Sunday, December 29, 2019

Favorites of 2010-2019: Books


For my favorite fiction first read in the past decade I couldn't bring myself to limit the choices to a mere ten. So what follows are my favorite 15, all of which are from the 18th or 19th centuries, plus five more from the last 100 years. In alphabetical order by author:

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (first published 1814)

While my favorite Jane Austen novel is Persuasion (1818), I didn't encounter it (or Mansfield Park) for the first time in the past decade. But I thought Mansfield Park deserved a place on this list because my understanding of it was transformed when I re-read it as part of my "Six Months with Jane Austen" project. I learned that its heroine Fanny Price may have been based in part on Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave who was raised as a gentlewoman; that the very name of the Mansfield Park estate derives from William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who as Lord Chief Justice presided over two key legal cases involving the rights of slaves; and that Mansfield Park has been built with the wealth produced by slaves owned by Sir Thomas Bertram on his Antigua sugar plantation. Fanny Price is one of Austen's most affecting heroines and Mansfield Park one of her most underrated novels.
Charlotte Brontë: Villette (first published 1853)

Based on Brontë's experiences during her two years spent at a boarding school in Belgium, Villette tells the story of the ill-fated loves of its quiet heroine, Lucy Snowe. Despite her name, Lucy is only outwardly cool; inwardly she is warmly passionate. But the constraints which forbid her to express her feelings openly, as men in her society are allowed to, lead to desperate unhappiness—which must, like her love, remain concealed.
Fanny Burney: Cecilia (first published 1782)

Cecilia is a young woman trying to make her way through the hypocrisies, trivialities and unwritten constraints of the social world. Burney's heroines, like those of her admirer Jane Austen, are not always unblemished paragons of virtue and good sense, but instead experience uncertainty and occasionally make mistakes. Burney's books also share the same kind of clear-eyed view of the allurements and perils of the marriage market that distinguishes Austen's novels. And if one of the pleasures of reading Burney is to be immersed in the social mores of the distant 18th century, another (as it is with Austen) is to discover just how contemporary her characters can seem.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos: Les liaisons dangereuses (first published 1782; translated by P. W. K. Stone, Penguin, 1961)

Les Liaisons dangereuses is told in letters mainly between the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil as they plot to debauch the innocent Cécile Volanges and the virtuous Madame de Tourvel. Of course, these ruthless libertines are also scheming against one another. The novel has lost none of its power to shock and seems only to gain in relevance with the passage of time. It was impossible to read in 2019 without thinking about recent public revelations of women's sexual exploitation by powerful men. The Marquise de Merteuil's account (Letter 81) of the stratagems she has learned to adopt in order to survive in a man's world is as searing today as when it was written. 
Charles Dickens: Bleak House (first published 1853)

The endless case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce pits family members against one another, souring natural affections and drawing even those with good intentions into obsession and self-destruction. A harrowing vision in which the all-enveloping miasma of the legal conflict is reflected in the murk of fog-bound London, where the air is full of "flakes of soot. . .as big as full-grown snowflakes" which have "gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun."

In 2005 Bleak House was made into an excellent BBC series written by Andrew Davies and featuring Gillian Anderson and E & I favorites Carey Mulligan and Anna Maxwell Martin.
George Eliot: Middlemarch (first published 1872)

Eliot writes with an almost painful psychological acuity and unsparingly dissects the emotional dynamics of love and marriage. The characters of Middlemarch are so fully realized that readers will recognize in them their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged.The 1994 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch was listed in my Favorites of 2010-2019: Movies and TV.
Susan Ferrier: Marriage (first published 1818)

The Scottish writer Susan Ferrier shares many of the virtues of her near-contemporary, Jane Austen: dry wit, vivid characters, and sympathetic young heroines negotiating the perilous marriage market. Ferrier not only shares Austen's virtues, she also borrows and reworks some of her characters and plots.

In Marriage, rather than marry a man she doesn't care for, the young, beautiful but heedless Lady Juliana elopes with her penniless lover Henry Douglas. Quickly disillusioned, they soon separate, but not before Lady Juliana gives birth to twin daughters, Adelaide and Mary. Adelaide grows to young adulthood in London under her mother's influence; she is beautiful, but selfish and vacant. The unwanted Mary is left with Henry's brother and his wife in Scotland, where she is taught by precept and example to be kind, thoughtful, selfless and devout.

Adelaide faces the same fateful choice as her mother: marriage to a handsome but impoverished lover, or to an elderly, dull, but fabulously wealthy duke. Will she repeat her mother's mistake, or make her own? Meanwhile, Mary falls in love with Colonel Lennox, a gentleman of small fortune, but her mother strenuously opposes her choice. Will Mary be able to find happiness with the man she loves?
Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857; Eleanor Marx, translator, 1886)

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, Emma Bovary takes poison.

Her money spent, and feeling disgraced and abandoned, the first English translator of Madame Bovary, Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor, took poison.

Eleanor Marx felt deep empathy with Flaubert's heroine. As she wrote in her translation's introduction (which is omitted from most later reprints),
Her life is idle, useless. And this strong woman feels there must be some place for her in the world; there must be something to do—and she dreams. Life is so unreal to her that she marries Bovary thinking she loves him. Where a man would have been taught by experience, the woman with like passions, like desires, is left ignorant. She marries Bovary. She does her best to love "this poor wretch." In all literature there is perhaps nothing more pathetic than her hopeless effort to "make herself in love." And even after she has been false, how she yearns to go back to him, to something real, to a healthier, better love than she has known. . .In a word, Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal. She has intellectuality, not mere sensuality. It is part of the irony of fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.

Into Emma Bovary Flaubert put much of himself. He too dreamed dreams that ended in nothingness; his imaginings were ever brighter than the realisation of them. . .Both strained after an unattainable heaven.
Eleanor Marx, too, strained after an unattainable heaven, and saw her hopes crushed—which makes her translation of Madame Bovary almost unbearably poignant.

