Saturday, March 28, 2015

More Shakespeare in Ashland

•Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing; Pericles.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seen March 11, 2015


The house is full of high school kids
With robust lungs and sweaty ids,
Enthralled and mystified, they hear
The sweet Bard's lines drown in canned beer,
While I, morose and jaded, think
That Ashland teeters on the brink
Or vulgarizing English lit—
But then, I'd
think that, silly twit…
Eastside Road, March 14, 2015—
SO I SCRAWLED on a scrap of paper while enjoying a glass of Champagne at supper after the first play of the day. Shakespeare's weird and inexplicable collisions of violence, injustice, broad humor, transcendent recognition — all of it boiling down to reality, acceptance of reality, mercy, and love — mean more and more to me as I grow older, and teach me ultimately to enjoy and indulge even these noisy kids, who fill the lobby with wobbly high heels and eager tweets before the play, then sit with quiet good behavior and occasional misplaced laughter — at suddenly recognized meaning — as the performance threads its way through another determined director's attempt to render the Bard "relevant" to our time.

Much Ado about Nothing, yet another play about a pair of young lovers thwarted by an unjust dictate, and again presenting the Elizabethan range of classes from nobility to clodhopper, was directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz in the capacious Bowmer Theater, where we sat dead center. The biggest problem with the production, to me, was the decision to cast the role of Don John — the villainous illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon; not at all the womanizing Don Juan you may have been thinking of — on a female actor, Regan Linton. (A 2013 graduate of the UC San Diego Acting Program, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal injury, she makes her OSF debut in this role; I wouldn't be surprised to see her cast as Richard III in a few seasons.)

In fact, Linton is the first character to appear on stage in this production, mute, motionless, and veiled in a dumb-show before the action begins. Blain-Cruz clearly wants the irrational, even violent malevolence of her character to carry equal weight with the wit of the Beatrice-Benedick pair (Christiana Clark and Danforth Comins, both very good) and the broad comedy of Dogberry (Rex Young) and his lunatic crew of watchmen — but the distractions of the wheelchair, and hearing a woman continually addressed as "My lord," weakened that element.

Otherwise, casting worked out well. There was much play of tall and short: Clark is even taller than Comins, and both tower over the romantic couple, Carlo Albàn as Claudio and Leah Anderson as Hero. Jack Willis seemed to me a very sympathetic Leonato, even when gulled by Don John into rejecting his wrongly accused daughter, and minor parts — never really minor in Shakespeare — were well fleshed out.

Harold Bloom calls Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare's most nihilistic play, reducing love to a game of naughts; but he correctly finds its center on Beatrice's surprising request for proof of Benedick's newly confessed love for her: "Kill Claudio." This comes at the center of the play, which opened with her asking, banteringly, how many of the enemy Benedick had killed in a battle which precedes the play's action. And the play ends with a feigned death, recalling Romeo and Juliet and looking forward to The Winter's Tale. Everything about this play is artificial, symmetrical, contrived; only, as Bloom points out, the language of Beatrice and Benedick rises above contrivance and approaches poetry. (Even in prose, of which there's a fair amount.)

I'm not sure this production trusts that language to carry the play. Scott Bradley's scenic design is striking, and contributes to a surprising coup de théâtre; many of Kara Harmon's costumes add visual interest to their workmanlike efficacy. I've seen worse Shakespeare here in recent seasons.
A VERY DIFFERENT AFFAIR kept us alert in the evening, a rare production of Pericles. Not so much a play as a pageant, I suppose, it had a hard time making its way in the past couple of centuries; I hadn't seen it until two years ago, when the Pasadena company A Noise Within produced it successfully. (And they had done it once before, in 2001, before we began attending their productions.) At that time I wrote about the play generally, on this blog:
…It's one of the four late Romances, with The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline… These plays extend Shakespeare's oeuvre out of the Elizabethan renaissance toward the Baroque; I think they look forward to Corneille…

One objection to these late romances has been their unbelievability. They depend on sudden rages, incest, redemptions, coincidence, chance natural cataclysms. Pericles begins with a hero who discovers a father-daughter incestuous relationship, and who can believe that? Later, it shows a young virgin abducted and sold into sexual slavery, and who can believe that? Yet in recent years [such] stories have become commonplace. No matter how theatrical and arbitrary his plots — most of them stolen from sources much older, of course — Shakespeare seems unable to escape contemporary relevance.

Asked, after the play, how she would sum it up, the director said that she thinks of it as a man's journey toward grace. In spite of every calamity, Pericles finds resolution. Wife and daughter, each long thought dead, are returned to him. Perseverance is rewarded.
It is generally assumed that Shakespeare did not write the first two acts, which were likely provided by George Wilkins, a lowlife hack (according to Bloom) who was probably a hanger-on at the King's Men, Shakespeare's theater company. In them the young prince Pericles, prince of Tyre, leaves home on a projected voyage-of-entering-manhood; answers a Turandot-like riddle to disclose the king of Antioch's incestuous relationship with his own daughter and escapes with his life; then travels on to the coast of famine-struck Tharus, for no apparent reason but to demonstrate his empathy and largesse.

Next his ship is wrecked in a tremendous storm, and he emerges, looking like Caliban (who in fact he was, in a recent Ashland production of The Tempest ), soon to be welcomed in spite of his ruined clothes to the court of Pentapolis where the king, Simonides, has a beautiful but aloof daughter, Thaisa, a devotée of the goddess Diana, who nonetheless marries Pericles to end the second act.

Shakespeare's hand is immediately recognized in the three acts that follow. Thaisa conceives on her wedding night, but the child is born in the midst of another terrific storm at sea. Thaisa doesn't survive, and the superstitious crew insists she be buried at sea. Those passages are magnificent, recalling the power and exalted futility of the storm in King Lear but proceeding with much more concision.

The baby, Marina, survives, but is taken by pirates and sold into prostitution — a fate she evades through simply the persuasive powers of her innate goodness. Pericles is unaware of these eventualities; assuming Marina as irrevocably lost as Thaisa, he withdraws into a brooding dejection. Ultimately, however, everything comes round.

Pericles continues, I think, Shakespeare's mature expressions of reservations about both Christianity and Judaism. There's something in late Shakespeare that wants to transcend established monotheism: he likes "the quality of mercy," but in the late romances attributes it to a generalized force, personalized in this play by the goddess Diana, but in fact not really a personal quantity at all: an abstraction.

Because we see Shakespeare's plays one at a time we tend to think of them as all coming from a single source. But because so many devices reappear from play to play, especially in these late Romances, it seems to me they are all different stages of a single thing, and that that thing is a thing in flux. Shakespeare is the author of the thirty-seven plays, of course (or 39, or 40) ; but he is also the transition from Ben Jonson to, say, Corneille. In Pericles more than any other late Romance it seems to me he's looking backward to the Elizabethan drama, asking himself if it's possible to retrieve its more eventful, less psychological human drama. Perhaps the box office had asked him to make a last stab at that; perhaps the actors had.

