Friday, February 27, 2009

SWAN LAKE at San Francisco Ballet

Tonight my friend Adam K and I saw San Francisco Ballet's new production of "Swan Lake."

World Premiere
Composer: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreographer: Helgi Tomasson after Marius Petipa
Odette/Odile: Vanessa Zahorian
Prince Siegfried: Ruben Martin

Since his last triumphant production of this revered classic debuted over 20 years ago, Helgi Tomasson is proud to unveil a spectacular, all-new production of Swan Lake. Set to one of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful scores, this completely restaged ballet features elaborate new scenery and costumes by critically acclaimed European designer Jonathan Fensom.

It was wonderful in every way. Adam particularly loved the music. The new sets and costumes are splendid...and the dancing was magical! 

The First Act had an imposing Palladian gate with a broken pediment. It was architectually stunning. The Second and Fourth Acts were set with a massive basalt rock formation, which reminded me of my brief visit to the Black Sea when I visited Umur in Istanbul a year ago last September. Above it was an impressive full moon, also featured at the center of the divided curving staircase in the Third Act. In addition the sets were greatly enhanced by creative projections. 

The costumes were beautifully coordinated in subtle and appropriate hues. The period was the early 19th Century just before the time of Tolstoy's War and Peace. The program notes mentioned that some of the adults were dressed more in the style of the late 18th Century. That was probably true of Prince Sigfried's mother -- slightly anachronistic, but very elegant.

The heart of the production, of course, was the music of Tchaikovsky, Tomasson's choreography and the splendid dancing. The Corps de Ballet was superb. Vanessa Zahorian and Ruben Martin were absolutely marvelous together.

Swan Lake was the last ballet Dennis ever saw before we left for Venice three years ago. That was on a Friday night. I returned by myself that Sunday to stand for the matinee to see Gonzalo Garcia dance the role of Prince Siegfried. He is one of my favorite dancers. Gonzalo is now in New York. I miss him a lot, as I'm sure most of the San Francisco dance community does as well!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


"It's tricky to make generalizations about Christians. After all, there are hundreds [...] of independent Christian sects, each one formed by followers who believed that all the other Christian sects were not following the proper Christian path. Such widespread lack of aggreement is remarkable given that the heart of Christian dogma is the assertion that the Bible is the single written text of divinely-revealed truth. [Actually, Rome and some other churches maintain that there is a living tradition and continuing revelation. RB] If all Christians accept the same book as the word of God, containing absolutely unquestionable instructions about how to live in the correct way, how come Christians end up dividing themselves into competing groups according to their disagreements about the right way to live?

One explanation is that the Bible is poorly written, with vague instructions, faulty logic, and an inconsistent collection of messages which contradict each other. Another explanation is that Christians don't really base their religious lives upon the teachings of the Bible.

The latter explanation is supported by the public, ostentatious manner in which most Christians pray. The Bible is very clear in what it says about the proper way for Christians to pray, stating in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 6, verses 5-6,

'When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. '

'But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.'
(King James Bible)

The message is clear: if you claim to follow Jesus you ought to pray in secret, avoiding ostentatious displays of prayer intended to serve as a display of holier-than-thou pride before others. Most Christians seem either to be ignorant or to just not care about the message of these Biblical verses, contradicting the instructions of their own divine savior in order to satisfy their own egotistical religious identities."

The above quotation from somebody else's blog may be a little harsh-- though perhaps appropriate as we begin Lent; but I find it ironic that one of the standard readings for Ash Wednesday is the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 5-6. What could be a more public display of piety than walking around with ashes on one's forehead?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


On a rainy Sunday afternoon--after subbing at Grace Cathedral for a sick substitute-- I celebrated the 31st anniverary of the founding of Chanticleer by attending a delightful chamber music concert at a handsome Queen Anne home on Chattanooga Street just a few blocks from my flat. The series had been recommended to me by my friends Ted and Irene. They weren't able to make this particular concert, but I saw their friend Annie, whose 86th birthday dinner I had attended a few weeks ago.

The layout of the house reminded me of my late friend John Blauer's home in Pacific Heights. He used to have musicales and old time projector movie shows in his back parlor.  The audience would sit in the front parlor. On Chattanooga Street, the audience faced the other direction in two handsome rooms tastefully decorated with William Morris revival wallpaper.

