Monday, May 5, 2008

Dreams of Kharkov

The end of the dream was: I was on a tour of Russia, going by train from Moscow to St. Petersburg via Kharkov (I'm not sure this is geographically possible), and at the station where I changed trains there was an enormous queue to get into the unisex pissoirs (don't ask me how the women used pissoirs - I wasn't studying the matter). Everyone was pee-shy and the charge was a dime (or Russki equivalent) and my focus was entirely on the architecture, which included Art Deco mosaics so designed that the eyeballs of elegant Mucha ladies and the pistils in the huge colorful flowers seemed to bob up and down, an optical illusion or a lurching around of interlocked mosaic tesserae by some process I'd never heard of, immensely clever, clearly of Byzantine provenance, and still functional though the station had been built in 1904, indeed actually constructed by my contractor cousin Akiva Yaglom (grandfather of the mathematician). I had plenty of time to watch their eyeballs roll and ponder how superb the architectural functions of pre-Rev Russia still were, compared to the shoddiness of everything that came afterwards.

... I think the Russian ladies had the pinched, gamine faces of the Russian pianist I was chatting with in Whole Foods the other day, who thought I was making a pass at her and asked if I were married, and was rather startled when I said I was gay. She said she'd come here in 1986, in part because there was nothing to eat in Russia but kasha ... and told me about a friend of hers who had got a live-in nanny job here and was then blackmailed by the (Russian) lawyer who had found her the position. "That's how they all are here ... the Russians ... always looking for a way to cheat and steal ... that's all they think about." ...

But (back in the dream) I never did manage to pee and went back, grumpily, to my seat in the carriage, and wondered whom I could ask to watch my bags while I tiptoed to the w.c. on board, and someone observing me noticed I was not wearing shoes and complimented me on my cleverness in removing them on the train (was he being ironic?), and we had pulled out of the station and were going through suburban Washington D.C. which was in full spring bloom, enormous Victorian mansions overwhelmed with bougainvillea, and patriotic displays beside the tombs of Civil War generals ... it was at this point that my need to piss indicated what it usually does, and I woke myself up, amazed at how much of the dream lingered and for some reason singing the regimental song of the beau vingtième from La Fille du Règiment.

And on waking, I remembered the earlier part of the dream, when I and Nancy McCann (I think it was she, at least sometimes it was) were attempting to take a ferryboat across a lake to arrive at either Russia or some vacation spot en route (Cuba, perhaps, which Orlando was raving about to me last night in Ty's), and some very attractive fellow was captain of the ferry, and we dawdled, and he came after us to remind us we had fifteen minutes to get across the lake in his boat and catch the next connection (to Kharkov?) and so we scooted to the deck (although I reflected we'd never make it, have to take the next one) and the sun bore down on the lake and its shores (the Bosporus? the Georgia Strait?) but somehow we were in shade or under a stormcloud and it got rather chilly ... and before we docked I was on the train from Moscow as described above ...

I do like dreams where the architecture is interesting.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

An Opera for Beltane

I suppose I should have been spending this lovely Beltane Sunday out in the woods a-conjuring summer in, but WWUH (University of West Hartford) has a Sunday afternoon opera program with a sweet tooth for unusual works, and their choice today was the new Naxos 8669 recording (from a 1996 Seattle Symphony concert - what took 'em so long?) of a genuine May Day opera, Howard Hanson's 1934 Merry Mount, libretto taken from a Hawthorne short story (but Hawthorne unaccountably omitted the extensive witches' sabbath-devil's orgy sequence from his version).

I remember when Hanson, who ran the Eastman School in Rochester for forty years, grumbled at salutes to 80-year-old Aaron Copland as the "grand old man of American music," that Copland wasn't old enough for this distinction and Hanson was. In any case, both are dead now, and Hanson's music is far from well known, as he lacked the jazz inflections and winning populist emotions that kept Copland up top. On the other hand, Copland never composed an opera for the Met, and Hanson did. I first discovered this years ago when my grandmother gave me her collection of old librettos - her husband (who died in 1935) having had a sweet tooth for opera. The Met, in Gatti-Casazza's day, felt a certain commitment to American music, and every year or two there was another world premiere - although not one of the works so created (unless you count Puccini's California Gold Rush drama, La Fanciulla del West) endured more than a season or two, and none are remembered today: Peter Ibbetson, Mona, The King's Henchman, Shanewis, The Great God Brown. With all their faults, these stylish works were a damn sight better operas than such Met commissions as The Last Savage and The Great Gatsby and An American Tragedy and The Voyage. (But none of them is half as good as Fanciulla.) (This leaves Vanessa and Antony and Cleopatra in some middling limbo. Anyway, rep standards they have never become.)

Merry Mount is an expert score, melodious in a late-romantic but pre-Schoenberg style. Its resemblance to movie scores (the field into which the more populist American and European composers were moving with a vengeance at the time of its premiere) is neither accidental nor displeasing. The vocal lines are not extreme enough to put it out of the range of revival, though the enormous cast may be. (At least we don't have excessive unsingable high notes, often fallen back on by post-tonal composers to express extreme emotion because they have given up all other musical methods of expressing it - melody used to accomplish this, remember?)

The centerpiece of the opera, for pagan music-lovers, is the great witches' sabbath that ends Act II, a wonderfully sensuous (not merely discordant) scene in which a Puritan minister, tempted by the flesh (in particular the flesh of a lovely Cavalier aristocrat, Lady Marigold Sandys, whom he identifies with the goddess Ashtoreth - Astarte, folks!), falls utterly and gives himself up to demonic allegiance. What with religious hypocrisy running rampant in the U.S. these days, such a scene might with profit (prophet?) be presented by regional opera companies fed up with the lack of controversy under which they are forced to labor. Anyway, it's great fun for a pagan, and I'd love to see it staged somewhere. True, American witches may have problems with the final scene, in which local Indians attack the Puritan village, burn it to the ground, and scalp a couple of folks before being driven off.

Heartily recommended. (Why doesn't Botstein put this on?)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Dream: Amniotic Park

Visiting a foreign city - San Francisco perhaps - or Istanbul - or Stockholm - it had trams going through the parks - I took one - perhaps I arrived by cruise ship - and there was a splendid park, battlements and copses and formal gardens and a huge, palatial casino all lit up (rather resembling the Blue Mosque from my hotel roof), the grounds so laid out that there was a long, shallow lake in it, and I lay on a kind of raft that was somehow drawn constantly on a fixed path around the park - so I was rocking in a very pleasant warm bath (a very amniotic dream, eh?) while effortlessly moving through the park and looking at its sights and also at their reflection in the clouds above me, the lights of the carousel and a palatial casino like coronets of stars, and up into great spreading branches of old trees, and out into the ocean (as if from the hilltops of old Stamboul) at the passing liners and the distant hills - all this with such a sense of well-being I cannot tell you - all my anxieties drifted away (VERY amniotic, eh?) - and there were events, and I rose refreshed and strolled through a park filled with flowerbeds and tram tracks and into great teeming markets past sidewalk cafes into a city full of inviting squares and galleries. Yes, it was Istanbul, but somehow also Union Square.