Elizabeth Gaskell: Wives and Daughters (first published 1866)

Wives and Daughters is Gaskell's greatest achievement: it follows the fortunes of Molly Gibson, a young woman whose widowed father makes a sudden decision to remarry and discovers the painful truth of the proverb about repenting at leisure. With its close observation of the social world of a small English village and its touching portrait of the shy, sensitive and steadfast Molly, Wives and Daughters deserves to be placed in the company of the work of Austen, Brontë, and George Eliot—that is to say, some of the greatest novels ever written. The 1999 BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters was listed in my Favorites of 2010-2019: Movies and TV.
Charlotte Lennox: Henrietta (first published 1758)

Charlotte Lennox was most famously the author of The Female Quixote (1752), a parodistic novel about the dangers of too much novel-reading. Henrietta (1758) is about dangers of a different kind. Henrietta, an orphan, travels to London, where she is made the object of multiple unscrupulous schemes on her body and her reputation. She must rely on her wit and steadfast principles to escape the many traps set for a young woman living in the city without family protection or fortune. Henrietta was clearly a strong influence on Jane Austen, and particularly on Pride and Prejudice.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (first published 1881; translated by Gregory Rabassa, Oxford University Press, 1997)

The appealing narrative voice of Machado's great novel is lightly ironic, but the novel illustrates the limitations of approaching life ironically. While passion and commitment are shown to be absurd—delusional when not hypocritical—the alternative is a life of detached bemusement.

Like Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the Posthumous Memoirs calls attention to its own constructedness as literature—the narrator refers to previous events in his life by chapter number, for example, or engages in self-conscious typographical experiments. Chapter CXXXIX, "How I Didn't Get to Be a Minister of State," for example, consists entirely of a lengthy ellipsis. The next chapter—titled "Which Explains the Previous One"—begins, "There are things that are better said in silence. Such is the material of the previous chapter."

But apart from his wit, what makes Brás Cubas such an enjoyable companion is his unflattering honesty about himself and his motives—greed, fear, lust, envy, indolence, boredom, a desire to avoid difficulty and embrace immediate pleasure. Motives which, on reflection, are uncomfortably familiar.
Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin (first published 1833; translated by Charles Johnston, Penguin, 1979)

Alexander Pushkin has roughly the same stature in Russian literature that Shakespeare does in English, and his novel in verse Eugene Onegin is his greatest work. Onegin, wealthy, disdainful and a bit smug, is able to skate through life, and does (sometimes with tragic consequences for those he encounters)—until he comes face-to-face with lost opportunities. Pushkin's masterwork has inspired many other artists, including Tchaikovsky, Vladimir Nabokov, and Vikram Seth. Like Seth, I recommend Charles Johnston's faithful, readable and elegant translation.
Charlotte Smith: Celestina (first published 1791)

Like Fanny Burney and Charlotte Lennox, Charlotte Smith was another influence on Jane Austen. In Celestina the heroine is an orphan raised by a wealthy family whose son falls in love with her. His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby. There are many other parallels to Austen outlined in the full post linked above, but Smith's novels can be read for pleasure on their own terms.
William Thackeray: Vanity Fair (first published 1847)

This "Novel Without a Hero" follows two heroines, the good-hearted Amelia Sedley and the delightfully unscrupulous Becky Sharp. Becky is the orphaned daughter of a disreputable artist, and—realizing that the game is rigged against those of her parentage, class and gender—uses all her wiles to make her way in society among the wealthy and socially connected. Meanwhile, the sincere Amelia marries for love, only to discover the shallowness of her husband and the depth of her own self-deception. The fates of many of the characters as well as that of nations will be decided at the battle looming near a Belgian village named Waterloo. . .
Anthony Trollope: Can You Forgive Her? (first published 1864)

It's extraordinarily difficult to pick a favorite Trollope novel because the quality of his work is so consistently high. If I were to recommend a place for someone to start I might choose The Way We Live Now for its still-trenchant story of financial and political corruption, or Barchester Towers for its depiction of the fierce power struggles occurring beneath the apparently placid surface of a quiet English town.

But I chose Can You Forgive Her? not only because it was the first Trollope novel I read, and inspired me to go on to read another two dozen or so, but because it introduces Lady Glencora Palliser. Before her family intervened to compel her marriage to the emotionally reticent politician Plantagenet Palliser, Lady Glencora loved the unworthy but alluring Burgo Fitzgerald. Their mutual attraction persists even after her marriage, and Fitzgerald makes plans to run off with her on the night of a gala party. As Lady Glencora dances in his arms she finds herself faced with making a final, fateful choice.
'. . .But why have I been brought to such a pass as this? And, as for female purity! Ah! What was their idea of female purity when they forced me, like ogres, to marry a man for whom they knew I never cared?' (Ch. 47)
Lady Glencora is one of Trollope's most compelling characters—headstrong, willful, with a delightfully witty tongue. She is not always wise, but somehow always manages to engage our sympathies.
Plus five novels published within the last 100 years:

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (Victor Gollancz, 1938)

The producer David O. Selznick wrote in a memo to the director Alfred Hitchcock that "every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind." I would expand Selznick's observation by noting that anyone who has ever felt the awkwardness of entering a social situation governed by unstated rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively—and that's pretty much all of us—will feel a deep sympathy with Du Maurier's nameless heroine. My post linked above includes a defense of Hitchcock's adaptation, which I've come to feel is among his best films.
Emil Ferris: My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One (Fantagraphics, 2017)