The concert on Sunday featured five string players from Sonoma County. They called themselves "Very Old Time Music."  With five players, they had two violins, two violas, and two violoncellos. (Two of them played more than one instument.) Their period instruments-- with gut strings and old bows-- ranged from the late 17th Century through the early 19th Century.

The music included quintets by Muffat, and Boccherini, and smaller ensembles by Merula, Lalande, Matthew Locke, and Albrechtsberger. The entire afternoon was thoroughly enchanting. I will sign up for the series next year, and put my name on the waiting list for the next scheduled concerts.

Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnevale 2009

Sunday was a busy day. It started with breakfast with my friend Szilard visiting from Las Vegas. Then I subbed at Grace again. I wasn't supposed to, but John's other sub was sick, so I subbed for a sub! I'm glad I did. The music for Transfiguration was intriguing and the sermon, very powerful, as delivered by The Rt. Rev. Stephen Charleston, Assistant Bishop and Provost of the Cathedral. He talked about fog. Afterwards, we celebrated Shrove Tuesday... transferred. We did it two days early. So I had pancakes and sausage. It brought back memories of Dennis' Shrove Tuesday Suppers during the building of the new Cathedral House. When the old Cathedral House was demolished, the 'powers that be' were going to suspend the traditional pancake suppers until the new one was completed. That wasn't good enough for Dennis. So for at least two years, we had Shrove Tuesday Suppers at IHOP (International House of Pancakes) on Lombard in the Marina district. They were a big success and helped build community spirit.

Later Sunday afternoon, I went to a household chamber concert (about which I'll write a separate post), then watched part of the Academy Awards, and had a two-hour rehearsal and meeting with the Schola Cantorum... and so to bed.

Monday, February 23, 2009

First Printing of GUTENBERG BIBLE ~ 1455

Photo: copy of the Gutenberg Bible owned by the US Library of Congress
Taken by Mark Pellegrini on August 12, 2002:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

GIORDANO BRUNO burned at the stake 1600

Giordano Bruno, born Filippo Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600) was an Italian philosopher best-known as a proponent of heliocentrism and the infinity of the universe. In addition to his cosmological writings, he also wrote extensive works on the art of memory, a loosely-organized group of mnemonic techniques and principles. He is often considered an early martyr for modern scientific ideas, in part because he was burned at the stake as a heretic by the Roman Inquisition (in the Campo de'Fiori just a few blocks from the convent where Dennis and I stayed several times near Piazza Navona in Rome --- the statue above is at the center of the campo surrounded by fruit stands and flower stalls).

Morris West (26 April 1916 - 9 October 1999) Australian novelist and playwright, best known for his novels The Devil's Advocate (1959) The Shoes of the Fisherman, (1963), & The Clowns of God (1981) died while working at his desk on the final chapters of his novel The Last Confession, about the trials and imprisonment of Giorano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.

Bruno was a figure with whom West had long sympathized and even identified. In 1969 he had published a blank-verse play The Heretic on the same subject. This was staged in London in 1970. Of all his writings, he said this play had "the most of me in it." In 1998 he converted it into a libretto for an opera, which was set to music by Colin Brumby, but it has not been staged. In early 1999 he also contemplated a film script based on the play.

He wrote The Last Confession in the form of the diary that Bruno might have written knowing that execution was approaching. The diary was intended to cover the period 21 December 1599 to 17 February 1600, however it covers just 14 days; the entry West was writing when he died was dated 4 January 1600, and he had written only about half as much as he had intended.

Nevertheless, the last paragraph he ever wrote was poignant: I can write no more today … who knows to what nightmares I might wake. West himself had had several severe heart attacks, and had undergone double-bypass surgery. Murray Waldren writes: "This is a book written by a man aware death is imminent about a man aware execution is near" (Courtesy

Monday, February 9, 2009


"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is coming up for review, and perhaps this time, we'll get it right. Randy Shilts died in 1994 thinking his final book Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military had failed to change U.S. military policy. (My Dennis had been a colleague and friend of Randy Shilts' former partner. I'm sorry I didn't get Randy Shilts to inscribe my copies of his several books.)

