very clearly (a deserted street at night), so much so that I could identify the place in the music where there was a close-up of a dead leaf blowing along the gutter.  I had, at that age, never heard music that sounded like that and remembered it distinctly.  I really like this concerto a lot and by now know it well so that as I listen I can anticipate some wonderful part that is coming up next. 

So there you are, a day full of running around and crossing things off my to-do list and today lots and lots of wonderful music.  I liked today better....

All this and a change of leadership in Egypt.  Sometimes I think the world moves faster than I can take it all in.  Interesting times.

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