In Chicago's gritty Uptown neighborhood in the late 1960s, 10-year-old horror comics fan Karen Reyes begins to discover some of the secrets of the adults around her—and to harbor a few of her own. Rendered as Karen's sketchbook diary, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a strikingly drawn and vividly imaginative graphic novel that is part coming-of-age story, part cancer memoir, and part murder mystery, while every page is an homage to the saving (and disturbing) power of art. Be forewarned: once you read this you will be desperate to read Book Two, which is not scheduled for release until September 2020.
Javier Marías: The Infatuations (Knopf, 2013)

A man is murdered on the street in an apparently random act of violence. But then it turns out that perhaps the violence wasn't so random; and then, that the murdered man may have been harboring a secret. As the narrator María explores further, the motives and culpability of the man's wife, his best friend, the mentally disturbed murderer, and the victim himself become ever murkier. The only clarity is that, when it comes to the human heart, nothing can be certain. 
Orhan Pamuk: The Museum of Innocence (Iletişim, 2008; Knopf, 2009)

Kemal begins a passionate affair with his beautiful 18-year-old niece Füsun that shatters his complacent existence. After the affair ends abruptly, Kemal turns the apartment where he and Füsun had their afternoon trysts into a shrine to their brief time together. Over the years, he accumulates a museum's worth of emotionally-charged objects touched in some way by her presence: earrings, toothbrushes, barrettes, cigarette butts with traces of her lipstick.

In a real-life extension of the novel, Pamuk has opened an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; every copy of the novel comes with an admission ticket (printed on page 520 of the paperback edition). The Museum of Innocence attempts to reclaim everyday objects from the oblivion to which time, changing fashion and our indifference generally consign them by allowing us to see them through Kemal's haunted eyes. Pamuk has also published a catalog to his museum, The Innocence of Objects (Iletişim, 2012; Abrams, 2012).
Arundhati Roy: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Knopf, 2017)

This, only Roy's second novel after 1997's Booker-Prize-winning The God of Small Things, is almost Dickensian in its outrage at injustice. Roy peoples her story with striking characters, such as Anjum, a Hijra who raises an abandoned child and makes her home in a graveyard, and Tilo, a woman who, caught up in larger conflicts, tries to remain true to herself.

The unhealable wound at the novel's center is Kashmir, a beautiful land where thousands of people have died and no side can claim the moral high ground. But it is not only in Kashmir that there is injustice and violence.

The title of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is not entirely ironic. There are moments of joy and of human connection and solidarity. A community of misfits, of the rejected and the rejecting, forms in spite of the relentless social, political and economic pressures that pit people against one another. Roy's clear-eyed and dispassionate dissection of the hypocrisies, deceptions and brutalities practiced even by those who claim to be fighting for justice makes for harrowing but urgent reading; her powerful prose and vivid characters make her work emotionally compelling as well.


Ten of my favorite works of nonfiction first read in the past decade, in alphabetical order by author or (in the case of biographies) subject:

Paula Byrne: The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things (HarperPress, 2013)

The Real Jane Austen is a fascinating (and very entertaining) examination of a series of objects—among them a family silhouette, an Indian shawl, and a pair of topaz crosses—that illustrate key aspects of Austen's life, work and world. While Byrne has a tendency to write "must have" and "certainly" where she should have written "may have" and "possibly," her engaging book inspired me to spend a richly rewarding six months with Jane Austen.
Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning: Letters (first published 1899)

At half-past three on Saturday afternoon, September 19, 1846, Elizabeth Barrett left her family's house in Wimpole Street, London, to go to Hodgson's bookshop around the corner in Great Marylebone Street. Barrett, who suffered from chronically poor health, had spent most of the past six years in virtual seclusion in her bedroom, seeing only a few regular visitors and venturing out of her room infrequently. As usual on her rare expeditions outside the family home she was accompanied by her maid, Elizabeth Wilson, and her dog Flush.

She never returned.

Barrett was secretly meeting Robert Browning, who had been corresponding with and visiting her for the past two years, and who, a week earlier, had married her in a clandestine ceremony. After meeting in Hodgson's bookshop, the couple left together for Paris. While back in London Barrett's dictatorial father raged at the news of their elopement (he disinherited Elizabeth and never spoke to her again), the couple travelled on to Italy, where they were separated only by her death 15 years later.

It's an astonishing story, told through the letters Browning and Barrett exchanged almost every day during their courtship. Their letters, together with incidents from their twice-weekly personal meetings, became the basis for one of the most beloved sonnet sequences in English literature, Sonnets from the Portuguese.
Elizabeth Gaskell: The Life of Charlotte Brontë (first published 1857)

Elizabeth Gaskell knew Charlotte Brontë personally, and her friendship with Charlotte gives this biography an intimacy that is rarely achieved between biographer and subject. And while it's fascinating to learn of the real-life people and events that were transmuted into Charlotte Brontë's fiction, the chief interest in Gaskell's biography, at least for me, is its liberal quotation from Charlotte's letters. In particular, Gaskell was given access to Charlotte's extensive correspondence with her former school friend Ellen Nussey. Charlotte's letters are frank, open, and sometimes painfully revealing, as when she wrote to Ellen, "Don't deceive yourself by imagining I have a bit of real goodness about me. . .I am not like you. If you knew my thoughts, the dreams that absorb me, and the fiery imagination that at times eats me up, and makes me feel society, as it is, wretchedly insipid, you would pity and I daresay despise me."
Frances (Fanny) Burney: Journals and Letters (Penguin, 2001)

On her 15th birthday, Fanny Burney, conscious of her father's (and her society's) disapproval of women authors, burned every scrap of her writing: poems, plays, stories, and a full-length novel. But nine months later she picked up her pen again and began writing a journal that she dedicated to Nobody:
. . .to whom dare I reveal. . .my own hopes, fears, reflections & dislikes?—Nobody!

