Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Blasphemetries:" Adaptations

I don't know whether or not "blasphemetries" has the makings of a new neologism, but the French conductor Louis Langrée's humorous use of it during a backstage interview of the MET opera's HD broadcast of Hamlet made movietheater-going opera lovers chuckle.

The occasion was the latest installation in the acclaimed series of live movie broadcasts (that coincide with the weekly radio broadcasts) from the MET. This new production of Ambroise Thomas' grand french operatic adaptation of Shakespeare's beloved tragedy is the MET's first in over 100 years.

Langrée's malapropism refers to the Anglo-saxon contempt for idolatrous adaptations of the Bard, especially at the hands of the French. Mon dieu! But then, the most popular French opera of the 19th century is another adaptation of a paradigmatic work. Goethe's Faust is to German literature and culture what Hamlet is to English. And not coincidentally, the librettists Carré and Barbier adapted both Goethe and Shakespeare for the librettos Gounod and Thomas set (in 1859 and 1868, respectively).

The singular challenge of judging any adaptation is the objectively impossible one of measuring it on its own merits. This is as true for cinematic adaptations of novels as it is for operas and other musical "versions" of literary originals.

I just read an article that the composer Michael Berkeley is working on an operatic version of Ian McEwan's acclaimed novel, Atonement. The novel was recently made into a quasi-epic period drama starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy that was an above average movie on its own merits, while being widely dismissed by librophiles, McEwan devotees, purists, and other philistines (I fall into a majority of those categories on any given day).

So, if not impossible to judge Hamlet the opera without referring to its source, that is at least one point of departure. Shakespeare's Ophelia is a supporting role: her presence aids our understanding of the melancholy Dane without her being a fully fleshed out character. Thomas' opera elevates Ophelie to prima donna status. She has one of the great "mad scenes" in all of opera, and where Lucia stabs her unwanted husband to death before THE most famous operatic mad scene, the operatic Ophelia (in this production) stabs herself. She dies and then rises for a musical postcript: a difficult feat to achieve without eliciting a bemused chuckle from the audience.

Polonius--a great character role in Shakespeare--is reduced to a cipher. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's duplicitous "friends" are eliminated, as is his fellow prince, Fortinbras. Thomas' original ending finds the title character still alive (which prompted the MET conductor's observation of the perceived "blasphemetries"). Thomas did provide an alternate ending, but rather than being poisoned by Laertes, the two men stab each other. The dying Hamlet embraces the grave-bound Ophelie, and then kills his uncle & step-father (ah, Shakespeare!) Claudius, at the behest of his father's ghost, who has appeared to the entire company, in an operatic deus ex machina worthy of Mephistopheles himself!

I was riveted by the production and the potrayal of the title character by the British baritone Simon Keenlyside. His Hamlet was one of the most complete performances I've ever seen on any stage. If there were operatic awards like the Oscars and Tony's then he would be the favorite. To call Keenlyside a singing actor is an injustice to both aspects of his art. His french was impeccable, his voice a vast spectrum of color, range and facility, and his physical presence arresting. To call him a stage animal, however clichéd, also risks oversimplification. I could go on. If you have the opportunity to see him live, do.

I was reminded of Faust on several occasions, but one of the most telling was in the act one trio that follows Laertes' entrance and aria. Both operas involve a triangle of romantic and sibling relationships. Faust (tenor), his beloved Marguerite (soprano) and her protective brother, Valentin (baritone) form one of Gounod's triangles. In Hamlet, the leading male roles are reversed and Laertes is sung by a tenor, and this may be but one of several reasons for Hamlet's neglect.

Another reason for its neglect may be the purgatory it inhabits between the worlds of French grand opera and Wagnerian drama. I wrote about Wagner and Meyerbeer last August, and the former's debt to the latter's masterpiece, Les Huguenots. One of the distinguishing characteristics of grand opera--and especially the Parisian variety--is the cumulative power the great ones have. The series of set pieces--choruses, marches, ballets, with arias, duets and ensembles in between--help suspend disbelief, thus keeping the attentive listener engaged, while adding up to a whole greater than the sum of any individual part.