There's a general misconception about mistakes made by President Clinton at the beginning of his administration. Consenus seems to be that he blundered in choosing to deal with this policy change in the first two weeks of his Presidency. (I heard Walter Cronkite make this same assertion during a Q&A after lunch at the Summer Encampment, when I was part of the entertainment. I didn't have the nerve to contradict him, particularly at a camp with a lot of retired military officers.) The Right is very adroit at manipulating issues. They contend first that President Clinton raised the issue right away, and second, that he did so as a complete surprise to the country. Well, the fact is, candidate Clinton had mentioned during the campaign his plan to change the policy; but he had intended to wait at least six months. The only reason Clinton had to deal with it at the beginning, is that the Right Wing knew about his plan and tried to prevent its implementation. They brought it up... and were successful in blocking it. But after sixteen years, a number of opponents of Gays in the military have evolved in their thinking. Below is an Op-Ed piece from today's New York Times.

February 9, 2009
Op-Ed Contributor

An About-Face on Gay Troops

GENERALS are scolded for preparing to fight “the last war,” but if President Obama intends to keep his promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military, he would do well to study President Bill Clinton’s attempt of 16 years ago.

The Clinton argument, based largely on protecting the civil rights of gay troops, was systematically dissected by senior officers and legislators, who focused on how the presence of homosexuals could affect combat readiness. Generals circulated videos made by conservative groups depicting “gay agendas.” Senators brought television crews into cramped berthings. Congress reached a bizarre compromise: a law rendering homosexuality incompatible with military service, but allowing gays to serve under a closet-friendly “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The lesson for President Obama is that this fight is not about rights, but about combat readiness. This is a propitious moment for seeking change: a nation at war needs all its most talented troops. Last year the principal architects of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” former Gen. Colin Powell and former Senator Sam Nunn, said it was time to “review” the policy.

That’s a polite way of saying they’ve changed their minds. So have many of us who wore the uniform in 1993 and supported a policy that forced some of our fellow troops to live a lie and rejected thousands who told the truth.

There are other aspects of history that may be helpful as well. The armed forces initially resisted President Harry Truman’s 1948 order to integrate the ranks. But the Korean War forced trials by fire — in fact, the units with the highest casualty rates in Korea integrated the swiftest — and the Pentagon ultimately acknowledged that recruiting from across America’s socio-economic spectrum produced the best force. After that, the military swiftly set the standard for race relations.

Servicemen continue to be fierce believers in the idea that diversity equals strength, yet during the Clinton effort on gay troops most of us rejected analogies to racial integration. The homosexual threat to good order and discipline was behavioral, we argued, not physiological, and therefore unrelated.

It was a flawed argument. The underlying fears were the same as with integration: homosexuals jeopardized unit cohesion not because of their own conduct — after all, military law and command discretion encompass behavioral breaches — but because of the perceived reaction of those xenophobic troops who didn’t want to cohabitate with people different from themselves. Today, this sounds like one of the “worn-out dogmas” President Obama identified in his inaugural speech. And it does a disservice to the ranks.

Maintaining “don’t ask, don’t tell” ignores a vast social shift since 1993. Only 26 percent of Americans supported Truman’s order, so it was little wonder that desegregation stalled. When President Clinton announced his initiative, 44 percent of Americans were in favor of homosexuals serving openly, which perhaps explains the split decision of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

But today nearly 80 percent of Americans feel that way. As our troops tend to reflect the values of our society, lifting the homosexual ban will be easier now.

In addition, six years of war have clarified priorities. The battlefield has its own values, starting with courage. Sexual orientation falls somewhere below musical taste. What a person chooses to do back stateside, off-duty, in his own apartment is irrelevant in a fight. For months I lived with 12 other American advisers on an Iraqi outpost. There was a single pipe shower next to a hole that masqueraded as a sewer. But the reality of combat dominated personality quirks — nobody wondered about sexual orientation.

Most military jobs are office-based and provide sufficient individual privacy. Even in Iraq many of our fighting forces are comfortably housed with compartmentalized showers.

A 2006 poll of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans showed that 72 percent were personally comfortable interacting with gays. Bonnie Moradi, a University of Florida psychologist, and Laura Miller, a sociologist at the Rand Corporation, summarized the study this way: “The data indicated no associations between knowing a lesbian or gay unit member and ratings of perceived unit cohesion or readiness. Instead, findings pointed to the importance of leadership and instrumental quality in shaping perceptions of unit cohesion and readiness.”