I think he succeeded in that look back, but was content to get on with Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, ultimately to retire, like Prospero, and take up the long big final retrospection.

There were a few little glitches in this production, I think — notably casting the villainous queen Dionyza and the virtuous Thaisa on the same actor, the very good Brooke Parks whose striking face made it hard for me to decide which of these women she truly was. Probably my weakness; no one else's. As I say, she was very good; so was Jennie Greenberry as Marina and (more successfully differentiated) Antiochus's daughter; and so too was Michael J. Hume as Helicanus and, strikingly, in travesty, Bawd, the wife of the owner of the third-act brothel.

Others were evenly successful in the other roles. Best of all, Wayne T. Carr was completely admirable in the title role, growing, aging, developing over the sixteen to twenty years of the play's span, winningly young and energetic and optimistic at first, harrowed and injured at the center, abject and despondent toward the end, to return, through a literal deus ex machina (okay, dea ), to a transcendently ennobled state. There was a majesty to his performance, and it lifted the entire cast and production to a very high level.

Bruckner

Eastside Road, March 27, 2015—
•Anton Bruckner : Symphony No. 8 in c minor
James Feddeck, The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
Heard March 26 in Davies Hall, San Francisco
LET ME BE DIRECT : these have been difficult days, because a dear friend is dying, a man who means a great deal to me, for whom I have the greatest respect — I won't go into this further ; the time to write about him hasn't yet arrived.

He has been among a great many other things a performer on the French horn and Wagner tuba, and shares with me an enthusiasm for the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. In fact in his very poignant decline he has managed to keep track of the fact that we had bought, a few weeks ago, tickets to the San Francisco Symphony in order to hear the Bruckner 8th, a particular favorite of his. We discussed this several times on the telephone these last few days. Yesterday was the first day we did not speak on the phone, and was the day we heard the performance. He was in my mind at virtually every moment of the performance.

After the performance we stopped in at a couple of favorite places to refresh ourselves, and I looked at my iPhone. There on Facebook was a comment or two from an acquaintance who had heard the same performance:
What I always find so curious about Bruckner's symphonies is how sophisticated the orchestrations are, and how he uses the forces of the orchestra in novel ways, compared to everything else that was being composed at that time. Where did he get those ideas, considering his very humble and unsophisticated and not-worldly life. Very surprising music from someone with that biography.
In fact, I think it's precisely someone from his background who would envision the utterly new kind of music. (I'll retrench on that remark in just a moment.) Nearly everyone who writes about Bruckner — and a lot has been written ; there are so many things to discuss — nearly every commenter has been a city fellow with a good working knowledge of Western European music history, Haydn through, oh, Stravinsky let's say. Bruckner had quite different roots.

He was a villager, the son of a village schoolmaster, a boy and then a man who was tuned to simple, almost rural life, whose music was primarily church organs and part-songs, who studied serious music relatively late in his life, not writing his first symphony until he was forty years old. He was a man used to walking twenty miles in a day, not for pleasure but to get from one place to another. What he heard, in general, was birdsong and the Mass; and what he saw and felt was large flat expanses in his native Upper Austria.

I've always found Bruckner's symphonies in a very special area of the geography of The Symphony. Haydn's symphonies begin at the countryside court of Esterhazy, mannered, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, yet somewhat isolated. (They end, of course, in Paris and London.) Mozart's begin in Salzburg, a provincial capital, and end in Vienna and Prague, immensely metropolitan. Beethoven's begin, like Haydn's, in a sophisticated backwater (Bonn), but quickly move into a noisy studio in Vienna.

Schubert's begin in a teen-ager's joy in the Viennese streets and ballrooms, but in the early 1820s he caught sight of something beyond, and began to explore it — whatever it was — in piano sonatas and chamber works of much greater scope and dimension than he'd worked with until then. The "Unfinished" and the great C major symphony were the symphonic results of this vision, which brought the symphony beyond its earlier position — a sort of instrumental-music analogy of a novel or a play — to become abstract and geographical, a man-made equivalent of a subcontinent.

There is, I think, a direct line from the expansive Schubert to Bruckner, whose symphonies do not worry at developing arguments out of thematic fragments, as Beethoven had done, but instead announce the existence of huge tracts, celebrating their cordilleras and plains; and beyond Bruckner it is Sibelius who continues that line, removing human desire and personality altogether from the musical discussion, God too, to leave only aural phenomena. Beyond Sibelius I think there is only Cage and Feldman.

Thursday's performance was good. The announced conductor, Semyon Bychkov, withdrew with a couple of weeks' notice, recovering from surgery; his place was taken by James Feddeck, assistant conductor of he Cleveland Orchestra until 2013, when he seems to have launched an international career with a number of orchestras in this country and Europe. He had the Eighth well in hand, leading the orchestra and the audience through the huge architecture with big, sweeping gestures, glancing at the score from time to time but communicating fully with his musicians.

The performance was of the 1890 edition by Leopold Nowak. The only surprises came with the great third-movement Adagio: about two-thirds the way through, in a fairly calm passage, a high string on the second harp broke with a crack. (The score calls for three harps, always playing in unison as I recall; this performance had two.) Then, just as the last chord faded out of the four Wagner tubas, someone's cell phone went off, playing a ditty in the same key, apparently — D flat — quietly, to our ears in the first tier, in a glockenspiel-like timbre: fortunately it was quickly hushed.

(One other note: the score indicates that the famous cymbal crashes in this Adagio are to be played dry, as eighth-notes followed by rests; in this performance as in every other I've heard, live or recorded, the sound was allowed to ring.)

And a final note: the program booklet reprinted a particularly fine note by the late Michael Steinberg, who is particularly good with Bruckner, I think. Just look at the magnificent second sentence in this paragraph describing the composer — a sentence worthy of its subject :
Bruckner himself, a country man transplanted uneasily to the big city in his mid-forties, seemed as out of place as his music. To be sure, he had traveled as an organist, and with stupendous and consistent success; but with his peasant speech, his social clumsiness, those trousers that (it was said) looked as though a carpenter had built them, his disastrous inclination to fall in love with girls of sixteen, his distracting compulsions, his piety (he knelt to pray in the middle of a counterpoint class when he heard the angelus sound from the church next door), a Neanderthal male chauvinism that even his contemporaries found remarkable, and his unawareness of intellectual or political currents of his or any other day, Bruckner was not a likely candidate for success in the sort of compost heap of gossip and intrigue that was Vienna, nor indeed anywhere in a world where a composer's success in mak-ing a living and getting performances depends on so much more than skill at inventing music. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Venice and the idea of permanence

•Charles Shere : Venice : and the idea of permanence.
Healdsburg : Ear Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-990-75889-1
pp. 176  illus.  $16.95
Available : lulu.com, http://tinyurl.com/kzcmj8j

VeniceCover.png
Eastside Road, March 19, 2015—
AS ALL THE WORLD must know by now, I hope, I have written a few books in my life, spurred at various times by small publishers (Fallen Leaf Press, Center for the Book) or, more insidiously, by some small hope of proving myself to my parents and grandparents, who had perhaps an exaggerated opinion of the value of books.