While Faust is not quite on the grand scale of a Meyerbeer opera, it is in that vein (and ironically, wears both its indebtedness to Meyerbeer and Wagner). The arias and ensembles are its most distinguishing--and popular--features. Thomas absorbed even more of Wagner's emergent leitmotif-driven style, and Hamlet, if not through-composed in the Wagnerian sense, unfolds with fewer "numbers." The integration of the narrative into the fabric of the score gives it a dramatic coherence. Yet many of the set pieces are stll present in Hamlet: the title character's drinking song, the festive choruses, the ballet (a pantomime--one of the score's brilliant strokes, musically and dramatically), and the aforementioned "mad scene."

Watching Keenlyside and listening to the evocative, dark hued score, I was reminded of how essential it is for unknown and under-appreciated works to be driven by inspired performances. I hinted at this earlier this year in an essay about the Second Viennese school and the impassioned performances Barenboim, Boulez and the Vienna Phil brought to the "difficult" music of Schoenberg and Webern. Oftentimes, the only thing between an audience and appreciation is a compelling performance.

This broadcast was just that for this audience member. The score is full of distinguishing details. The prelude features a spectral trombone solo that will reappear with the ghost of Hamlet's father. I was reminded of Berlioz's underperformed work for wind band, the Symphonie Triomphale et Funêbre. The central movement of that grand symphony is a funeral march with a great trombone solo. Another color of which late 19th century french opera was fond was the solo saxophone. Massenet's Werther has one of the most famous of these excerpts. Thomas' use of a solo sax in the pantomime is equally effective (the pantomime coincides with the "play within the play" where Hamlet uses a traveling troupe to reenact his father's murder: using a "set piece" to drive the drama forward is evidence of Thomas' genius).

While far from faithful to Shakespeare's original, Thomas' Hamlet is Shakespearean in its musical characterizations. Like other great musical adaptations of the Bard--from Verdi to Gounod to Bernstein--it stands on its own legs. If "the play's the thing" then the opera is a worthy cousin. Nothing blasphemetrous after all.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Conversation Pieces: Jose Saramago

I am an avid poetry reader and general librophile (the thought of a kindle or digital reader is an abhorrent one to me). One of my favorite poetry series is the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets. These $13 pocket-sized hardbacks feature as many anthologies as they do selected works of the great poets. One of the dozen editions I have is an anthology called Conversation Pieces: poems that talk to other poems.

The most famous poem to elicit responses that engage it in "conversation" is Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd To His Love" which begins:

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That valleys, groves, hills and fields,
Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

The anthology opens subversively with Marlowe's poem and eight responses to it (or in one case, a response to one of the responses). Following poems by Marlowe's contemporaries, Sir Walter Raleigh and John Donne, are several 20th century examples. C. Day Lewis' "Song" opens with typical tongue-in-cheek irony:

Come, live with me and be my love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
That chance employment may afford.

Two poems later comes Ogden Nash's sardonic reply that is amazingly current in the 21st century. "Love Under the Republicans (Or Democrats)" opens with a familiar refrain:

Come live with me and be my love
And we will all the pleasures prove
Of a marriage conducted with economy
In the Twentieth Century Anno Donomy.

Nash paints a a scene with which anyone who's paid exorbitant rent for a tiny apartment in a big city can relate:

We'll live in a dear little walk-up flat
With practically room to swing a cat
And a potted cactus to give it hauteur
And a bathtub equipped with dark brown water.

More amusing anecdotes follow, and then, as only a great writer (or story teller) can do, Nash changes direction, and closes with a quatrain of unexpected violence:

And every Sunday we'll have a lark
And take a walk in Central Park.
And one of these days not too remote
I'll probably up and cut your throat.

That "turn" is an example of poetry's ability to have multivalent relevances and one of the many ways poetry (and all art, for that matter) can be, in the best sense, subversive. Nash expects his reader to get the reference to Marlowe. Students of Marlowe know both the irony that his subject (the addressee of his poem) was most likely a man, and that its author was murdered at the age of 29. Nash is both referring to Marlowe and speaking to his living audience. He is describing the fraught political relationships of the 20th century and the individual malaise that accompanies the modern age.

One of my favorite novelists is the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago, whose inventive fantasies are conversation pieces themselves. The first book of his I read, Blindness, was recently made into a so-so film (starring Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael Garcia Bernal). Read the book instead. But start with another Saramago novel if you haven't read him. Those interested in historical fiction (and more subversion) might try The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (a fascinating novel that humanizes not only Jesus, but God and Satan, in the style of a 19th century Bildungsroman with modernist wit and insight). Those who find religious fiction--or any art form that attempts to depict God--offensive or blasphemous might start with The Stone Raft, which chronicles five fascinating characters as they try to make sense of life while their peninsular country literally breaks off from its continent and floats into the sea.