The other readiness argument concerns recruiting. To fill its swelling ranks, the military now grants one in five recruits waivers for disqualifications that run the gamut from attention-deficit disorder to obesity to armed robbery convictions. In a press conference last fall, Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, the head of Army recruiting, said the relevant question in considering such applicants was, “Does that person deserve an opportunity to serve their country?” That’s exactly right. And to choose a felon over a combat-proven veteran on the basis of sexuality is defeatist. Ask any squad leader.

In the end, however, there is one factor that outweighs public opinion, troop morale and recruiting combined. The military is a dictatorship, not a republic. It is built to win in combat. Its strict codes of conduct ensure good order and discipline.

If “don’t ask, don’t tell” is rescinded, military leaders will ensure smooth compliance, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has said. Cohesion depends on leadership. Our troops will follow the lead of our combat-tested professionals who base their opinions on what a soldier brings to the fight, and little else.

Owen West, a commodities trader, served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.

Sunday, February 8, 2009



Saturday night I went to the first half of the San Francisco Symphony concert featuring Piotr Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto in G major, Opus 44. I emphasize Piotr, because the week before I had gone to the ballet and heard music by a Boris Tchaikovsky. [Boris Tchaikovsky (1925–1996), part of the generation of Russian composers who followed Dmitry Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturyan, rose to prominence during World War II and the post-war years. He received the USSR State Prize in 1969 for his Second Symphony and was named a People’s Artist of the USSR in 1985. Tchaikovsky studied with Shostakovich, whose influence pervades the 1953 sinfonietta, composed at the end of what is considered Tchaikovsky’s first compositional period. According to the choregrapher Possokhov, he is now considered one of the greatest Russian composers. Courtesy of SF Ballet program notes] Anyway, on Saturday I heard the more famous 19th Century composer.

The program notes started by stating that nine out of ten people at the concert were probably hearing this piano concerto for the first time. I had thought I would be in the enlightened ten percent. I was wrong. This piano concerto was completely new to me. On initial hearing, the first movement seemed a little bombastic. Stephen Hough, the pianist, however, was absolutely stunning: dramatic, powerful and fully in control of his brilliant technique. (I was so impressed, I bought his CD of the Chopin Ballades-- some of my favorite piano music.)

The second movement was very beautiful. It featured a solo violin, then solo 'cello and for a time seemed to be a triple concerto with the interplay of piano, violin and 'cello. The shorter final movement was an effective ending. I'll need to listen to to this concerto several more times in order to appreciate it fully. Like many people, I seem to enjoy listening to music with which I am already familiar.

That seemed to be the case of the gentleman sitting directly behind me. He evidently knew the score very well... because he sighed and commented softly to himself in anticipation of favorite sections. I was beginning to get annoyed with his constant comments. At the end he stood and cheered at the top of his lungs.

The gentleman next to me was a character too. He had been sitting in the row in front of me until the woman holding the ticket for that seat appeared and forced him to move. So he came and sat by me. I knew that this was not his seat because it was one of my subscription seats. A friend had backed out at the last moment, and I had been invited to two parties; so I decided to go by myself, so as not to be embarrassed by leaving at intermission. My seats really are excellent, particularly for solo piano because it provides an unobstructed view of the keyboard and the pianist's hands. So I didn't mind sharing my empty seat.

I titled this post Russian Hill because that suggests a San Francisco connection. I had just finished Steve Berry's second novel, The Romanov Prophecy, which features a dramatic section in San Francisco...and the clue to go there had been 'Russian Hill.' I've read all but two of Steve Berry's mysteries. I think he's written seven so far, and the first was published only in 2003. He's a marvelous writer and has an extraordinary way of incorporating genuine and fanciful historical details! I highly recommend him!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Dinner on Stage ~ Prague State Opera House

The high point of the concert tour with Chanticleer last year was the dinner on stage following a marvelous concert at the State Opera House in Prague, Czech Republic.

The State Opera House has a textbook German-Greek-Revival exterior, but a fanciful Rococo interior. It was built the latter part of the 19th Century. It was used as the setting of the major opera house in the movie Amadeus, most of which was filmed in Prague because many parts of the city are reminiscent of 18th Century Vienna.

After Chanticleer put on a superb concert, we were invited to a lovely reception in an elaborately decorated salon above the main entrance. I kept wondering where the Chanticleer guys were, because there was so much food and champagne. I was sorry they were missing it.