To Nobody, then, will I write my Journal! since To Nobody can I be wholly unreserved—to Nobody can I reveal every thought, every wish of my Heart, with the most unlimited confidence, the most unremitting sincerity to the end of my Life!
Burney indeed kept the journal until the end of her life as a record of her thoughts, feelings and sensations. It was also a record of her keen observations of the literary and aristocratic worlds into which she was unwillingly thrust by the success of her first novel, Evelina (1778). Burney's fame brought her into intimate contact with figures such as Samuel Johnson, Hester Thrale, and Queen Charlotte, in the service of whom the shy, sensitive Burney spent five miserable years as the Second Keeper of the Robes.

In the 19th century the posthumous publication of her journals eclipsed her novels. But it's not just the famous people she knew or the compelling story of her life (a late-blooming love, forced exile with her French husband during the Napoleonic Wars, her horrifying experience of a mastectomy without anaesthesia) that made her journal so popular; it is her forthright, perceptive and deeply appealing voice. In essence, the publication of the journals made Fanny Burney her own greatest character.
Jane Glover: Handel in London: The Making of a Genius (Pegasus Books, 2018)

Though born in Saxony, George Frideric Handel composed most of the works by which he is known today in London. The English capital was, as Jane Glover's subtitle has it, the making of a genius. Glover is a well-known conductor specializing in the music of the Baroque. Her discussions of Handel's operas and oratorios offer insights that come from deep exploration, made accessible for readers (like me) who lack a musicological background. She makes the offstage drama affecting Handel's opera companies and the political upheaval in Hanoverian Britain admirably clear, but always keeps the focus on Handel's magnificent music.
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011)

There are two modes of thought that we each employ: we use the fast "System 1" for things like emotional responses, intuitions, or snap judgments, and the slow "System 2" for things like calculation or logical argument. But this division of mental labor often leads us into error when we use System 1 for tasks that really require System 2. We confuse familiarity with truth, allow random suggestions to affect our judgments, assume small samples are representative, and focus on the details of a problem to the exclusion of important information from its larger context. And advertisers, politicians, and others who want to manipulate us take full advantage of these cognitive failings. After reading Thinking, Fast and Slow you'll never look at apparently simple choices in the same way again—and that's a good thing. This very entertaining book is a must-read for anyone who thinks.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Selected Letters (selected and edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997)

Lady Mary eloped with a man she tolerated to avoid a forced marriage to a man she despised; travelled with her husband and children to Turkey, where she learned of smallpox inoculation, went to the public baths, and was entertained in a harem; may have had love affairs before and after her marriage with both women and men; and in her late forties left her husband, home and country to follow the man she loved to Italy, only to discover that he did not love her in return.

Her introduction of smallpox inoculation to Britain saved thousands of lives. She was also an acclaimed poet, a woman noted for her learning and wit, and the first Western woman to give an account of Ottoman culture. Her letters are emotionally revealing, sometimes uncomfortably so, and her adventures read like a novel. Also recommended as a companion to the letters: Isobel Grundy's excellent biography of Lady Mary (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Michael Reynolds: Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier (Boydell Press, 2016)

Michael Reynolds shows that the Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera Der Rosenkavalier owes its existence to a third, uncredited collaborator, Count Harry Kessler. In co-writing the scenario for the opera, Kessler drew extensively on his memories of a little-known French operetta, L'ingénu libertin (The young libertine, 1907), itself based on Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray's risqué eighteenth-century novels about the amorous adventures of the youthful Chevalier de Faublas. Reynolds has uncovered a treasure trove of production photos, programs, scores, and other materials that illuminate the opera's sources and the contributions of Kessler. If you love Der Rosenkavalier, Reynolds' book is essential—and fascinating—reading.
Patti Smith: Just Kids (Ecco, 2010)

In the summer of 1967 the 20-year-old Patti Smith arrived in New York City with $32 and a battered copy of Rimbaud's Illuminations in her pocket. By chance she encountered Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two began a romantic and artistic partnership that transformed both of their lives. Just Kids is written in an autodidact's style which is direct, genuine, unsentimental, at times incantory, and like her music, utterly compelling.

Zadie Smith: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin, 2009)

In her essay "Dead Man Laughing" Zadie Smith affectingly describes her relationship with her father and her inherited love of British comedy (The Goon Show, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and a name new to me, Tony Hancock—"a comic wedded to despair"). As her father lies dying in a hospital,
I did all the usual, banal things. I brought a Dictaphone to his bedside, in order to collect the narrative of his life (this perplexed him—he couldn’t see the through line). I grew furious with overworked nurses. I refused to countenance any morbidity from my father, or any despair. The funniest thing about dying is how much we, the living, ask of the dying; how we beg them to make it easy on us.
"Dead Man Laughing" is gently but keenly observed, sad, and very funny. It's collected here, along with many more of her smart, insightful and beautifully written pieces, including her appreciation of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Smith writes of the importance for Eliot of the moment "the scales fall from our eyes": how we can achieve what we think we most want, only to realize that we've mistaken our own desires. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this essay is that it made me urgently want to read Middlemarch, which you'll find enthusiastically recommended in my "Favorites of 2010-2019: Fiction" list above.
Other Favorites of 2010-2019:

Friday, December 27, 2019

Favorites of 2010-2019: Live performances

When listing my favorite live performances of 2010-2019 I wanted to focus on the performing arts organizations that have immeasurably enriched our lives over the past decade. So in alphabetical order, the organizations to which we are grateful together with a favorite live performance sponsored by each:

Rebecca Myers Hoke (Sémélé) and Sara LeMesh (Junon) in Sémélé. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

American Bach Soloists: Under the leadership of founder Jeffrey Thomas, each year ABS produces a full season plus a summer festival showcasing young artists from the ABS Academy.
  • Favorite performance: Marin Marais: Sémélé
    Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, August 14, 2015.