I just finished his latest novel, recently issued in paperback (in English by his long-time, award-winning translator, Margaret Jull Costa), Death with Interruptions. As is typical with Saramago, the fantastic & supernatural are as real as the human protagonists in his imaginatively spun tales. In this one, death (with a small d), stops killing, and the country who is the beneficiary of this reprieve cannot make heads or tails of the phenomenon. I would not rank it at the top of my list of recommendations (besides the aforementioned titles, The Year of the Death of Riccardo Reis is another favorite. It is a literary tale that is part love story, part adventure that pays homage to the great Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa. Another artist I referenced in a "conversation piece" post last month, ostensibly about Cy Twombly).

After a seven month reprieve, death begins killing again. And then we meet her. She is a bony woman who lives in a small apartment, whose only companion is her well-worn scythe (with whom she converses). Death begins the very humane practice of sending her victims hand-written announcements warning them their time is about up and they have one week to live. She runs into a snafu when one letter keeps reappearing under her doorstep. She goes to investigate and finds a 50 year old cellist (he was supposed to die at 49, according to her files). The final third of the novel is devoted to their peculiar tango, and is rife with musical--and other--allusions. Among others, I loved the following passage:

"Death wonders where amphitrite is now, the daughter of nereus and doris, where is she now, she who may never have existed in reality, but who nevertheless briefly inhabited the human mind in order to create in it, again only briefly, a certain way of giving meaning to the world, of finding ways of understanding reality."

Besides the lyrical quality to the prose, I was struck by the reference to Amphitrite, the wife of Poseidon/Neptune, and reminded of another famous reference to these mythological characters. Schiller's poem Nänie features Nereus and another one of his daughters, Thetis, the mother of the hero Achilles. That poem inspired one of Brahms great choral tone poems by the same name. The image of Thetis rising out of the sea is vividly depicted in Brahms' score (which no cinematic version of Clash of the Titans will ever match).

Saramago's cellist practices Schumann and Bach (the suite no. 6 in D, erroneously listed in the novel as opus 1012. It is BWV 1012, a small but not insignificant detail) when he is not playing first chair in the national symphony. Death transforms herself into a beautiful 30-something woman and attends a concert (of an unnamed work) which features a prominent solo by the cellist.

"The orchestra has fallen silent. The cellist starts to play his solo as if he had been born for that alone. He doesn't know that the woman in the box has in her brand-new handbag a violet-colored letter addressed to him, he doesn't know, how could he, and yet he plays as if he were bidding farewell to the world, as if he were at last saying everything that he had always kept unsaid, the truncated dreams, the frustrated yearnings, in short, life...The solo is over, the orchestra washed over the solo's song like a great slow, sea, gently submerging it, absorbing and amplifying that song as if to lead it into a place where music was transmuted into silence, into the merest shadow of a vibration that touched the skin like the final, inaudible murmur of a kettledrum on which a passing butterfly had momentarily alighted."

I don't know much about Saramago's life (he continues to write award-winning fiction in his 80's), and whether or not he studied music, but in passages like that one I'm reminded of how empty the silence of life would be without artists like him.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"But when the Melancholy fit shall fall..."

Do not chide yourself if the oscar-nominated period drama (for best costumes) Bright Star did not make it onto your movie-going radar. The bio-pic by the acclaimed director, Jane Campion, is about the last years of the life of the romantic poet John Keats and his relationship with the fashion designer (the label "seamstress" is diminutive in every sense) Fanny Brawne.

Don't add it to your netflix cue if romantic period dramas laced with lyric verse are not your thing. I have to be in the mood for them myself (perhaps because life is a period drama, and I never want for poetry). I found Bright Star engaging from the start and affecting for all of its one hundred and twenty minutes. The seemingly requisite slow pace was balanced by shaded performances from the lead characters, Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish, with the poetry perfectly placed within the literate but unpretentious screenplay (also by Campion). And among other virtues, the costumes were award-worthy.

Keats tragically early death (1795-1821) all but enshrined the idea of lyric poet as romantic hero (or antihero). And no one has made melancholy sound more seductive.