Our Austrian tour manager had told us we could leave our coats on the bus since dinner was close by. But first he wanted us to go back into the main theatre for a short talk on its history. As we entered we heard a harpist from behind the shut curtain, which then was raised to show all the members of Chanticleer standing around several beautifully set tables on the stage. We joined them. Then the waiters from the reception entered in a grand procession. They surrounded one table at a time, and on a signal, simultaneously placed each course on the table or took the empty plates away. Altogether, it was a marvelous dinner at the end of an extraordinary day!

Images:iPhone photos by Rob Bell

RICH & FAMOUS ~ American Conservatory Theater

Last night Russell H, a friend from work, and I went to ACT's current production Rich and Famous. Below is a blurb from their website.

Playwright Bing Ringling yearns to savor the sweet taste of celebrity, and he's hoping play number 844 will be his lucky break. But on opening night, Bing slips into a nightmarish phantasmagoria that shows him just how wrong things can go. From the ingenious mind of John Guare, who brought Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves to the American stage, Rich and Famous springs to life with twisted humor, rapid-fire dialogue, and outrageous songs scribed by Guare himself.

John Rando (A.C.T.'s Urinetown, The Musical and Broadway's The Wedding Singer ) directs this newly revised, delicious dark comedy in its first major revival since its 1976 New York debut. Brooks Ashmanskas, who was nominated for a 2007 Tony Award for Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me and has appeared in The Producers andGypsy, takes on the role of Bing, starring alongside Mary Birdsong (Reno 911! on Comedy Central, Hairspray on Broadway), Stephen DeRosa (Hairspray and Into the Woods on Broadway), and A.C.T. core acting company member Gregory Wallace ('Tis Pity She's a Whore  and The Government Inspector).

My friend Adam, who saw it a few weeks ago, had expressed mixed feelings about the play. I now understand why, and why he chose not to see it again. First I hadn't realized it was a musical-- if a low budget one, at that-- and not a particularly good one. Parts of the play are funny, but a lot is really strange, if not weird. The production was up to ACT standards. I just have some reservations about the play itself.

On the other hand, the four actors playing multiple roles did an outstanding job. And there were several elements to which I could relate: the frustrated playwright with an obscure subject (one of my heroines is the divorced wife of George I as Elector of Hanover) and then the entire issue of staged suicide. Oh well, I guess it gives me something to talk about to my new therapist.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Just one year ago, I was with Chanticleer on a concert tour of Central Europe. They gave a marvelous concert at the Musikverein in Vienna. That's the hall where PBS shows the annual New Year's Eve Concert.

Prevention ~ Cigar Night ~TED & IRENE

Yesterday afternoon I had a four-hour Suicide Prevention Training at work. They give it to supervisors largely because the overwhelming majority of people at our agency wear uniforms and carry weapons. Statistically, most suicide attempts with guns are fatal. Of course, I work in the Trade side and don't have a weapon, but the training was still required. On the whole it was useful. And our agency has a decent Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I've considered using it myself at times. Instead, I've gone to resources at Kaiser, and am now contemplating going to a private therapist. I'm still such a heart-sick, hopeless & foolish Romantic!

After work I stopped by my club and expected to find it relatively empty on a Wednesday afternoon. I had forgotten that it was the annual black tie Cigar Night. I talked with a couple friends before it began, and before heading off to a birthday party. How Dennis used to love those Cigar Nights. The real reason for going is the food. It's one of the best dinners of the year! But then there is all that cigar smoke, and I seem to have lost my tolerance for it. Curiously, a decade ago-- for my 50th birthday-- I hosted a black tie cigar dinner at home for ten guys. Again, I just liked the ambiance of the entire event... and overlooked the smoke.

From the club, I went to Irene's condo on Geary Boulevard near JapanTown for a birthday party. Irene was in my grieving research/support group two and a half years ago. She had lost her long time husband Ted. A year or so later I hosted hors d'oeuvres at my flat for the six of us in the group and the assistant moderator before going to dinner at one of the fine new restaurants in my neighborhood. At my event Irene became better acquainted with one of the other participants, whose name also happens to be Ted. (He had lost his wife Edie.) Since then Ted2 and Irene have become good companions. They credit me with getting them together. I took the iPhone photo at Sunday brunch in December at Delancey Street on the Embarcadero.