Of course that was a different time. Books were still regarded — I'm perfectly serious here — as having an aura of mysterious authority. Naturally it was known there were cheap or vulgar or even downright mendacious books, but even they contributed to the generally awed attitude toward books, for they were commercialized sinful things. Most books were honorable, appearing regularly in the mail from The Literary Guild or The Book-Of-The-Month Club, with covering pamphlets conveying an Authority's seriously considered and carefully expressed appreciation of the work.

As late as the early years of my own adulthood, in the late 1950s, The Reader's Subscription continued this tradition, bringing Finnegans Wake and Proust and such to our seventy-five-dollars-a-month duplex apartment. And much more recently, and to this day, the Library of America provides me with a two-volume Gertrude Stein, a convenient Wallace Stevens, the novels of Willa Cather and Henry James and Herman Melville.

My own contribution is not worth mentioning in this context, but if you think that's going to stop me, you're wrong. My publication history begins in 1995, after my retirement from journalism, when Berkeley's Fallen Leaf Press brought out Thinking Sound Music, my biography of the composer Robert Erickson, who had been my teacher years before. The next year the same house produced Everbest Ever, a slim jeu d'esprit containing correspondence between the composer Virgil Thomson and four Bay Area friends of his, mostly concerning mundane details of daily life and mutual visits.

I liked working with Fallen Leaf, whose products were nicely designed while indulging some of my own suggestions, and whose publisher, Ann Basart, was indulgent in the extreme of my eccentricities of prose style. In fact you could say she spoiled me: and this, together with intrinsic laziness, is why with one exception all my other titles have been self-published. (Regrettably, Fallen Leaf Press went out of business ten years ago or so, but those two books live on at Rowman & Littlefield.)

The most recent to appear is the one depicted here, Venice: and the idea of permanence, printed, like nine previous titles, at the online publishing company Lulu.com. For reasons some of which will be obvious, I think online self-publishing can transcend the conventional classification of "vanity press." I think it is, rather, an instance of a new corner of the capitalist economy, one merging artisanship, small business, niche market, and global technology, and facilitating an individual producer's seeing his work through the various steps of creation, production, and even distribution according to his own taste and values.

For example : I like a little space before a full colon, as you have just seen. I even like it before semi-colons. And I like a double space, or a space and a half, after full stops. I just think a printed page is more easily read with such spaces : and designing my own book makes it possible for me to insist on this practice, which, I think, no commercial publisher would countenance.

But that's only one reason for my self-publishing habit. Years writing for a newspaper — and in those days that meant writing thousands of words a week — formed the habit of considering experience through a linkage of fingertips and the mind and memory. I enjoy so many aspects of daily life — admittedly not shrinking from enhancing daily life with good food and drink, with travel, with reading, conversation, and the contemplation of art — but I enjoy them more fully when I consider them.

Early in the Internet Age, when e-mail became generally available, I began to share these considerations and contemplations with a few friends who seemed to enjoy reading them. By the time of our first month-long stay in Venice, in the summer of 2001, the list had grown to over a hundred, and hotel Internet providers had begun to suspect me, limiting the number I could send these "travel dispatches" to. But many of my readers, though they could deal with e-mail for some reason, resisted subscribing to a blog : and anyhow the blog itself had begun to develop associations with vanity. (Since then, of course, it has attained a more honorable state.)

Enter Lulu.com and the idea of online publishing. The present subject, Venice : and the idea of permanence records impressions gathered during two month-long stays in La Serenissima, in June 2001 and May 2011. I was curious to see how my thinking, my observation, and Venice herself may have changed in the lapse of those ten years, but I certainly wan't about to apply literary criticism to myself — why not just gather the original items in a single volume and let the reader, if one should happen to appear, come to his own conclusions?

So here it is. The cover's in color, as you see, but the interior photos are in black and white. There have been three previous similar gatherings, Roman Letters, Mostly Spain, and Improvised Itineraries, the last of which covers walking in the Low Countries and driving across France. (Another, Walking the French Alps, records a month-long hike from Lake Geneva to Nice.

I prepare these books on my desktop Macintosh, laying out the pages (and, separately, the covers) using Apple's "Pages" word-processor, converting the results to .pdf files, and uploading them to Lulu. They take over from there. I suppose each book takes me a month or so of work (apart from the writing), a few hours at a time — and, since I'm by nature careless, a number of trial printings. I set the price myself — let me know if you think it too high! — in order to make a very modest profit from the sale of each copy. If I like the result, and I generally do, its simple presence on my bookshelf is reward enough.

If something displeases me in the final result, I have only myself to blame.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Recently heard

•Charles Ives: The Unanswered Question.
•Darius Milhaud: La création du monde, op. 81.
•Jean Sibelius: Luonnotar, op. 70.
•Thomas Adès: In Seven Days.
     Thomas Adès, San Francisco Symphony; Dawn Upshaw, soprano; Kirill Gerstein, piano; Tal Rosner, video artist
     Heard March 6, 2015, in Davies Hall, San Francisco
Eastside Road, March 8, 2015—
ON PAPER, as the cliché goes, the concert program was very attractive, attractive enough to suggest a couple of hours driving to hear it. And in retrospect I'm glad we did: but in the event the evening could have profited from more expressive conducting. The conducting composer is one of the problems (by far not the biggest!) attending contemporary orchestral music. I can see why composers contribute to the problem: it's a living; undoubtedly a better one than composing. It's a sad fact that the creators of music are rarely rewarded as well as their interpreters. But a couple of recent experiences have led me to believe really fine conductors deserve their rewards; they bring something to the concert hall their part-time colleagues rarely seem able to supply.

The program in question was thematic: all four compositions address the concept spelled out in Milhaud's title, and suggested in Adès's: the creation of the world. That was an intriguing idea, particularly when expressed by two of my favorite pieces from the previous century and two more that I'm unfamiliar with. Ives;s The Unanswered Question is of course well known. It calls for a string ensemble, preferably unseen, which drones quietly away on slowly changing chords suggesting some kind of ethereal process. A solo trumpet plays a slow five-note call whose pitch contour and rhythm suggests
What - is the An-swer?
, repeating the call without variation a number of times; each time the call is answered by a quartet of flutes playing increasingly more discordant, strident responses. Ives had a program in mind: the strings represent "the silences of the Druids, who know, see, and hear nothing"; the trumpet repeats "the perennial question of existence"; the flutes are the "fighting answerers" who, as Jan Swafford writes in the useful book Charles Ives: a Life with Music,"for all their sound and fury, get nowhere." (The Ives quotes are from Swafford's book, where they are unattributed.)