    After its initial 1709 run Marais' Sémélé remained unperformed for nearly 300 years. To have the opportunity to hear this magnificent and unjustly neglected score was truly a privilege, and Thomas and his musicians and singers performed it beautifully.

Kindra Scharich as Rosaura in Ermelinda. Photo: Teresa Tam/Ars Minerva

Ars Minerva: Astonishingly creative productions of forgotten Baroque operas rediscovered, edited, and restaged by indefatigable Artistic Director Céline Ricci.
  • Favorite performance: Ermelinda
    Nikola Printz (Ermelinda), Sara Couden (Ormondo/Clorindo), Kindra Scharich (Rosaura), Justin Montigne (Aristeo), Deborah Rosengaus (Armidoro). Period-instrument orchestra conducted by Jory Vinikour; stage direction by Céline Ricci. ODC Theater, San Francisco, seen November 24, 2019.

    The success of Ars Minerva's Ermelinda was due not only to Ricci's painstaking archival research, but to her unerring eye and ear, her highly imaginative staging, and her ability to pull together singers, musicians and a creative team who were wholly committed to her vision. Ermelinda was a triumph.

David Hansen (Nerone) and Amanda Forsythe (Poppea) in L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Photo: BEMF.

Boston Early Music Festival: This venerable biennial festival (founded in 1980) brings the best early music performers to the Boston area for concerts and exhibitions, and to international audiences through their excellent recording series.
  • Favorite performance:  The Monteverdi Trilogy
    Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors; Gilbert Blin, stage director and set designer; seen June 12-14, 2015.

    In 2015 the Boston Early Music Festival staged of all of Monteverdi's extant operas: L'Orfeo, (Orpheus, 1607), Il Ritorno di Ulisse in Patria (The return of Ulysses to his homeland, 1640), and L'incoronazione di Poppea (The coronation of Poppea, 1642). The musical and vocal performances were exceptional, and the stagings ranged from good (Orfeo, Ulisse) to excellent (Poppea); for details please click the links to my original posts. It was a privilege to be able to see these three masterpieces performed on successive days. 

Cal Performances is the UC Berkeley-based sponsor of concerts in the past decade by Joyce Di Donato, Philippe Jaroussky, Mark Morris Dance Group, Dorothea Röschmann, Jordi Savall & Hesperion XXI, Takács Quartet, Tallis Scholars, and many others.
  • Favorite performance: Layla and Majnun
    Mark Morris Dance Company, with Alim Qasimov (Majnun), Fargana Qasimova (Layla), and the Silk Road Ensemble, commissioned by Cal Performances. Seen in its world premiere performance at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Friday, September 30, 2016.

    This was a very tough call because Cal Performances sponsors so many wonderful concerts each year. Layla and Majnun, like Juliet and Romeo, are lovers tragically separated by their families and united only in death. Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli's 1908 opera was adapted and condensed into an hour-long work for two singers accompanied by a chamber orchestra mixing Western, Azerbaijani and Asian instruments; Mark Morris choreographed the accompanying dances. But it was the music—particularly the melismatic microtonal mugham singing of Alim Qasimov and Faragana Qasimova—that was especially stunning.

Shreya Ghoshal

Friends of the San Francisco Public Library sponsors programs at every branch throughout the year and is a leading advocate for sustainable funding for the library.
  • Favorite program: Shreya Ghoshal
    Bollywood Song and Dance with Dhaval and Gunjan and friends, Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Public Library main branch, March 3, 2018.

    In a basement auditorium at my local public library one spring afternoon I happened across a performance by the playback singer Shreya Ghoshal. If you aren't a Bollywood fan, perhaps you don't realize how improbable that is. Shreya Ghoshal has performed on the soundtracks of something like 500 films, including E & I favorites Vivah (2006), Godavari (2006), Dor (2006), Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006, one of my Favorite Bollywood Films from the 2000s), Aaja Nachle (2007), 3 Idiots (2009), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Love U...Mr. Kalakaar! (2011), PK (2014), and four of my Top Ten Shah Rukh Khan movies: Devdas (2002, for which she won the RD Burman Award for New Music Talent and the Filmfare Award for Best Female Playback Singer), Paheli (2005), Om Shanti Om (2007), and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2009). What a privilege to be able to see her in such an intimate setting.

Cesare (Sarah Connolly), Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey), and members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Giulio Cesare. Photo:

Glyndebourne Festival Opera: The original country house opera festival, Glyndebourne (begun in 1934) continues to present great singers in striking productions.
  • Favorite performance: Giulio Cesare
    Sarah Connolly (Giulio Cesare), Joélle Harvey (Cleopatra), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Patricia Bardon (Cornelia), and Anna Stéphany (Sesto), John Moore (Achilla), the Glyndebourne Chorus and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by William Christie, seen June 20, 2018.

    Director David McVicar's production of Cesare comments on the lengthy history of British imperialism in the Middle East and India. It's also very funny and moving, and with a cast of committed performers and Handel's great music the evening was, in a word, sublime.

Sylvestris Quartet performing at SF Music Day 2017. Image: Sylvestris Quartet

InterMusic SF: Sponsor of the annual free musical cornucopia SF Music Day, as well as grants and programs throughout the year.
  • Favorite performance: Sylvestris Quartet
    SF Music Day, Education Studio, War Memorial Veterans Building, San Francisco, September 24, 2017.

    SF Music Day is an astonishing event. Each year over the course of a single day in four different venues around the vast Veterans Building, InterMusic SF presents more than 30 groups playing jazz, international, classical and/or contemporary music. On SF Music Day 2017 I was most impressed by the program of the period-instrument Sylvestris Quartet performing "250 years of French string music in 30 minutes." The pieces ranged from Marc-Antoine Charpentier's 17th-century Concert pour 4 parties de violes to a meltingly beautiful rendition of the slow movement from Camille Saint-Saëns' String Quartet No. 1 from 1899.