In his 25 years, he left not an insignificant number of poems that epitomize the romantic idiom. "On first looking into Chapman's Homer," the sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be" (effectively used in the film), and the series of Odes are all benchmarks. "The Ode to a Nightingale" is one of the greatest lyric poems in the English language, and Keats musical diction literally sings itself off the page. The subject heading of this post is from the "Ode to Melancholy," which closes thus:

She dwells with Beauty--Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

I love the vividness of that image--the "strenuous tongue" that "can burst Joy's grape." Behind its immediate sensuousness is hidden the essence of melancholy, and its active, life-affirming polar opposite. Though I loathe the generic quality of the diagnosis "bipolar," the "manic-depressive" poles of such a temperament are vividly depicted in Keats poem.

As one such temperamental artist, I have been interested in, fascinated with, & perplexed/confounded by melancholy ever since I was aware of its existence in my own being.

Bright Star was but one recent encounter with melancholy. John Donne's religious sonnets deal with, among other things, its "holy discontent," and its extreme manifestation as despair. I recently sang Britten's setting of Sonnet III, "O might those sighs and teares returne againe" as a Lenten offertory at church. Britten's music is as charged as Donne's language:

"Th'Hydroptique drunkard and night-scouting thiefe,
The itchy Lecher and self-tickling proud
Have the remembrance of past joys
For reliefe of coming ills.
To poore me is allowed no ease."

The Chorale offered Williametta Spencer's arresting setting of Donne's "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners" last weekend [see previous posts on that concert, and older posts on Britten & our ongoing Britten Project]. Earlier this week I read a thoughtfully provocative (if more confessional than even I prefer) article in Poets & Writers by William Giraldi.

"The Art of Reading John Donne" centers around the poet's melancholy, his "holy discontent" (also from Sonnet III), and how melancholy can be used as its own medicine ("since I am myself my own fever and pain" as the Purcell song puts it).

"How does reading about Donne's near despair better prepare me to deal with my own? Because, as Milton puts it, 'things of melancholic hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour.'

Besides Keats, he cites other poets "acquainted with grief" whose melancholy temperaments are inextricably linked with the poetry they produced. Joining Milton & Donne, Keats & Byron, are (among others in every artistic genre) Hopkins, Dickinson, and Rilke.

In an altogether different article on melancholy in the March 1 New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about psychotherapy and medicine, and how we view and treat depression. One of the recent books he reviews, Gary Greenberg's Manufacturing Depresson, takes aim at what the author sees as the blatant overinflation of the number of victims of major depression (estimated at over 14 million Americans).

"Greenberg thinks that numbers like these are ridiculous-not because people aren't depressed but because, in most cases, their depression is not a mental illness. It's a sane response to a crazy world."

Among the many musical responses, none more directly addresses personality types than Carl Nielsen's second symphony. The Four Temperaments is a symphony whose "four movements are built on the concept of the four human character types: the impetuous, the indolent, the melancholy, and the cheerful or naive." I'm sure I need not spell out which movement is my favorite. The andante malinconico would be so even were the work purely abstract, free of programatic associations.

It is one of Nielsen's finest movements--a noble, slowly arching adagio--indebted to Brahms, yet in no way derivative. The "melancholy" theme first sounds quietly in the strings, its restraint one of its notable features (along with Sibelius, Elgar is another musical cousin in Nielsen's world). And just as temperaments evolve and transform, so too does this theme. It's reemergence in the second half of the 12 minute movement is a full-throated brass statement, led by the horns. Whether courageous, defiant, or willfully triumphant, the recap sounds affirmative. I hear it as an example of the Phoenix-like nature of the artist and the transformative power of the creative spirit.

If art can't cure what ails us, it can certainly change us, as its effects are experienced in the head, heart, and soul. One of the books which is always a welcome re-read is the British composer Jonathan Harvey's Music and Inspiration. This readable survey is a collection of quotes and writings from composers across historical periods, eloquently woven together by the author. Among the composers who found in melancholy a source of inspiration, Schubert is one of the most striking examples. "Pain sharpens the understanding and focuses the mind; whereas joy seldom troubles about the former and softens the latter."

Like Nielsen's andante, the music of melancholy takes on many hues. Schubert uses the warmest of tonalities, C major, to create music that is at once beautiful and sad. Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy, and among many others, Shostakovich etch their temperaments into their musical canvasses. Whether or not melancholy's ghosts are exorcised this way, such cathartic music is its own indispensable form of exercise.

Near the end of his New Yorker survey, Menand observes,

"Human beings have always tried to cure psychological disorders through the body. In the Hippocratic tradition, melancholics were advised to drink white wine, in order to counteract the black bile. (This remains an option.)"