The party last night was for Irene's friend Annie who had turned 86 the day before. She's still quite active and very stylish. She lives next door to Robin Williams' soon-to-be-ex-wife in Sea Cliff. (She's getting the house). Both Irene and Ted had their dogs who were relatively well behaved. Mimi-- a predominantly white papillon --is darling. And Ted's Elizabeth is a black and white bassett/spaniel mix -- a real sweetheart. I had thought of taking Rose and Rupert, but my training was supposed to go longer than my usual stop time, so I decided to leave them at home in the good care of my neighbors Ben and Susan. The other guest Margaret, a landscape architect, gave me a ride home after dinner before R & R had returned from next door. They, of course, had enjoyed themselves immensely!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Great Composers, Lousy Reviews (Borrowed Post from Slate Magazine)

(Occasionally I come across somebody else's blog post that is so interesting I have to share it.)

By Jan Swafford Posted Tuesday, Feb.3, 2009 on SLATE

In the history of music, the glorious and benevolent Kaiser Joseph II is known for one transcendently stupid line. After the Vienna premiere of the comic opera The Abduction From the Seraglio, Joseph observed to its composer: "Too many notes, my dear Mozart!" With that, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire became an enduring symbol of philistine reaction to genius. Mozart's comeback was not as snappy: "Only as many notes as necessary, Your Majesty." In the coming years, he would hear more of the same from the press: "impenetrable labyrinths," "bizarre flights of the soul," "overloaded and overstuffed." The guy has too much imagination, connoisseurs agreed; he doesn't know when to turn it off. In other words: too many notes.

Toward the end of the 18th century, young Beethoven read in the paper that his first published violin and piano pieces were "[s]trange sonatas, overladen with difficulties. … Herr Beethoven goes at his own gait; but what a bizarre and singular gait it is! Learned, learned and always learned and nothing natural, no song." Beethoven would have read those words with blood boiling. It was fortunate that he did not inhabit the later 19th century, when the art of incendiary reviews reached its golden age.

Those mal mots were gathered by conductor, theorist, and scholar Nicholas Slonimsky in his classic Lexicon of Musical Invective. First published in 1953, the book is still in print. The author himself had caught his share of slings and arrows as a young conductor who was determined to promote what the time called "ultra-modern" music. Now Slonimsky is remembered for premiering important pieces by Edgard Varese and Charles Ives, among others. After too many strange chords scuttled his conducting career, Slonimsky spent decades as a freelance writer, scholar, and theorist. His book on scale forms inspired a generation of jazz musicians, including John Coltrane. In his 90s, he was squired by Frank Zappa. But Slonimsky's most enduring achievement is the Lexicon, his encyclopedia of umbrage.

Critics got into full cry in the middle of the 19th century, with the advent of Richard Wagner. No composer before or since has inspired so many fanatics, pro and con. People wrote whole books vilifying him. We can give only a short abstract of one example, the rabid fury of one J.L. Klein in his 1871 History of the Drama. His parade of epithets—racist, classist, sexist, species-ist, satanic, and medical—is symptomatic of the time's wordsmiths when they really, really didn't like your stuff:

This din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter with wood sticks and ear-cutting scalping knives … [t]his reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury in the orchestra, this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music … the darling of feeble-minded royalty, …of the court flunkeys covered with reptilian slime, and of the blasé hysterical female court parasites … inflated, in an insanely destructive self-aggrandizement, by Mephistopheles' mephitic and most venomous hellish miasma, into Beelzebub's Court Composer and General Director of Hell's Music—Wagner!

These days, people tend to feel that Wagner's contemporary Chopin wrote nice tunes, but that was not the opinion of one Berlin critic: "In search of ear-rending dissonances, torturous transitions, sharp modulations, repugnant contortions of melody and rhythm, Chopin is altogether indefatigable." It's a marvel that Tchaikovsky, given his general self-loathing and neurasthenia, survived the animus that came his way. The most noxious page came from celebrated Wagner-bashing critic Eduard Hanslick, who climaxed one top-to-bottom mauling with, "We see plainly the savage vulgar faces, we hear curses, we smell vodka. … Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto gives us for the first time the hideous notion that there can be music that stinks to the ear." Tchaikovsky could recite that review word for word.