In this performance the strings were backstage, conducted by Christian Baldini, and barely audible. The solo trumpet (uncredited in the program!) stood downstage center in the traditional soloist's position and played, commendably, from memory; Adès stood nearby to direct the flute ensemble, standing (good! not sitting!) upstage left. The performance was, I think, the most satisfying of the evening: Ives does nearly all the work with his score.

I would have thought La création du monde nearly as foolproof, but in spite of fine instrumental and ensemble playing this performance seemed dull. I don't think this is the necessary result of playing the piece in a big concert hall, though of course that doesn't help. Milhaud scored his haunting, poignant ballet score, commissioned by the Paris-based Ballets suédois, for an unusual combination: according to the useful article on Wikipedia, reduced winds including an alto saxophone, one French horn, two trumpets and one trombone, and four strings: two violins, a cello and a double-bass; with a large percussion section including tambourine, four drums, five timpani, piano, cymbal, anvil and wood block.

Milhaud's twenty-minute score is in six sections, with prominent solo roles for saxophone, clarinet, and double-bass. The music is heavily influenced by Milhaud's enthusiasm for the (mostly black) American jazz he'd heard in New York in 1920, and the instrumentation probably suggests the pick-up theater orchestras prevailing in that milieu and vaudeville. (Ives was similarly influenced; there's an interesting affinity between Ives and Milhaud, who both excel at integrating vernacular and "high-art" musical styles.)

While La création du monde is narrative and suggestive, clearly written for choreography, it is also contrapuntal and even oddly austere, a parallel I think to the sober browns and muted colors, the arbitrary and abstraction-oriented geometry of Braque and Picasso at the peak of Cubism. Its effect depends on the sonorities of its instrumental writing and the energy of its rhythms, but also on the structural, architectural quality of its construction, which must not be neglected in favor of surface color and "expressivity." I was concerned before the piece began, listening to the saxophonist warming up and pracising his vibrato, and alas I was right to have worried: the performance was like fine dancers being sacrificed to the novelty of their costumes.

But then Sibelius's Luonnotar ! What a marvelous piece! Composed in 1913 (halfway between The Unanswered Question and La création du monde ) and scored for full orchestra (winds in pairs, normal brass, but two sets of timpani and two harps), it is a demanding scène dramatique or concert aria for solo soprano, to a text from the Finnish epic the Kalevala, again addressing the creation of the world. Luonnotar is — again I rely on Wikipedia — "the Spirit of Nature and Mother of the Seas," a virgin daughter of Air who after seven centuries' ceaseless swimming in Ocean gives birth, by charitably offering rest to a similarly restlessly flying teal, to heaven, moon, and stars.

Sibelius "portrays" all this through his characteristically restless rhythms containing hard-edged, brittle themes, with the surging power of lower strings and winds and the bright icy sparkle of high winds and percussion. And against this, always, the soprano, whose very difficult role involves every corner of a two-octave tessitura, a command of Finnish consonants (and vowels, of course), and the ability to maintain presence within a full orchestra even while singing quietly.

This was the best performance of the evening, completely persuasive, largely because of Dawn Upshaw's glowing power and unflappable presence. The orchestra played well, with contained strength and focus, and Adès shaped and controlled the flow of the music carefully and expressively.

After the intermission we heard Adès's piano concerto, In Seven Days, composed in 2008, a century after the Ives. In seven connected sections the piece addresses the traditional Judeo-Christian seven-day Creation myth, less persuasively, I think, than Milhaud's "primitive" version or Sibelius's exotic pagan one. On the one hearing, in the back of the balcony seating, I had a hard time hearing either sonic details or structural units. The piano clattered away; the orchestra played smoothly and without much articulation; at the back of the orchestra, cartoonlike images played with a nine-section grid, suggesting Walt Disney collaborating with Pong. Sea and Sky emerged from Chaos, I read din the program; Land, Grass and Trees appeared, likewise Stars, Sun, and Moon; a couple of fugues accompanied the appearance of animal life; and the piece ended in Contemplation, as the concert had begun. Like Ives's flutes, Adès's forces seemed to me to get nowhere.
•Charles Amirkhanian: Dumbok Bookache; Ka Himeni Hehena; Marathon.
•Errollyn Wallen: The Errollyn Wallen Songbook.
•Pauline Oliveros: Twins Peeking at Koto.
•Don Byron: pieces for his ensemble.
     The composers, with the Del Sol String Quartet; Frode Haltli, accordion; Miya Masaoka, koto; and the Don Byron ensemble
     Heard March 7, 2015, at the Other Minds Festival; San Francisco Jazz Center
THAT WAS A RICH night in the vicinity of Davies Hall: Sarah Cahill was, unknown to us, playing music by Terry Riley on the same block; Other Minds was opening its 20th annual festival down the street. We returned the next evening to hear the second Other Minds concert. Other Minds is an annual assembly of internationally prominent (or in some cases not so prominent) composers who gather for a few days of conversation and show-and-tell, then attend a series of concerts in which each presents music to a generally young and attentive audience (including, of course, the composers themselves). (I should mention here that I was one of the group in 1996, in the third annual OM festival.)

Other Minds is directed by the Bay Area composer and factotum Charles Amirkhanian, who, because he turns 70 this year, chose this year to include his own music on each of the festival's three evenings. This is not as arrogant an act as it may seem: his work is modest, humorous, and unpretentious, and serves well as an opening act. The three selections last night were "text-sound" pieces for speaking voice (Amirkhanian), spoken live over a pre-recorded background of other spoken lines (still Amirkhanian) and percussion.

The source is Ernst Toch's Dada Fuge aus der Geographie, composed for speaking chorus in 1930 or so, and the source is not far except in years. I think Amirkhanian's sound-text pieces would gain from greater diversity of voice: the composer's baritone is clear and pleasant, but grows wooly when redoubled and -tripled electronically.

Errolyn Wallen was a new personality to me, but is apparently well enough known; born in Belize, she was moved to London at the age of two, and has developed a considerable career in the UK. She has a strong clear focussed soprano voice and considerable chops as a pianist — at one point, in one of the seven songs she presented, her piano technique suggested she'd be at home in Ives's Concord Sonata. Her songs occasionally brought his to mind, too, with their constant references to a vernacular, even commercial style, and the directness (not to say naïvety) of their verbal and musical content. When they're light-hearted, as in "What's Up Doc?," they're engaging; when they reach toward emotional seriousness they grow too sentimental for my taste. All of them were with only her own piano accompaniment except the last, "Daedalus," accompanied by piano and string quartet — here, the Del Sol Quartet, with a substitute for first violinist Kate Stenberg.

The concert shifted gears after intermission. Pauline Oliveros brought a new work, for two accordions and koto, perhaps twenty minutes long, full of surprising beauty, with silences, a great dynamic range, an enormous range of instrumental color, and the composer's characteristic good humor — a piece full of heart and invention, occasionally hearkening back to the avant-garde of the 1960s: I thought I heard Robert Erickson's sunny straightforward "experimentalism" channeled in a sudden upwelling near the center of the piece), and the totally accepting state of mind, eager to explore any kind of sound and allow it its place, confirmed Oliveros's place alongside that of John Cage.