In the venerable tradition of the wedding at Cana (the first miracle), that sounds like just the thing right now. L'chaim!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"And unusual beauty..." Philip Langridge (1939-2010)

I learned earlier this week--and am still reeling from the shock--that the eminent British tenor, Philip Langridge died March 5 from bowel cancer. His final stage appearance was January 2 at the MET, in the character (and drag) role of the Witch in Hansel and Gretel. It is remarkable to think that show-stealing performance was from a tenor who had turned 70 and was still adding demanding new music to his repertoire.

I have long been an admirer of Langridge's individual beauty as a vocal artist. His voice was not the conventional/Italianate/Romantic operatic tenor of the type embodied by Pavarotti and Domingo. Nor was Langridge a typical "English" tenor of the ex-boy-choir, pure-and-clear school. Though he was most famous and successful as the true successor to Peter Pears (1910-1986) in Britten's dozen-some operas, Langridge's voice was unique.

"It's sweetness and unusual beauty
Made my heart to leap
And almost mad with ecstasy
They were such strange and wonderful things..."

Those words from Thomas Traherne, set by Gerald Finzi [1901-1956, see Dec 09 for a post on him] in his beautiful cantata for high voice and strings, Dies Natalis. Along with his classic recording of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (with a virile Sam Ramey as "the devil"), the Finzi was the first work in which I heard Landgridge's alluring and engaging voice.

His range--technically, dramatically, and stylistically--was astonishing. Just thinking out loud, I would bet Placido Domingo is the only singer alive with more roles under his belt. And I bet no singer learned more 20th & 21st century roles than Langridge. At the MET alone, I saw his signature Britten roles, the title role of Peter Grimes and Captain Vere in Billy Budd. His Andres in Wozzeck made that character's music seem as lyrical as the Schubert lieder he also sang so expressively. He was even more impressive in the grueling role of Aron in Schoenberg's great (yes, it really is!) opera, Moses und Aron.

In the past couple of seasons alone he created roles in new operas by two of the polestars of British music, the young polymath (composer, conductor, pianist) Thomas Ades, and the dean of British modernists, Harrison Birtwistle. He recorded nearly all of the Britten repertoire--operas, cantatas, songs, canticles, concert works (the orchestral cycles and the must-hear War Requiem), a host of other 20th century British rep (Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Finzi). And in addition to the new/avant-garde/"difficult" modern music he championed he was a notable Baroque singer. His Monteverdi Vespers is still a benchmark, as is his Messiah with Sir Neville Marriner and Les Boreades (Rameau) with John Eliot Gardiner.

When I started to search my itunes library for "langridge" 420 tracks appeared in the window. And that's probably less than half the number from his recordings that I own (though, per the stat above, I'm guessing I have a higher-than-average number of Langridge recordings...)

Langridge's singing was remarkable for many reasons. I think what sets it apart is the extraordinarily difficult to achieve balance between the technical range and facility (he sang Monteverdi as polished as he did Berg) and the emotional/dramatic (ie: expressive) range of his singing. He accomplished the rare feat of drawing one's attention to the beauty and meaning of the music through the voice without drawing attention away from the music (to the voice: through "focus stealing" affects, nuances, etc...). There was not a hint of self-consciousness in his singing. In musician's terms, he used his voice like an instrument, and found an astonishing range of colors in it.

There is a fine obit in the New York Times (as well as in the British papers, The Telegraph and The Guardian).

The Times quoted insightful words from a gifted singer who was also an insightful teacher (I missed studying under him at the Britten-Pears Programme by one semester, alas. I did meet him at the MET, during a Billy Budd dress rehearsal in 1997).

"I don't talk about technique, I talk about communication." Perhaps most helpful if a student already has technique, yet that advice could not be more apt in how one "teaches" expressivity and dramatic effectiveness. Langridge's own singing was an exemplary model of technical accomplishment that communicated directly and honestly, with sensitivity and a full palette of dramatic expressivity.

"One very useful exercise is to ask a student to sing, just once, as badly as they can. It's amazing what wonderful things come out when you give them that permission."

So many wonderful things came out of the voice of Philip Langridge. He communicated clearly, guilelessly. His singing was passionate and committed. He was not afraid to take risks, step (or sing) out of the box, and seemed to have maintained the admirable discipline of artistic integrity across the span of a lengthy career. Indeed, it is inspiring to be reminded his prime as a Britten interpreter was in his 50's and 60's. It is also encouraging and liberating to have such an honest and imaginative interpreter as a model. Technical polish or beauty-for-its-own-sake never trumped expression. If a plangent (or strident, harsh, "in-your-face") tone was a dramatic or expressive possibility, he would take it and confront you with it. His duet with John Shirley Quirk in the award-winning recording of Britten's War Requiem (with Hickox on Chandos) features one such moment on the punctuation of the line "Oh death was never enemy of ours!"

I could cite a host of such instances across an equally wide range of styles and periods. Besides the gamut of roles already mentioned, his Janacek song cycle, "Diary of one who vanished" causes one to hear this music for the one-of-a-kind soul-full music it is. His Schubert disc on the acclaimed Hyperion series features a program of mostly unfamiliar songs that makes me ask--every time I give it a welcome re-listen--"why aren't more of these songs sung." He had that unusual gift of engaging the head and heart. The other singers that come immediately to mind in this regard are Maria Callas and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Philip Langridge was no "conventional" operatic singer. The timbre of his voice (and much of the repertoire he essayed) was distinct (and therefore not to everyone's liking). But to those who know and love his art, his musical integrity, his dramatic range, and his singular and soulfully expressive voice, he was one of a kind.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart...

Yesterday, Amy and I were on the noon show of our local ABC affiliate, WVEC, to promote the upcoming Chorale concerts that have been the source of my last several posts. Near the top of the hour, they covered the local protests by a notorious Baptist church from Kansas that hates everyone: Jews, GLBT's, teenagers, and soldiers.

We joked with the anchor that our concert would probably incite protests since it is a diverse program of music by women composers (assuming feminism and globalism are also hated by this church's god, as all of the above categories allegedly are).

Later, it gave me pause to reflect on the idea (from Auden?) that ALL art is political. And if the freely created work transcends the confines of partisanship, by its very existence, "art" makes a statement. The creative act itself--some thing out of nothing, something new, something original that did not heretofore exist--is audacious, bold, and daring.

And the creative act, even in its assertiveness, is affirmative (aren't all offspring loved, one way or another?!?). Seriously, even when the created work's subject is "against" or "opposed to" something--oppression, violence, poverty, strife--it is, by its very nature, FOR life...

To return briefly to the idea of art as political (again, I dislike that association because of the limiting nature of its current applications), I am reminded of Kafka and Hugo. My loose paraphrase of Kafka's famous dictum is the observation that one of the functions of art is "to be the axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart." I have seen Hugo's popular bon mot in several different places recently, from VA to NYC: "Music expresses that which cannot be said and cannot be suppressed."

I have long felt the provocative nature of art to be one of its most distinguishing and vital features. From the conscious-jolting realism of Renaissance art by Caravaggio & Michelangelo, from "disturbing" images by Bosch to Beckmann, to works of memory like Picasso's Guernica, art is provocative.

And just like the term "politics," the word "provocative" (along with words like "liberal" and "progressive") has become too lopsidedly weighted with the baggage of contemporary usage that is blinded by partisanship.

The provocation cited by Hugo and Kafka is not gratuitous. Such provocativeness is neither controversial nor rebellious simply for the sake of being so. Art is provocative in healthful ways. Our humanity requires that our consciousness be checked--that the pulse of our heart's strings be taken from time to time. We deceive each other and ourselves if we think otherwise about such "conscious check-ups." There are times we need the arts to help bring out the best in us: sometimes we need them to just keep us honest.

Robert Shaw often repeated how vital the arts are to human existence: to cultural, social (and emotional/spiritual/political!) well-being. "The arts are not a luxury but a necessity" has been taken up as often as Hugo's dictum. And sadly, our times remind us that these tried-and-true sayings will continue to be true, and even more so whenever the times are trying for the arts.

A program devoted solely to women in music (in conjunction with the first ever state-wide focus of women's contributions to the arts), by its singular nature alone, is a reminder that such focus is crucial and will be so until the adjectives that categorize and label it are no longer necessary (ie: Women- African- GLBTQ-). As the ancient chinese proverb says "it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness."

This weekend the Chorale and friends will be lighting 14 candles of creativity by nearly 1,000-year-worth of music by women. We can't afford to curse the darkness, and as Emily Dickinson wrote, we "had no time to hate." We will be sharing a beautifully provocative program, and can't wait to sing these songs into being.