Kindra Scharich with the Alexander String Quartet.

Lieder Alive! supports the teaching, performance and appreciation of art songs.
  • Favorite performance: The Mahler Song Cycles
    Kindra Scharich with the Alexander String Quartet, Noe Valley Ministry, San Francisco, September 10, 2017.

    To open Lieder Alive's 2017/18 Liederabend Series rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, accompanied by the Alexander String Quartet, presented a program of three song cycles by Gustav Mahler arranged by Zakarias Grafilo, first violin of the ASQ. The quartet versions offered both intimacy and fullness, and Scharich's voice floated beautifully over the strings. Their recording of these works was one of my Favorites of 2010-2019: Music.

Andreas Scholl, Anne Sofie von Otter and conductor Nicholas McGegan (rear center). Image: Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra: North America's premier period-instrument orchestra, directed for the past 35 years by Nicholas McGegan.
  • Favorite performance: Anne Sofie von Otter and Andreas Scholl
    Weill Hall/Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, May 14, 2016.

    We drove 60 miles north to the Green Music Center on the campus of Sonoma State University to see two of the greatest singers of our era perform arias by Handel. But it was the second half of the program, featuring hauntingly performed contemplative songs by Arvo Pärt and Caroline Shaw, that made this one of the most memorable concerts of the past decade.

Dajeong Song (Unulfo) and Molly Boggess (Bertarido) in Rodelinda at SFCM.

San Francisco Conservatory of Music: This renowned conservatory, founded in 1917, presents an almost daily series of concerts from the next generation of musicians and singers; most are free.
  • Favorite performance: Rodelinda, Regina de' Longobardi
    Karen Notovitz (Rodelinda), Matheus Coura (Bertarido), James Hogan (Grimoaldo), with the SFCM Baroque Ensemble conducted by Corey Jamason. Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall, SF Conservatory of Music, seen March 11, 2018.

    With both Historical Performance and Opera & Musical Theatre programs, SFCM presents (at low or no cost to the audience) fully staged operas rarely produced elsewhere. Rodelinda is the widowed queen of Lombardy, who is sexually blackmailed by Grimoaldo, her husband Bertarido's usurper and murderer. But is her husband really dead. . .? Karen Notovitz gave a lovely, moving performance as Rodelinda, with excellent support by Matheus Coura, James Hogan and the other members of the cast.

San Francisco Early Music Society: Sponsors of the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition of early music, plus an annual series of concerts and workshops.

San Francisco Opera: Founded in 1923 by Gaetano Merola, SF Opera approaches its 100th birthday with the difficult dual mission of remaining both artistically vital and financially viable.
  • Favorite performance: Les Contes d'Hoffmann (Tales of Hoffmann)
    Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann), Christian Van Horn (Councillor Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle, Dapertutto), Hye Jung Lee (Olympia), Natalie Dessay (Antonia), Irene Roberts (Giulietta), SF Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Patrick Fournillier, stage direction and costume designs by Laurent Pelly, SF War Memorial Opera House, seen June 5, 2013.

    Exactly what we'd love to see more of at the San Francisco Opera: a striking production of an uncommon opera with a superb cast. Laurent Pelly's visually arresting staging of Jacques Offenbach's late masterwork employed a virtually flawless cast featuring tenor Matthew Polenzani as an ardent Hoffmann, thrillingly sinister bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as the four villains, the lovely (and lovely-voiced) mezzo Angela Brower as the Muse/Nicklausse, the (almost literally) stratospheric Hye Jung Lee as the doll Olympia, and Natalie Dessay as the tragic Antonia. It's difficult to imagine a more compelling production of this dark, eerie, and beautiful work.

    It's easy to complain about the company's sometimes unadventurous repertory choices—and I haven't resisted the temptation. But amid the diminishing-return revivals of Tosca and Madama Butterfly in the past decade the company has mounted strongly cast and often brilliantly conceived productions of Handel's Partenope (2014 & 2019), Berlioz's Les Troyens (2015), Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (2010, 2015 & 2019), Richard Strauss's Arabella (2018), and Dvořák's Rusalka (2019). We're looking forward to the new season announcement next month.

Voices of Music: The San Francisco early music ensemble has increased the audiences for its excellent concert series by posting professionally filmed and recorded videos to its YouTube channel.
  • Favorite performance: Dido and Aeneas
    Mindy Ella Chu (Dido), Jesse Blumberg (Aeneas), San Francisco Girls Chorus, Voices of Music conducted by Hanneke van Proosdij, produced by the San Francisco Early Music Society 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, First Congregational Church, Berkeley, seen June 7, 2018.

    Henry Purcell's great tragic opera Dido and Aeneas (1688?) was written to be "perform'd at Mr. Josias Priest's boarding-school at Chelsey. By young gentlewomen." There is strong evidence that in the original performances at Priest's school the young gentlewomen took all of the roles, including that of the Trojan hero Aeneas; for a debate on this question between yours truly and Voices of Music co-director and lutenist David Tayler, please see The Mysteries of Dido and Aeneas and its comments thread.

    For the San Francisco Early Music Society's 2018 Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, Voices of Music joined forces with the SF Girls Chorus to offer a hint of what such a performance might have sounded like. Members of the Girls Chorus took on all except the title roles, which were sung by soprano Mindy Ella Chu and baritone Jesse Blumberg. Especially delightful was Allegra Kelly's boozy Sailor, but all of the chorus members performed with exceptional skill and assurance. How closely Voices of Music and the SF Girls Chorus re-created Dido's original performances is ultimately immaterial; this production succeeded wonderfully on its own terms.

