Thursday, July 4, 2013

since my return

from my trip a week ago, I've been keeping busy. The three days immediately after my return were a welter of stage attendance. Much of this was due to the free concerts at the end of the Stanford Chamber Music Seminar. This year, these are now being held at Bing, which has the advantage of being - unlike Campbell, the old venue - well over large enough for everyone who wants to attend. But it's not as intimate, and that turns out to be a big problem. Not for the St. Lawrence Quartet, the resident leaders and mentors of the seminar. In the six months since Bing opened, they've figured out how to fill the space acoustically, which had initially been a problem. With Stephen Prutsman they gave an absolutely dynamite performance of the Franck Quintet last Friday.

The student groups, however, have not had the opportunity, nor the professional experience, to make this adjustment. Nor are they always technically very good. They often compensate generously for that with charm, earnestness, and dedication, but these are qualities more easily appreciated in a much smaller space than Bing. On Saturday we got a variety of performances from a rice-paper-delicate Dvorak Dumky Trio to a soddenly dull Beethoven Razumovsky First. Sunday's marathon of individual movements was worse. I often have to leave that for other commitments before it's over, but this time I didn't even stay until the last possible minute I could get away with.

I also think I've discovered the absolute worst seats, acoustically, in Bing. I shall be checking this out further to test this suspicion.

I've also seen two stage shows, one live and one virtual.

The virtual one was one of those "film of live theater in a movie theater" gizmos, of the London production of The Audience by Peter Morgan, starring Helen Mirren as QE2. Having boldly imagined her relationship with Tony Blair in The Queen, Morgan and Mirren are now tackling most of her other PMs - eight of the twelve have speaking parts - in a lump. It's not in chronological order - the Queen's mind drifts back and forth in time, remembering her weekly audiences with each, interspersing them with imagined conversations with her own childhood self. A foreigner would have to know a lot about British political history of the last 60 years to follow what's going on here; fortunately, I do, and for that reason curiosity demanded that I see this.

The Queen was a serious movie, but I couldn't see The Audience as anything but a put-on. Caricatures walk the stage, not real people. The politicians are reduced to ticks. Churchill is commanding, Eden headstrong, Thatcher dismissively hypocritical, Cameron so boring that the Queen instantly falls asleep when he answers her question about the state of the Euro - oh, come on - and when he asks her to name all her PMs, she forgets Jim Callaghan, who then walks on stage to pout about it. And so on. Morgan's favorites seem to be the two he allows more than one scene each. John Major, whose tick is to be endearingly hapless, gets two, and Harold Wilson gets three. He starts out aggressively working-class, and ends, having become the Queen's old chum, sadly seeing his security paranoia as a symptom of Alzheimer's and preparing to resign. Neither is true of the real Wilson - though born poor, his path to power was not that of a class warrior, but of a classless meritocrat; and his paranoia lessened, not increased, during his premiership; nor is it at all certain that the first signs of his disease were the reason for his resignation: Wilson never said so, and he'd been talking about retiring as PM after eight years long before he reached that landmark, not to mention that he then stayed on in the Commons as a backbencher for another seven years, not the act of a man crushed by the crumbling of his superb memory.

The other show was the San Jose Lyric Theater's production of The Grand Duke, the last and least of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. It's not that the songs are bad - they're all expertly composed, some of them are perfectly agreeable to hear and even faintly catchy, though there are no hidden gems like there are in Utopia, Limited or even The Rose of Persia - but that it's so infernally long and complicated. The text was cut, but I've seen it once before (a Stanford Savoyards production about six years ago), where it was cut more and was consequently better. The sets and costumes for this one were absolutely outstanding, the singing very good despite the requirement of a large cast spreading resources thin, and much of the acting better than adequate. The biggest problem was that Michael Cuddy, though as good in the lead role as Ludwig as he always is as Gilbert's fatuously self-satisfied characters, occasionally when he was not speaking would forget to act, looking distracted rather than responding to information that would greatly interest Ludwig. The best part was the costuming at the start of Act 2, where the characters cavort around pretending to be ancient Greeks.

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