Two Violin Concertos with the Berkeley Symphony

Last Thursday Dave and I went to hear the Berkeley Symphony’s season opener, a performance of not just one but two violin concertos, the Beethoven and the John Adams, both played by violinist and superhuman Jennifer Koh. In both works the violinist is kept very, very busy, and just to play the solo parts of both adequately in a single evening, without your bowing arm falling off, would be an amazing enough accomplishment. But Ms. Koh also played them both dazzlingly well, with all sorts of wit, insight, power, and precision. Dave and I have been hearing the Beethoven violin concerto rather a lot lately, including a really terrific performance with Hilary Hahn as soloist that was broadcast from the BBC proms; and still I heard details and nuances in Ms. Koh’s performance that I don’t remember noticing before. Really wonderful.

I had not heard the John Adams violin concerto before. I’m not sure how much I like it; it’ll probably take me a few hearings before I know. It’s certainly striking and atmospheric music, but it didn’t feel to me like it moved or developed much. However, I’m not always a good listener and sometimes it takes me a while to start hearing things in a piece of music that’s new to me, so I have to grant the possibility that I just haven’t gotten this one yet. In any case, Ms. Koh played it with great spirit and precision and, at times, physical vigor. I figure after a double bill like this one, she gets to skip the gym for a week.

This is Joana Carneiro’s second year as conductor and music director, and I thought the orchestra was sounding very polished, much more so than it has in the past; as exciting as the performances usually were when Kent Nagano was conducting, there was always a bit of scrappiness in the playing. Not so this time. Dave and I went to only one of their concerts last year, and that was early in the season, so this is the first time we’ve heard the orchestra in about a year; under Ms. Carneiro they’ve come a long way in a short time.

Much Ado at CalShakes

Dave and I saw Much Ado About Nothing at CalShakes on Friday evening. I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about going, frankly — not only have I seen Much Ado in more productions than any other Shakespeare play, but I’ve written not one but two librettos based on it, one of them for a musical comedy called All’s Fair and the other one an entirely new libretto (not just a translation of the existing libretto) for Berlioz’s opera Béatrice et Bénédict. So, as much as I love the play, I know it too well for my own good. Money is very tight for us and we’ve had to limit our playgoing drastically (which depresses me more deeply than I can convey), so I don’t know whether we’d have gone when there are so many other things we also want to see right now. However, we have a friend at CalShakes who got us a pair of comps to the Friday night preview (thank you!), and, well, if I’d known it was this good, there wouldn’t have been any doubt in my mind about it. This is a one-for-the-life-list Much Ado, probably the best production I’ve ever seen. (Not counting the productions of my own adaptations, of course. I reserve the right to be unreasonably prejudiced about those.)

The performances are fantastic all the way down to the small roles. Andy Murray may be the best Benedick I’ve ever seen, and as I’ve seen Kevin Kline in the role I wouldn’t have thought that I’d ever be saying that of anyone else in this lifetime. Domenique Lozano is wonderful as Beatrice. The two are enormously funny, with lots of the proper commedia dell’arte spirit in their performances, yet always human and often very moving.

Dan Hiatt doubles the parts of Leonato and George Seacole (a member of Dogberry’s watch). He’s terrific in both, and I’ve never seen him look so damn hot as he does in his pirate-y getup for the latter role. Woof! I’ve always found Mr. Hiatt endearingly attractive, but after this production it may have flowered into a full-blown crush. Danny Scheie doubles the parts of Don John and Dogberry, which is a terrific idea that I’d never seen done before; I’m usually not a big fan of Mr. Scheie’s, who is usually too campy a clown for my taste, but I thought he was spot on as Dogberry, hilariously silly and foolish without taking it over the top into camp. On the other hand, he did sometimes take Don John there, which seemed unnecessary to me considering that he was already getting big laughs on his first appearances doing nothing but glowering, before he’d even had anything much to say or do.

The only other thing I remember thinking was less good than it could have been was Claudio’s scene at Hero’s “tomb”. All his youthful arrogance and rashness is understandable enough to me, but in order to feel forgiveness toward him by the time we get to the happy ending, I want to believe that he has learned a painful truth about himself (and about the true nature of humanity), something that is going to change him for the better, and forever. I yearn to feel at the end of the play that the Claudio who ends the play is not the Claudio who began it, that all his flattering illusions about himself have been shattered, that the searing heat of self-examination without the protective masking of illusion has melted his soul and flesh and reforged it into something that is stronger now for having gone through the fire. Okay, okay, this may well be an unreasonable expectation, and based as much on the choices I myself made about Claudio’s emotional through-line in my own two adaptations as it is on hard evidence from the play itself as to what Claudio is going through; but for better or for worse, that’s how I feel about Claudio. Nick Childress as Claudio (who is otherwise very good indeed) felt to me like he never got to that level, that his grief was sincere, but not searing enough to be reshaping his very soul and redeeming him. And without believing that, I end up feeling a bit wry rather than teary-eyed about his reunion with Hero.

No such feeling about Benedick and Beatrice, though — those two had clearly been on a journey of the soul that had reshaped them for all time.

Even the smaller roles are strikingly performed — Catherine Castellanos has a remarkable doubling as Ursula and Verges, and Thomas Gorrebeeck makes a dangerously handsome Borachio. Emily Kitchens makes Hero a much fuller and more believable character than Shakespeare deserves, having given her so few lines. Delia Macdougall as Margaret and Nicholas Palczar as Don Pedro likewise flesh out their relatively small roles in memorable ways. Andrew Hurteau is a hoot as Friar Francis. (Though even he couldn’t avoid getting a laugh from the audience with the very awkward line in which he tells Leonato that if Hero is really guilty after all, she can be sent to live in a convent. It’s a bad laugh there, the kind where the audience is laughing uncomfortably, not at the characters and the situation, but at the heartlessness of the Elizabethan attitude toward women. The only way I’ve ever found not to get a laugh there is to say that line in anger to Leonato, as if to say, “Even though it completely disgusts me, if I have to add this appalling condition to the bargain I’m making with you, in order to get you to accept it, then I will; but I think you are being loathsome in requiring it before you’re swayed”. If you say the line as it appears on its surface, as though it were one more logical argument in favor of the scheme the friar is proposing, it comes off as horribly lame and heartless.)

And the attention to detail in all the acting and staging — wow. Director Jonathan Moscone has done an astonishing job. I wasn’t expecting to find so much fresh delight and pleasure in a play I’m so overly familiar with.

Okay, geek time now: It annoyed me, as it always does, to hear Borachio pronounce covertly as co-VERT-ly. I’m just old enough to remember how this pronunciation became common among television newscasters reporting on espionage during the Vietnam War, and I find it disconcerting to hear a Shakespearean character pronounce it in a way that became commonplace only within my own living memory. It should have the stress on the first syllable, CUH-vert-ly, as though you were saying coveredly, in a covered manner, which is what the word means.

I know there’s nothing to be done about it. Few hear it as I do, and I’m sure that we get fewer every year. Both Borachios in the two productions I’ve had of my Berlioz adaptation were very agreeable about it, but it was clear neither of them heard the same connotations in the pronunciation that I do, and were probably thinking Well, you know how writers are, I suppose I’d better just humor him on the small stuff like this. So I have no expectations that things will or should be different on this point just to suit me. But this is my blog so I get to say it bugs me.

Passing Thought

It seems to me that there are two scary things about the argument that homosexuals don’t deserve to have equal rights under the law because homosexuality is a mental illness, and the fact that homosexuality is not actually a mental illness is possibly the less scary of them.

Thank You

Many thanks to everyone who took part in last night’s reading. I love you all! I got a fresh perspective on the first act as whole, got lots of useful feedback about what worked for people and what didn’t, and came away with a lot of new clarity what needs trimming and/or rewriting.

Plus: Everyone seemed to have a good time and enjoy the act overall. Very encouraging.

The first act took just shy of 70 minutes to read through, which is too long. I’d like to cut about 20 minutes away from that. I think about 10 or 12 minutes of that will be easy and come just from tightening up scenes that can take it (and I think a lot of them can, now that I’ve heard the act read through). Cutting the act down further than that will probably require actually cutting two or three incidents along the way, though, and that’ll take more thought.