Then the clarinetist Don Byron came on, with his ensemble: John Betsch, drums; Cameron Brown, bass; Aruán Ortiz, piano. Their improvisations, over charts, were supple, witty, resourceful, and engaging — a throwback in spirit, though stylistically more advanced I think, to the "third stream" music that tried to negotiate between chamber jazz and avant-garde concert music fifty years ago. (When Byron played his clarinet into the sounding-board of the open Steinway it was impossible not to think of Mort Subotnick back at Mills College in the 1960s.)

Where the first half of the concert had shown awareness, intelligence, and skill, this second half was all artfulness and vision. It closed a pair of musical evenings on a note of pure pleasure.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Recently seen…

Citizenfour

  Seen at Rialto Theater, Sebastopol, Mar. 1, 2015
A Lie of the Mind, by Sam Shepard
  Seen at The Magic Theatre, San Francisco, Feb. 20
San Francisco Dance Festival
  Seen in the City Hall Rotunda, San Francisco, Feb. 20
The Nile Project
  Seen at Zellerbach Theater, Berkeley, Feb. 19
Candide
  Seen at , Walnut Creek, Feb. 13
The Mill and the Cross
  Seen via DVD
Indian Ink, by Tom Stoppard
  Seen at ACT, San Francisco, Jan. 15
Eastside Road, March 2, 2015—
IMG_8396_2.jpg
Dancers set up in San Francisco City Hall Rotunda

INFREQUENT BLOGGING, as you may have noticed, partly because of unusual activity away from the desk. Last time I was here I told you about Rossini's Zelmira and Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann, two operas with very satisfactory performances — one by chamber forces, unstaged, but live; the other over-produced, lavish, but seen on a big screen.

There have been other recent theatrical entertainments of various kinds. Over a month ago we saw Tom Stoppard's play Indian Ink in what should have been a definitive production if one were possible: the director, Carey Perloff — also the Artistic Director of the company — encouraged Stoppard to rewrite the play a bit, particularly, apparently, its close. The characteristic Stoppard intelligence is in this play, but the issues are less cosmic, more purely character-based than seems to me usually to be the case. The idea of two parallel narratives, a couple of generations apart, pulling yes in fact the larger issues of colonialism, feminism, and free love into the romantic comedy of an Englishwoman poet in India during the Raj and an American academic who, fifty years later, tries to sleuth out the true story of her involvement with a native Indian painter — that idea is quintessentially Stoppard. But the Indian context of the play, the stifling heat it portrays, and the wide, shallow visual production at ACT all conspired to put a lid on the theatrics. The show was muffled, stifled. We saw it in preview, and the lines weren't all there yet. Two or three characters were memorably played — the leads, fortunately — but the balance hadn't yet been struck. Were I more serious, more responsible — to whom, though, ultimately? — I might have gone back later in the run to see how it had matured.
A FEW DAYS AGO we saw Sam Shepard's play A Lie of the Mind, also presumably a production with the author's approval, since Magic Theater has had an ongoing association with the playwright for just about his entire career. We saw his Buried Child here, for example, in September, 2013. I thought the production and its performance well worth the evening. A Lie of the Mind is, like Indian Ink, a play about the collision of two worlds, alternatingly holding the stage in an intrinsically dramatic manner depending on successfully resolved theatrics: and I thought Magic accomplished this more persuasively than ACT, perhaps partly owing to the greater intimacy of the house.

There's no doubt Shepard's story is intense, dramatic, powerful, even to an extent elemental; he is in a way our contemporary version of Eugene O'Neil. But how many Sam Shepard plays will we ultimately need to see? We saw A Fool for Love twice in May 2012, partly for the beguiling intensity of Brent Lindsay's performance in the lead; we saw Buried Child a year and a half ago. Now, with A Lie of the Mind, we've perhaps seen enough for a few seasons.
ONE MORE DRAMA, this one per musica: Voltaire's Candide, as turned into an operetta by Leonard Bernstein with the literary help of Lillian Hellman, James Agee, Hugh Wheeler, Richard Wilbur, John Laouche, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells; and orchestrations by Maurice Peress and Hershy Kay (I take this information from Wikipedia).

Lillian Hellman wrote the libretto for the original version of the piece, but her book, thought to be too serious for Bernstein's view, was completely replaced by Hugh Wheeler's for subsequent versions — which, as you can imagine from the catalogue of names in my previous paragraph, are many and confusing and, I would bet, confused. The production we saw was of the 1994 "RNT" version produced by Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theatre, with a new, third libretto by John Caird, replacing Wheeler's, by then thought too light-hearted and slimmed-down.

The production was by the San Francisco-based Gilbert-and-Sullivan specialists The Lamplighters. In costume as Voltaire, Baker Peeples conducted a small but flexible and apt orchestra on the stage, turning to narrate the action to the audience; the fine cast, also costumed in this semi-staged production, responded easily to his accompaniments.

I'd gone to see it because, oddly, I'd never seen Candide, and knew it only by its sparkling overture. Bernstein managed a small miracle in that overture, a compendium of the Mendelssohn of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Prokofiev of the Classical Symphony. It's too bad the current state, good as it apparently is, fails to remedy the essentially overworked nature of the rest of the piece. I'm glad I've seen it; I won't have to see it again. (Read the book!)
ANOTHER MUSICAL EVENING:The Nile Project at UC Berkeley a couple of weeks ago. On paper this looked very interesting: musicians from many of the East African nations through which the Nile River flows, gathered in a traveling troupe to bring attention to (among other things) the various ecological problems attendant on political decisions regarding water use. The indigenous music of these nations uses different tuning systems and is played on different kinds of instruments; it ranges from Arabic-flavored music in the north, in Egypt, to quite different sounds from Kenya to the south.

If I'd thought about it, I'd have realized the model was — as the program made clear — Yo Yo Ma's "Silk Road Project," and that the result might be a little more commercial than I'd hoped for. I'd also have reflected on the nature of the University's Zellerbach Auditorium, which is huge and acoustically compromised. We left in the middle of the second of the two sets (impelled by a dinner reservation), when the show seemed to be loosening up and coming to terms with its setting.

Much of the music was compelling, both the singing and the instrumental performances — marvelous oud and end-blown flute performances, and an alto saxophone solo that brought the extended one in EInstein on the Beach to mind. The costumes were of course rich and colorful. I'd love to see the group again in a smaller hall and with better sound treatment.
ETHNIC DANCE AND MUSIC from elsewhere marked the opening of the San Francisco Dance Festival the next day, with Gamelan Sekar Jaya setting up in the resonant rotunda of City Hall to accompany two Balinese dances: Bebonangan a processional, and Peneta traditional Balinese offering dance, with choreography by Emiko Saraswati Susilo and music by I Made Arnawa. I have no business writing about dance; I know nothing about it; but these dancers seemed incredibly graceful to me, both individually and as an ensemble. One can't help wondering the extent to which such choreography, even though highly evolved in a court setting, must originally have been spontaneous, as natural as the courtship rituals of birds, or the play of wind on forest trees or sea-waves.