Well, everybody liked Brahms, right? In Boston they didn't. In 1885, the Evening Transcript reported, "It must be admitted that to the larger part of our public, Brahms is still an incomprehensible terror." Another critic suggested that egresses in the new Boston Symphony Hall should be labeled "Exit In Case of Brahms." By 1905, Boston seemed to be resigned to him, maybe because now they had Debussy to kick around: "Poor Debussy, sandwiched in between Brahms and Beethoven, seemed weaker than usual. We cannot feel that all this extreme ecstasy is natural; it seems forced and hysterical; it is musical absinthe."

Wagner survived his critics because 1) he actually was the towering genius he believed himself to be, and 2) he was a tougher and meaner son of a bitch than any of his enemies. With the coming of Wagner disciple Richard Strauss, the nausea of critics reached an almost ecstatic climax, after which, with the arrival of Modernism, the profession gradually lost its edge. I mean, what composer today could boast of anything like this: "Strauss has hitherto reveled in the more or less harmonious exploitation of the charnel house, the grave, and the gnawing worm." As for his opera after Oscar Wilde, "There is not a whiff of fresh and healthy air blowing through Salome except that which exhales from the cistern. … The orchestra shrieked its final horror and left the listeners staring at each other with smarting eyeballs and wrecked nerves."

If Slonimsky's book is any indication, by the time Schoenberg and Stravinsky and their compatriots got Modernism into high gear, the critical profession was beating a weary retreat to sniping distance. The art of invective entered a sad decline. Of Stravinsky's most shattering work: "He who could write the Rite of Spring,/ If I be right, by right should swing!" He means Stravinsky should be hanged, but never mind. Hardly anybody could do better than that, though regarding Schoenberg there were moments of the old ferocity: "Schoenberg is the cruelest of all composers, for he mingles with his music sharp daggers at white heat, with which he pares away tiny slices of his victim's flesh. Anon he twists the knife in the fresh wound." Even Gershwin managed to get a rise once in a while: "An American in Paris is nauseous claptrap, so dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane, that the average movie audience would be bored by it."

True, in their early years Schoenberg and Stravinsky inspired the bloodiest riots ever seen in the concert hall. But I think as the 20th century went on, critics' hearts weren't really in the grand abuse anymore. I also have a hunch that after Slonimsky published The Lexicon of Musical Invective, critics acquired a collective anxiety about appearing in the next edition. You don't want, like Joseph II re: Mozart, to be in print as a philistine for the ages.

In the prelude to his Lexicon, Slonimsky arranges his kitchen full of pans into themes: gastrointestinal, animal, anti-Semitic, and so on. And he proposes a general theory of acceptance of the unfamiliar: "It takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty to elevate it to a masterpiece."

Therein lies a fundamental shortcoming of the Lexicon. Reading it, one absorbs an impression that actually isn't the case: that great composers get only bad reviews and are appreciated only after they're dead. Stepping back from the melee, one discovers that while some splendid composers do take decades to sink in (and Schoenberg never entirely has), more often the true revolutionists of the past were hailed for their imagination, and their most radical pieces were quick to find an audience. Everybody knows about the pandemonium The Rite of Spring provoked at its Paris premiere. Few notice that the screaming had as much to do with Nijinsky's choreography as the music, and that after a concert performance of the Rite a year later, Stravinsky was carried through the streets of Paris on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. An earlier epochal work, Beethoven's Eroica symphony of 1803, was greeted by a chorus of incomprehension. But only two years after its premiere, the leading German musical journal declared Eroica "one of the most original, most sublime, and most profound products the entire genre of music has exhibited." Meanwhile, Slonimsky's Lexicon encouraged composers in their delusion that scabrous reviews are a badge of honor, that if you aren't denounced you aren't any good. When all is said and done, I'd wager that through history the majority of lousy reviews have been bestowed on lousy pieces, but nobody collects the notices of forgotten composers.

Still, Emperor Joseph was a dope, right? Not at all. Joseph was a capable amateur pianist and intimately knowledgeable about music. What he said to Mozart was what everybody said: too effusive, too many notes. The thing is, they were not entirely wrong. Mozart's operas are full of stunning throwaways. There's a heart-stopping orchestral eruption in the middle of The Marriage of Figaro that is evoked by nothing but a woman's name, Marcellina; in the story, there's no reason for anything nearly that glorious. It drove other composers of the time crazy that Mozart could toss off bits that were more beautiful than anything they ever wrote. (It was the arrival of Beethoven that made Mozart's notes seem frugal by comparison.)

On the whole, Mozart's critics viewed him about the same way we do, as an incomparable genius, though not an infallible one. One critic lambasted Don Giovanni for a story that "insults morality, and treads wickedly upon virtue and feeling." But let's face it, the opera is on the amoral side. (It's just that these days, unlike the 18th century, we like amoral.) As for the music, the critic went on, "If ever a nation could take pride in one of her sons, so Germany must be proud of Mozart. … Never before was the greatness of the human spirit so tangible, and never has the art of composition been raised to such heights!" Even some of Mozart's bad reviews called him the greatest composer who ever lived.

Really, this is a lament for a lost era. The great lousy reviews arose because critics and audiences truly cared about music and its future. Critics were sometimes reactionary, boneheaded, and cockamamie, but music mattered to them. If we no longer enjoy the uproars and the withering screeds of yesteryear, it's mainly because people no longer care passionately enough about what they hear in the concert hall to want to murder somebody over it.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

REVERBERATIONS: A Gay Lament ~continued

I moved to San Francisco a few months after my Groundhog's Day party in 1973. My poem
REVERBERATIONS: A Gay Lament (continued below) gave a partial explanation for the move.
(I think it was pretty good for a twenty-three year old.
I was such a foolish Romantic then... and still am!)
I've returned to the same dark place several times in my life,
but so far have managed to pass through it.

* * * * *

I'm in the net again.

Old behavioral patterns reemerge from buried depths

like hollow airtight buoys vainly shoved beneath:


fills a world 

devoid of cosmic purpose…

fits a life 

estranged from common bonds;


inflates my masochistic ego…

conflagrates my mental sores.

* * * * *

But why encourage death's dark forest

when time's abyss shall gain the final victory

in its own time?

Despite feeble grumblings and desperate fears

the end is certain….yes.

Yet I deceive myself

in thinking I will have won

by choosing the time and circumstances of my end.

Not victory……………………….capitulation.

And although oblivion might seem preferable

to the pain,

why not experience what is?

--whatever it may be--

the pain at least is memorable.

* * * * *


--- that vital substance of our being ---

present particles of time streaming


from one to next---

We spend our days and minutes...

our lives

reflecting constant past…

projecting constant future…

The present never really is.

* * * * *

Recurring particles in my life

create a mood of disparate desperation.

Stifled friendships, muffled cries

expose futility in my projections…

….a life alone.

I can't accept it!

(But need I?)

I need fulfillment of my own…

(I must move…)

….understanding, companionship…

(…to western enclaves…)

…perhaps, even love, if it really be

(…to find, to save…)

So Farewell:

To one who never knew (…me)

to one I never knew

except as a perceptually-obsessive infatuation,


* * * * *

My melancholic muse grows weary:

Depart, fair phantom of my soul.

Must thou be exorcised with false lethargy?

Must I crawl back in my withdrawn tortoise shell

preventing my destruction

concomitant with thine?

Summon me a surrogate death -- mental euthanasia--

Obliterate the memory of one face.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Today was a beautiful, warm & sunny San Francisco Sunday. Temperatures reached the upper 60's. I spent a few hours in Dolores Park with dear Rose and Prince Rupert. The Prince, of course, played ball. He even managed to get several other people involved in his habit. His trick is to drop the ball in front of somebody sunbathing, wait patiently for several seconds, then start panting and tapping his paw... and eventually start to bark.  It always works. 

Afterwards, we walked up 18th Street for me to get some lunch. Then I took the guys to a pet store on Castro Street to look for a new muzzle for my vacuum cleaner Rose-- a genuine necessity after her surgery. I had bought one a few weeks ago, but it was a little too small... Rose refused to wear it. The new one is a larger size of the same brand and seems to do the job. The picture shows Rose with my next door neighbor Susan. Ben and Susan have three large dogs of their own, and they had just returned from the beach. Usually once a week -- particularly on Thursdays -- Susan and Ben let my guys outside, then take them over to their flat while I'm at Grace Cathedral and the Bohemian Club. Rose spends the entire time on Susan's lap.

I managed to get home in time to listen to Jennifer Hudson sing the National Anthem at the start of the Super Bowl.  She really put her heart into it. I believe it was her first public performance since her tragic losses a few months ago. I'll watch a bit of the game, but will leave before the end to join my friend Adam for an early dinner downtown.

Titian in the Frari (Venezia)