Ryan Belongie (Arsamene) and Angela Cadelago (Romilda) in Xerxes (Serse) at Berkeley West Edge Opera. Photo: Ching Chang

West Edge Opera: An adventurous company producing underperformed and contemporary operas under the artistic direction of Mark Streshinsky.
  • Favorite performance: Xerxes (Serse)
    Paula Rasmussen (Serse), Angela Cadelago (Romilda), Ryan Belongie (Arsamene), Anna Slate (Atalanta), Berkeley West Edge Opera Orchestra conducted by Alan Curtis, El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Theater, seen November 21, 2010.

    WEO Artistic Director Mark Streshinsky's bold, campy production effectively emphasized the farcical elements of Handel's opera. And with internationally-acclaimed conductor Alan Curtis in the pit and a strong cast of new and established singers—Rasmussen also took the title role in what remains the best version of this opera on DVD, and newcomer Anna Slate almost stole the show—the musical quality of this production was extremely high (a standard the company has maintained since).
Other Favorites of 2010-2019:

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Favorites of 2010-2019: Music

Choosing ten favorite recordings first heard in the past decade was extraordinarily difficult, and if I made my choices tomorrow several entries might be different. In chronological order by composer or musical era:

The Complete Gesualdo Madrigals. Delitiae Musicae, directed by Marco Longhini. Recorded 2010-13; Naxos.

From Gesualdo's fifth book of madrigals, "O dolorosa gioia" (Oh painful joy):

Prince Carlo Gesualdo was a tormented spirit: he brutally murdered his wife Maria and her lover, and later in his life by one account "was assailed and afflicted by a vast horde of demons." Some have heard echoes of madness in his music, which (especially in his later madrigals) takes chromaticism and dissonance to new extremes.

I doubt that his music is a simple reflection of his madness: other composers were also exploring these expressive techniques, and whatever demons afflicted him were more likely to have interfered with his ability to compose rather than to have inspired it. Instead I think we have to recognize Gesualdo as a highly innovative and self-conscious composer who was deliberately pushing the boundaries of the accepted musical practice of his time.

Cecilia Bartoli: Mission. With Philippe Jaroussky and I Barocchisti conducted by Diego Fasolis. Recorded 2012; Decca.

"T'abbracio mia diva" (I embrace you, my goddess), from Agostino Steffani's opera Niobe.

Agostino Steffani was of the generation before Handel, and was Kappellmeister for the Hanoverian court before Handel was appointed to the same post. Handel and Steffani knew one another, and Handel thought highly of Steffani's vocal music. You can hear why in this exquisite duet. Once again Cecilia Bartoli has used her superstar status to bring unjustly neglected music to light.

Philippe Jaroussky: Carestini — The Story of A Castrato. Le Concert d'Astrée conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm. Recorded 2007; Erato.

From Handel's opera Alcina, Ruggiero's aria "Mi lusinga il dolce affetto" (Sweet passion tempts me):

The 2010s for us have been the decade of Philippe Jaroussky. After hearing one of his early recordings we attended the Boston Early Music Festival especially to hear him sing the role of Anfione in Agostino Steffani's rarely performed opera Niobe, Regina di Tebe (Niobe, Queen of Thebes). As I wrote in my post, "The moment Jaroussky began to sing an electric surge of excitement rippled through the audience. The unearthly soprano sound he produces, his amazing virtuosity and his deep musicality offer a suggestion of why in the Baroque era the castrati were showered with so much adulation."

A superb recording of that opera was issued (it was one of my Favorites of 2015), but Jaroussky's disc of arias written for the castrato Giovanni Carestini by Vinci, Hasse, Porpora and Handel is one that I find myself returning to again and again. This album was the first of Jaroussky's seven straight appearances on my year-end favorites lists.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: Lorraine at EmmanuelCelebrating the Lives of Craig Smith and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Orchestra of Emmanuel Music conducted by Craig Smith and John Harbison. Recorded 1992-99; Avie.

From Bach's cantata Freue dich, erlöste Schar (Rejoice, redeemed host) the aria "Kommt ihr angefochtnen Sünder" (Come, you troubled sinners):

Seeing Lorraine Hunt (later Lieberson) perform live was a uniquely intense experience. Each time it was like an outpouring from her soul; as I wrote in an earlier post, "During the time you'd spent in her company you felt that you had lived more deeply."

This disc documents concert performances of Bach and Handel given at Boston's Emmanuel Church, where Hunt Lieberson was once a violist with the orchestra. It's easy to believe that she felt a special connection with the ensemble and with this music. Her life was tragically cut short by breast cancer in 2006, making even more precious the rare documents (such as this one) of her profound gifts.

Haydn: Baryton Trios. Balázs Kakuk (baryton), Péter Lukács (viola) and Tibor Párkányi (cello). Recorded 1989; Hungaroton.

The first movement (Adagio) of the Trio in C major:

Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus I was an amateur musician whose favorite instrument was the baryton. Like the larger viola da gamba, the baryton had seven bowed strings and a fretted neck; like a viola d'amore, the baryton had a second set of strings that resonated when the first set were bowed; and like the theorbo, the baryton's sympathetic strings could be plucked (the baryton had a hollow neck, and the strings were plucked from behind, with the thumb of the left hand). Haydn composed about 175 pieces for the baryton, most of which were trios for viola, baryton and cello (Haydn himself probably played the viola part). The combination of the three low stringed instruments creates a lovely sound, and lends more a hint of melancholy to the slower movements.