I realize gamelan evolved out of doors, but this gamelan suited the resonance of the rotunda perfectly. A few years ago we heard a gamelan performance in the dome of the observatory on Mt. Hamilton, a similar acoustic. You are brought completely within the music in such a setting.

The event closed with a set of traditional Swedish dances, performed by a group from Sweden directed by Margareta and Leif Virtanen; accompanied by "folk" violinists Chris Gruber and Peter Michaelsen, who stood in the doorway, backlit by brilliant noonday sunshine. (The photo above silhouettes Leif Virtanen, warming up; it was taken well before the performances.)

The dancers entered to a Mazurka-like processional, then performed a number of contradances in four couples before opening the floor to audience members who wanted to join. As in the Balinese dance, the gracefulness and sobriety seemed to conceal a subliminal note of courtship; the dance represented — to me — a socially organized containment of individual and especially couple-expressive energies.

The Margaret Jenkins Dance Company had performed between the two "ethnic" sets, with excerpts from two dances: Times Bones and The Gate of Winds, music by Paul Dresher. Much of the performance was gripping, with brilliant solo dancing and effective ensemble choreography and performance — on an unforgiving polished stone floor!. I think this contemporary high-art form of dance does not suffer from its contrast with traditional dance from other cultures: on the contrary, its significance seems informed by it. The San Francisco Dance Festival will continue with other similar performances, the next one at noon, Friday March 20, featuring the Minoan Dancers.
FINALLY, TWO FILMS: We saw Lech Majewski's visually fascinating The Mill and the Cross a few days ago, rented from Netflix. The film, which opened in 2011, is based on — no: brings to life — the painting The Procession to Calvary (1564) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The transitions from Breughel's painting to the live action is unbelievably smooth, and the portrayal of medieval peasant Flemish life seems perfectly authentic. In spite of the primitive rustic settings the visualization is often beautiful, sumptuous even, profiting from fine color and lighting.

My own prejudices kept me from enjoying the Christian element of the film, which grows to center on the Crucifixion. But even here the film is persuasive, suggesting the inevitability of unsophisticated reliance on allegory and theology to explain the sudden cruelties of everyday life — there's a lesson for our own time here. And as an explication of painting, The Mill and the Cross is utterly convincing; even Breughel himself steps into the film to show us what he's after and how he accomplishes it.

Then, last Sunday, we finally got to a screening of Citizenfour Laura Poitras's documentary on the meetings between Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (with Ewen MacAskill) in Hong Kong, June 2013. I think Citizenfour is an outstanding film, well deserving its many awards, on three levels:

First, of course, the subject it documents — the pervasive spying conducted by the federal government in its anti-terror mode — and the fascinating and intricate procedures by which Snowden communicated his evidence to Greenwald and MacAskill in an anodyne Hong Kong hotel room. Poitras, and her cinematographers and editor, weave this material into a suspensful, detailed, unfolding account which I find utterly persuasive — though of course I'm a liberal.

Second, the portraits here are intriguing and sympathetic. Snowden's intelligence, wry humor, and apparent nobility of purpose grow on the viewer. Greenwald's domestic life (in Rio de Janeiro), his fluency in Brazilian Portuguese, his drive to quick deadlines, all make him a very sympathetic character to this retired journalist. Even without considering the subject on which these men are focussing, the quality of their purpose and the discipline and directedness with which they approach it are extremely well captured in the film.

Third, and to me in a way most important, Citizenfour is truly a work of art. In terms of pacing, structure, rhythm, visual detail and contrast, subliminal reinforcements through both sight and sound, Poitras has achieved a thing of major beauty. I want to see this film again; I think it is a film to own.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Opera: Zelmira; Contes d'Hoffmann

Eastside Road, February 18, 2015—
WE SAW A PERFORMANCE of Rossini's fine opera Zelmira in Berkeley last night, a staged production by Edge Opera, as I believe the former Berkeley Opera is now known, in a series they call "Opera Medium-Rare": workshop performances, sung from the printed music, unstaged, with reduced accompaniment. The idea seems to have grown out of a salon reading of — I don't know which opera; something some singers wanted to get to know, but which would have had little or no production history, at least locally.

Case in point: this mature Rossini score, premiered in Naples at the San Carlo in 1822, repeated to good reviews in Vienna, then throughout Italy; performed in London in 1824; then apparently dropped from the repertory, with few productions (and fewer staged!) until quite recently — and none in this country, except one New Orleans performance "around 1835" according to Wikipedia.

Two acts; florid coloratura writing, bel canto in its purist form, somewhat foretelling Semiramide, ludicrous plot, extraordinarily demanding tenor role and quite demanding soprano, contralto, second tenor, and bass roles. You can see why it would be a difficult opera to make convincing, especially in a big American opera house.

Well: we heard it in Berkeley's Freight & Salvage, essentially a small theater with an attached coffeehouse-bar, with decent acoustics, seating perhaps 500 people comfortably enough. In place of Rossini's orchestra — beautifully scored, by the way, according to comments I've read online — the accompaniment was provided by the musical director, Alexander Katsman, and the piano, with three colleagues playing violin, cello, and flute. (Why flute? Why not clarinet? Don't know.)

The vocal performances were adequate, even more than adequate, at one end of the scale; nearly breathtakingly impressive in tonal beauty and technical facility at the other. Shawnette Sulker has a sweet, resonant, clear high soprano, ranging up at least to an "E" I believe in this score, capable of dying away in a glorious pianissimo anywhere in the register, yet full of presence at any dynamic level, with no register break that I noticed — and it doesn't hurt that she is beautiful to see and graceful in her movement and expression.

As her confidante Emma Nikola Printz found a true contralto voice in her lowest range and blossomed clearly and fully in a higher mezzo-soprano area, matching and complementing Sulker's singing with equal beauty and presence, and negotiating Rossini's fioratura with admirable precision.

Even more amazing: Brian Yeakley, a true coloratura tenor di forza whose voice presses out high "C"s and higher, I believe, with little strain and considerable beauty; whose flexibility and accuracy were triumphal, and whose physical presence is engaging and sympathetic.

Michael Belle was nearly his match though with an appropriately darker tenor voice as the villainous Antenore. Paul Thompson, bass, was adequate in the difficult role of the aged king Polidoro; and baritone Jordan Eldredge was sympathetic as Antenore's lieutenant Leucippo.

We went to the opera for the general policy that one shouldn't miss one never before heard, but for another reason as well: our somehow-sister-in-law Želmira Ž. was interested in seeing it, with her husband M. They are the Czech-born parents of our son-in-law Pavel: I don't know how much opera they attend, but they agreed to join us at this one, and they seemed as diverted as we were.

THE OPERA ITSELF sent me to the aforementioned Wikipedia, where I learn tha Rossini's librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, based his work on a play greatly popular in France in the late 18th century: Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy's Zelmire (1762). The plot concerns a princess who hides her aging father, King of Lesbos, from the invading usurper Azor, who is himself killed (before even appearing onstage!) by his own usurper Amenore (Azor's general), but who is ultimately saved by her husband Ilo, prince of Troy. De Belloy was a monarchist, according to French Wikipedia, who believed that "the alliance between the sovereign and his people held the key to a nation's force"; and he was attacked by Diderot (and by Voltaire, who'd begun by approving his plays).

At the heart of the dramatic theater, including of course music theater, is its function as a voice of and for the collective people: even as highly evolved a form as bel canto opera inherits this ultimate purpose. One enjoys a performance like last night's Zelmira for the beauty and technique of its voices, and the skill and imaginativeness of its musical writing; but I find the experience even more compelling for the principles and values lying behind and perhaps above its entertainment value: the abstract symmetry and resonance of the plot, at once absurd and haunting.

Sixty years lay between the premiere of de Belloy's play to that of Rossini's opera. That period — as long as the American epoch spanning from the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center — were of course epochal in the transformation of concepts of family, tribe, and nation; parallel one might say to the transformation in the arts from the late Baroque through Classicism to the beginning of Romanticism. Throughout the period, theater, including opera, represented and expressed a nexus of ideas, social and personal, practical and ethical, available to urban citizens of various classes; and it developed and responded in its various ways, often enough periphrastically to avoid censorship. It's a fascinating period, one with considerable in common with our own.
A FEW DAYS AGO we saw the Metropolitan Opera performance of Offenbach's Les contes d'Hoffmann as one of their "live broadcasts" into a local movie theater. I've noted my reservations about such productions here before: the disorientation of close-ups and changing visual (and aural!) perspectives when watching an in-the-theater production through the eyes (and ears!) of roving mechanical observers, as they're directed and chosen from by an unseen director/editor somewhere, who inserts a new and often intrusive personality into an art form already greatly impacted by its essentially committee-based creation.

That said, this was a glorious Hoffmann. It is of course a masterpiece, one of the truly great and significant works of art ranging from Orfeo through the Mozart-da Ponte operas to, for my money, Four Saints in Three Acts and Einstein on the Beach. It's amazing, I think, that this triumphant article of Romantic opera, a nearly perfect embodiment of German Romanticism, should have been the product of a classically educated Mozart-loving German fabulist and a Parisian Jew better known for his contributions to musical comedy. Even more amazing is its prescience, looking forward to Freud and the Surrealists, who themselves linked the internalizing, highly personalized contemplations of Novalis and Nerval, let's say, to the dreams of the Age of Aquarius.

For me the perfect visualization of Hoffmann will always be the film — English; 1952? — by the team that had produced Brian Easdale's The Red Shoes. The edition used in that film was cut and otherwise misguided, I'm sure: but (at least in my memory, which is now probably sixty years distant) it captured the hauntingly present but unreal quality that Hoffmann was expressing, a purely mental state linked to purely sensual stimuli.

The director of the Met production — I don't have the program at hand; you'll have to look up all the credits — was, I think, unduly chained to Hollywood Surrealism. Writhing faux-nude bodies and oddly emblematic eyeballs distracted from the content of Offenbach's realization, recalling Satie's objection that the stage trees don't really have to speak German in a production of a Wagner opera. (Or however the quote goes. I could look it up; I won't.)

But the edition used was the best I've encountered, restoring the impetus of the Muse to the prologue and epilogue, elevating Niklaus (brilliantly sung, spoken, and acted) to a major role, and fusing the scraps and extended successes of the score as poor Offenbach left it at his death into a major, rich, fully achieved work of art. The tenor singing Hoffmann was remarkably engaging and subtle. The three sopranos were persuasive. If the villainous bass-baritone was less than superb, that was due as much to clearly transient vocal problems as to the rather pedestrian aspect of the role he was apparently directed to present.

Minor roles were superb; ditto the chorus; and the musical direction was very good indeed. We were glad to have seen this.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Carel

Carel_Fabritius_-_The_Goldfinch_-_WGA7721_1024.jpg
Eastside Road, Feb. 9, 2015—
THIS IS ONE of my very favorite paintings: The Goldfinch, as it's known in English, painted probably in 1654 by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius. I have written about it here before, but it's on my mind again because I just finished (in the sense of having definitively stopped working on) a short piece of music suggested by the painting. It's called Carel, like the painter, and come to think of it like me, and my father, and my grandfathers…

In fact it was suggested by my friend the painter Patrick McFarlin, who we visited last June in his Santa Fe studio, where we saw a number of canvases he was working on in homage to Fabritius's painting. He calls the series The Goldfinch Variations, and he asked me if I'd like to supply a piece of music to be played in an eventual exhibition of the series — an exhibition projected to include works in similar homage by other painters he knows.

The opening measures of the piece came to mind immediately, but I'm sorry to say they stayed on a back burner for an indecently long time, in spite of occasional polite suggestions from McFarlin. Finally, though, I realized my stumbling block had been the unusual instrumental ensemble the piece seemed to want: and then I simply went ahead and wrote the piece out.

My mother disliked the oboe. Many people do. I suppose many would say four oboes in one place is four oboes too many. But I like the oboe, which I think apposite to a meditation on Fabritius's goldfinch, not only because the oboe can be made to sound like a finch, but also, and more, I think, because its reed looks like Fabritius's finch's wingfeathers.

Those wingfeathers are amazing. The whole canvas, about the size of a sheet of typing paper, is painted illusionistically. There are those who think it was meant to hang, perhaps without a frame, on a plaster wall the color of that forming the background of the painting. Seeing it so displayed would be a real treat: especially when the viewer's eye would be directed closely to that wing, which is not painted illusionistically at all — it's very painterly; the yellow is troweled on, then scratched through with the end of the brush. In a tiny area of a seventeenth-century painting Fabritius looks forward to de Kooning.

Fabritius was born in February 1622 — nearly four hundred years ago! — in a new village, Middelbeemster, in the middle of a new polder, Beemster, the first polder ever reclaimed from a Dutch lake, in the province of North Holland. The province is noted for its seaports (most now cut off from the sea) and its cheeses; Beemster is still a favorite cheese of ours. His father was a painter and a schoolteacher named Pieter Carelsz. — the surname is an abbreviation for "son of Carel," and our painter was probably Carel Pietersz.; no doubt the names Peter and Charles had alternated for generations in the family. He became known as Fabritius, though, because as a youth he worked as a carpenter: fabricius is an old Roman name deriving from fabr-, "make" [things out of wood or stone]. Names were in flux in those days, and you wanted a distinctive one if you wanted to make a mark in the world.

In his early twenties our painter was in Amsterdam, studying in Rembrandt's studio, but by ten years later he'd settled in Delft, where he developed his own quite personal style — whose illusionism would quickly influence Vermeer. It's too bad, though, that he chose to settle in Delft: two years after he joined the Painters' Guild there he was badly maimed in the great Gunpowder Magazine explosion, and died shortly afterward of the wounds. Only nine or ten of his paintings are known to survive to our own time.

Anyhow: I finished the score a couple of days ago. I have in mind four oboists standing in corners of a gallery, perhaps unseen, or in any case not particularly on exhibit themselves. The music is meant to be heard, but not necessarily in silence: it's what Erik Satie calls musique d'ameublement, "furniture music", background music. The oboists may turn their backs to the audience when playing at mp or quieter, and lift the bells of their instruments, facing their listeners, when playing at f or above, if they like.

And if four oboists aren't to be found, why play the piece with flutes, or violins, or maybe even soprano saxophones. But I would like to hear it with oboes.

You'll find an mp4, if you're interested, at http://www.shere.org/CS/CSsoundfiles/Carel.m4a . It's only a synthesization, of course, but it'll give you an idea. You can see (and download) the score at http://www.shere.org/CS/CSscores/carel.pdf

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

We hold these truths…

United_States_Declaration_of_Independence.jpg
•Danielle S. Allen: Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.
New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014
315 pages. ISBN 978-0-871-40690-3
Eastside Road, February 3, 2015—
THIS IS A MADDENING BOOK, addressing a topic of great historical importance and overwhelming contemporary urgency, and in the process illustrating the value of close reading even to the lay public — but written in a prose style, and with an authorial posture, that seems determined to repel any reader but those already possessed of the point.

Allen's subject is perfectly expressed in her title and subtitle. She rightly addresses the Declaration as a document — the document — which establishes, as the reasons and justification of the colonists' determination to secede from the British Empire, the concept of a free egalitarian society governed for the purpose of guaranteeing individual rights. The Declaration sets forth a detailed complaint of the deliberate refusal of the British king to govern in this manner, and announces the former colonists' intention to provide that government for themselves.

Allen's impetus was apparently a course she gave in an adult education context, at first with the intent of encouraging close reading of a text in order to plumb both the original and the contemporary implications of the content of the text. Her previously published titles suggest, however, that the choice of the Declaration of Independence, and her own reading which emphasizes egalitarianism, was a logical one:
The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 2000
Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown vs. the Board of Education, University of Chicago Press, 2004
Why Plato Wrote, John Wiley & Sons, Limited, 2010
I have not seen these titles, which (judging from comments on the Internet) are concerned with demonstrating the relevance of historical literature, and specifically political literature, to issues of our own time — a laudable concern for a thoughtful writer to address.

It must be stated at the outset: though an academic, Allen writes for a mass audience. She begins Our Declaration with an account of the dinnertable conversations of her childhood, a mix of Christianity, liberal politics, communitarianism, a healthy regard for education, and the social awareness likely to prevail in a metropolitan American mixed-race household in the 1970s and early '80s.

And clearly her double intent is to demonstrate the value of close, attentive, and collaborative reading, as well as the (literally) revolutionary concepts of freedom and equality that are present at the beginning of our nation, pointing out that whereas freedom is implicit in a declaration of independence, equality is immediately stated as its adjunct:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Declaration of Independence, preamble (emphasis mine)
Of course it is the next sentence that most memorably insists on equality as the foundation of the American political ideal:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness [,—]
—and here, Allen writes, a crux immediately appears: for most contemporary copies of the Declaration put a period after that word "Happiness," whereas the working documents (and her own analysis) suggests those lines are merely the first of three clauses forming not only one complete sentence but, more importantly, a logical syllogism justifying the very concept of the colonists' action:
[,—] That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, [,—]

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
To establish a government capable of guaranteeing freedom from tyranny, Allen argues — whether British tyranny as the colonies had experienced it, or any subsequent tyranny that might be visited, from foreign or domestic sources — the new society would have to be founded on the concept of equality. And not only equality: five "facets" of equality:
We have followed the Declaration sentence by sentence as it set out principles, among them the proposition, as Lincoln called it, that all men are created equal. We have tracked it through its presentation of an important syllogism about equality, rights, and government. We then pursued the argument as the Declaration laid out matters of fact to generate propositions about tyranny and good government. Along the way, we have mastered four out of the five facets of equality presented in the Declaration. The ideal of equality designates freedom from domination, equality of the opportunity to use the tool of government, the use of egalitarian methods to generate collective intelligence, and an equality of agency achieved through practices of reciprocity. The time has come to draw some conclusions.



Indeed, we are on the cusp of the sentences in which the Declaration draws its own conclusions… And as the Declaration concludes, it also presents its fifth and final facet of equality: equality as co-creation and co-ownership of our shared world.
Our Declaration, p. 258
I detach from Allen's gently hectoring style the points she is eager to have us consider, her five facets:
•Equality of the citizens' station with his government
•Equality of opportunity to participate in government
•Equality of input to "collective intelligence"
•Equality within reciprocal social and political transactions
•Equal station within the fabric of the "shared world".

Allen's book is urgently significant and important in today's political climate, which as she points out values "freedom" (in the guise of libertarianism) to the exclusion of egalitarianism. Half the country, it seems, has lost sight of the purpose of government, as defined in the Declaration of Independence:
Governments are instituted among Men
to secure these rights[:]
Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness
— lines energizing any number of individualists often more concerned with their own liberties than those of their neighbors, forgetting that the very first sentence of the Constitution, the indispensable adjunct to the Declaration, reads
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
[emphasis mine]
Allen's point is that individual rights cannot obtain except in an egalitarian society, organized "on such principles and… in such form" as to secure the "Safety and Happiness" of "the People."

Much of her book deals with the vexing question of slavery as it existed at the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence — indeed, as it was practiced by one of the chief authors, Thomas Jefferson. I find her discussion of the subject tentative and apologetic, as if aware of the logical absurdity of condemning past periods for not sharing subsequently changed attitudes. Her explanation for the historical difficulty is that the "course of human events" that would lead toward the abolition of slavery throughout the nation was only begun when the Declaration of Independence was drafted; presumably the authors foresaw the inevitable, but preferred to undertake one revolution at a time.

Recent events, of course, prove the concept of equality of station and opportunity is still not embraced unanimously, and Our Declaration will not persuade exceptionalists of its moral imperative or its practical value. It is in fact a difficult concept, particularly when the implications of our governmental foundation are extended to our nation's international relations and presence. The Declaration of Independence is in fact an idealistic document, proclaiming how things ought to be in order to justify rebelling against things as they are. But it is an idealistic document born of the Age of Reason, of the Enlightenment. It virtually single-handedly overcame millennia of oppressive tyranny founded on "the divine right of kings," replacing top-down rule with "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." We have perhaps inevitably declined in moral courage and intellectual acumen since the days of Adams, Lee, Franklin, and Jefferson. Society today is too fragmented, fast, and materialistic to replicate their achievement; perhaps even to comprehend them. But Allen makes a useful attempt to explain that achievement to today's reader.