As I wrote in my original post, "For many years I resisted the appeal of Joseph Haydn's music. It seemed too clever to be profound, too pleasant to be emotionally affecting." This was the album that changed all that. Hearing this marvelous music played on 18th-century instruments inspired me to seek out other period-instrument Haydn performances. I don't remember how I first discovered the string quartet recordings of the Quatuor Mosaïques, but they have such warmth and such a beautiful blending of sound that my resistance to Haydn was overcome.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin.
CD: Thomas Allen (Onegin), Mirella Freni (Tatiana), Neil Shicoff (Lensky), with the Statskapelle Dresden conducted by James Levine. Recorded 1988; Deutsche Grammophon.
Film: Vadim Medvedev (Onegin, sung by Yevgeni Kibkalo), Adriana Shengelaya (Tatiana, sung by Galina Vishnevskaya), Igor Ozerov (Lensky, sung by Anton Grigoriev), with the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre conducted by Boris Khaikin, directed by Roman Tikhomirov. Released 1959; Corinth Films/Kultur DVD.
DVD: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin), Renée Fleming (Tatiana), Ramon Vargas (Lensky), with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine, production by Robert Carsen. First broadcast 2007; Metropolitan Opera Live in HD/Decca DVD.
From the Metropolitan Opera production, Onegin's remonstrance of Tatiana for indiscreetly writing him to declare her love:

The impulse purchase of the Thomas Allen/Mirella Freni recording at a library sale led to my seeking out Pushkin's novel in verse, and to the exploration of the work's biographical parallels for both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky (see following a train of thought). It didn't take long for us to recognize Eugene Onegin as one of the greatest 19th-century operas, and as a model adaptation of a literary source.

You will find any of the versions listed here to be rewarding: the 1988 recording conducted by James Levine is lush and passionate; Tikhomirov's classic film features a youthful, attractive cast and is shot on location in the Russian countryside and St. Petersburg; and the Metropolitan Opera DVD seen above captures the incomparable Onegin of the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky, partnered by Renée Fleming's affecting Tatiana in Robert Carsen's visually striking production.

Richard Strauss: Orchesterlieder. Gundula Janowitz with the Academy of London conducted by Richard Stamp. Recorded 1988-89; Virgin Classics Red Line.

"Morgen!" (Tomorrow!) is a rapturous anticipation of a lovers' meeting:

Gundula Janowitz's ability to spin out long-breathed melodies and her creamy tone are ideal for Strauss's gorgeous orchestral songs. This recording is the perfect companion to her magnificent performance of Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Janowitz remains unsurpassed in this music.

Gustave Charpentier: Louise. Ninon Vallin (Louise), Georges Thill (Julien), with Les Choeurs Raugel and Orchestra conducted by Eugène Bigot. Recorded 1935; Nimbus Records.

Ninon Vallin singing "Depuis le jour," in which Louise expresses the joy she's found with her lover:

Charpentier's musical talent was discovered while he was laboring in a textile factory as a teenager. After his training at the Paris Conservatoire he conceived of a musical drama whose subject came from his own life: the struggle of a young working-class woman, Louise, to find happiness with her artist lover despite the strong disapproval of her family. Charpentier had begun a long-term affair with a seamstress while attending the Conservatoire, and may have based his opera's heroine in part on her.

The opera was given its first performance in 1900, and made the soprano who sang Louise, Mary Garden, a star. Thirty-five years later it was decided to record as much of Louise as could fit on eight double-sided 78 rpm discs. Charpentier—then 75 and still living in the same Montmartre apartment—made the needed cuts for this "special version for the gramophone." The recording won the Grand Prix du Disque, and despite the substantial abridgment and the limits of the mono sound is still perhaps the greatest recording of the opera that has ever been made.

Gustav Mahler: In Meinem Himmel: The Mahler Song Cycles. Kindra Scharich with the Alexander String Quartet. Recorded 2018; Foghorn Classics.

In "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!" the singer contemplates a gift from a lover, a lime bough whose scent brings back the memory of the day it was received:

This disc includes three of Mahler's great song cycles, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) and Rückertlieder (Rückert Songs). Scharich's pure, rich voice is exquisite, and the string quartet transcriptions by ASQ first violinist Zakarias Grafilo offer both intimacy and fullness of sound.

Federico Mompou: Música Callada. Federico Mompou, piano. Recorded 1974; Ensayo.

Federico Mompou performing the first piece from Book 1 of Música Callada ("Silent music"):

Música Callada (the title is taken from a poem by San Juan de la Cruz) is a collection of 28 short piano pieces by the Catalan composer Federico (Frederic) Mompou. Although the pieces make use of a modern and occasionally dissonant harmonic language, they create an atmosphere of stillness and inwardness.

The album that introduced me to these pieces was by the pianist Herbert Henck (ECM 1523). Two or three years later I came across Mompou's own versions in a bargain bin at Amoeba Music. As Henck points out in the notes to his recording, the pieces "seemed to continue beyond their conclusion as the composer—at least in the first two books of the cycle—consistently omitted the traditional double bar at the end. Ties on the final notes led symbolically into emptiness, meaning that the pedalled sounds should be. . .fading and losing themselves in the instrument and the surrounding space."

Mompou's sound-world evokes Erik Satie (especially his Gymnopédies and Gnossienes) and Debussy. But at the same time his music conveys a deeply personal sensibility, especially when these quiet, contemplative and reflective pieces are heard as a series.

Bonus: Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: An American Musical. Original Broadway Cast Recording. Recorded 2015; Atlantic.

"My Shot":

What is left for me to add to everything that's been said about this musical? As everyone already knows, it is the story of the Revolutionary War hero, Federalist Papers author and founder of the Federal Reserve Alexander Hamilton told through rapid-fire rap. Miranda's tongue-twisting wordplay is performed trippingly by himself as Hamilton and a largely African-American cast portraying his revolutionary compatriots such as Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom, Jr.), George Washington (Christopher Jackson), and the Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs).

Miranda's musical references range from Gilbert & Sullivan (Pirates of Penzance) and Rodgers & Hammerstein (South Pacific) to Biggie Smalls ("Goin' Back to Cali") and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five ("The Message"), but Hamilton is also dazzlingly unprecedented. And at a time when voices have been raised in fear and anger against immigration, the musical points up the foundational role of immigrants and people of color in creating and sustaining our country and its ideals. "Rise up!"

Other Favorites of 2010-2019: