San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



September 1961

Gracious Music at Aspen
The Russians’ Real Goal
Comments on Cuisine
Anachronistic Geopolitics
An International Business Conference
Negroes and Classical Music
An Atrocious New Opera
Boris Godunov




Gracious Music at Aspen

One of the nicest things about Aspen is the relaxation of its music festival. I don’t mean that people come to concerts dressed like Harry Truman on vacation, although some do, but something more basic. Most people consider it necessary to at least pretend that art is an awful strain, whether they are creating it or consuming it.

Maybe Beethoven is all about the starry heavens above and the moral law within. This is really an extra dividend. As we grow older and less naïve and his music becomes less novel to us, other values take over, even in Beethoven. We appreciate him with the same modes of reception with which we judge fine wines, beautiful women, and horse flesh, as the saying goes. The artistic puritanism which disdains this approach has always struck me as barbarous.

In an age of loss of faith and of faithlessness, we have come to expect of art that it fulfill the function of religion. The notion that art is really only the highest form of entertainment is considered the unforgivable sin of modern taste. Beauty, vision, insight, comprehension of reality for its own sake, joy, wonder — so many of the modalities of aesthetics are simply definitions of entertainment in its most completely satisfying forms.

It doesn’t do to force the great ultimates in art. The easier you take Bach, the more profound he becomes. The more you strain and grunt at Wagner, the more you produce just uncivilized vacuity.

Musicians and audience, there is an easy graciousness at Aspen that gives the music depth and luster. In contrast, in the years before the last war a friend of mine, a critic from the snobbish East, once characterized the Carmel Bach Festival as “an orgy of unbridled provincialism.”

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t mean Aspen all sounds like Rosemarie or Poet and Peasant — it’s that these people are completely at home with what they are doing and for that reason are doing their best.

If there ever was a conductor to whom the words graciousness and relaxation could be applied, they can certainly be to Izler Solomon. This man sends me the way Stokowski used to send Main Line housewives, for pretty close to opposite reasons. Buxtehude or Berg, Mozart or Lucas Foss, Izler comes at the music with a kind of physiological, lyric understanding and he knows exactly how to transmit this to his musicians.

Partly it is consistently organic phrasing — what in jazz we call swing. Perhaps more, it is a special gift for divining the secret of each musical utterance, the hidden seed from which it grows, the crystal that determines all the complexities of its structure. Maybe this is what we call swing, too. Surely this is one swinging cat.

What this means in practice is not just calisthenics on the podium. It means, before all else, a most definite kind of rehearsal relationship. Attending the rehearsals is pure joy — a real good time.

But you don’t have to go to a rehearsal. You can see what happened at rehearsal on the faces of the musicians at the concert. You sense it immediately in the way the orchestra moves like a swimmer in the sea. Just incidentally, it’s pretty noticeable in the music. It’s called morale and it is made up of understanding, security and joy.

I can call to mind without great effort a major orchestra which has gone completely to pieces because of the lack of just about everything I have been describing.

If a conductor doesn’t understand his composer, if he can’t realize the music’s intentions in his own corpuscles, if he can’t swing with the composer’s vision and with every man in the orchestra together, if he can’t even make up his mind what he is going to do in rehearsal and stick to it, if he doesn’t like music and likes musicians even less, you can, to be brutal about it, get a more or less demoralized orchestra.

I wonder why we don’t have more American guest conductors during the San Francisco Symphony season? If would be nice if we had a chance to all hear Izler Solomon. He might, as they say, stimulate us in our thinking about some of our own problems.

Part of the special quality of Aspen is the constant deep concern of a small community. This influences the choice of music and the way it is played. Monteux, Stock, Koussevitzky, many of the great conductors of the last generation are famous for the ambience of ennobled domesticity they created in the communities in which they worked.

We could certainly use some of that hereabouts. But to get it, a conductor must first woo, and then love, honor and cherish his orchestra.

[September 3, 1961]



The Russians’ Real Goal

The other day at Aspen we were discussing various aspects of foreign policy. One of the participants, close to the sources of power in Washington, was advocating what might be characterized as a hard but resilient line in the various trouble spots around the world, and a policy of containment and steady but unbelligerent pressure against the Iron Curtain.

In conclusion he said, “By so acting we announce to the Russians that we have taken a consistent position. We minimize the dangers of war resulting from rash actions on either side. Most of all, we buy time. The countries behind the Iron Curtain will, in the years to come, demand and eventually force changes that will make it possible to consider them as members of the community of nations.”

I said, “If you believe this and so do the Russians, who are committed to the faith that all they have to do is sit tight and the dialectics of history will bring about the collapse of capitalism, why don’t we see a peace race instead of an armaments race? Why doesn’t everybody at Geneva or the UN or whatever summit comes up just say, ‘OK, boys, pass the papers, we’ll sign, we can afford it and you can’t’?”

My friend answered, “I don’t think the Russians do believe this, whatever their professions. I think they fear world peace and a worldwide open society more than anything else.”

I asked, “Do you think then that they want war, that they are pushing for war in Berlin?”

He said, “They know as well as we that everybody will lose in another war. What they want is not war, but trouble. As long as they can keep the rest of the world off base, they believe they can drive through and ahead. Out of disunity and demoralization they can always hope to pick up a little real estate here and there, bit by bit. I think we must face the fact that the Russians know that their best hope is that the rest of the century will be given over to international disorder and that they plan to have it that way if they can.”

I must say that I am in substantial agreement with this analysis. We tend to accept the idea that the Russians want a long period of peace and order in which the Marxian laws of economics will work themselves out unimpeded and hand them a bloodless victory. This is a wrong understanding of historical materialism. In the Bolshevik mythology the laws of economics are presumed to work themselves out, not silently and peaceably like the law of gravity, but precisely in international turmoil, colonial revolts and imperialist conflict.

If the Russians really wanted peace, real worldwide enduring peace, it is not hard to envisage what their tactics would be — a kind of aggressive Gandhism which would continuously force the hand of the West towards disarmament, arbitration, international cooperation in aid to the underdeveloped countries. Instead — at the very hour we were discussing the question in seminar in Aspen, the Russians, in scorn and defiance of the world, were exploding their atoms over Siberia.

[September 6, 1961]



Comments on Cuisine

One of the nicest things about Aspen was the Copper Kettle restaurant at Aspen Meadows where they put up the Power Elite while they seminar around with each other. The Armstrongs who run it are, I think, former State Department people who have traveled all over the world and have lived most of their adult lives abroad.

Running a home in Karachi or Helsinki or wherever, Mrs. Armstrong has gathered a formidable repertory of recipes. Each night the menu is taken from a different country.

Some of the dinners are amongst the very best I have eaten anywhere, and I have eaten at a lot of different places.

The bulk of the readers of The Examiner are not going to tear off to Aspen, Colo., for supper. What I really want to talk about is the steady improvement in American eating habits, and that in the most unlikely parts of the country.

I have eaten excellent French cuisine in Pocatello, Idaho, and Flagstaff, Ariz. When I was a young one and working around the West as cookee and horse wrangler, I visited both these places. In those days they were cow towns on the edge of Indian reservations where it wasn’t safe to eat stew, steak or hamburger in a restaurant and wise men cooked their own grub in a camp at the outskirts of town.

I hear there are edible meals now served in the state of Texas. Much of this improvement is due to people like the couple who run the Copper Kettle in Aspen, essentially civilized amateurs who have gone into the restaurant business for kicks and who have discovered that quality and imagination pay.

It is all part of the vast qualitative change that is sweeping through American life as we grow up as a nation. Part of it is the so-called economy of abundance, but mostly it is natural adulthood.

The West, open to new ways, is maturing faster than the East, caught in cultural lags and vested interests. So you stand a better chance of getting a good meal in Wyoming than you do outside the big cities in Connecticut. And food of course is merely one symptom of a general pattern of living.

That’s what I like about the sociologist David Riesman. I don’t always agree with him, but he does try to see what is before his eyes and cope with present reality. He does not try to stuff American life into the categories of another time.

So many intellectuals believe only what they read in books and so are still running around seeing Robber Barons, Babbitts, Lords of the Press, Big Bill Thompsons, IWW’s, all sorts of characters with ready-made tastes and opinions and behavior patterns whom they have really read about in books. Believe me, I am old enough to know that Kim Novak isn’t a bit like Dolly Varden, Gaby Deslys or Geraldine Farrar.

First night back, I went to La Strada for dinner. The decor is a mite posh, and you might think the food would be just posh too. On the contrary, they serve something quite uncommon in San Francisco, Italian high cuisine.

Emigré colonies are always more “native” than the Old Country and North Beach is no exception. It is far more Italian than most of Italy today. So the robust, simple, middle-class cooking — home cooking really — has lingered on there as it has vanished from the restaurants of Italy.

Really fancy Italian cooking, which compares very favorably with French or Chinese, has never been common in North Beach, and when attempted has sometimes not been successful.

At La Strada you can eat as you would eat in the best restaurants of Verona, Milan, Bologna or Rome, and this is eating high off the hog indeed. Now I don’t want Mrs. Fried writing in and saying this is all a columnist’s gimmick — gee, that letter rankled!

All this is strung on a single thread and going somewhere. The fact that you can now eat granchio Casanova or rana cannibale or anitra Villa D’Este in what was just “Little Italy” before the last war is a sign of deep-going changes in our pattern of life.

[September 10, 1961]

[The Examiner adds the following note at the end of this column: “Kenneth Rexroth will teach an evening course, ‘Survey of Art History,’ beginning Sept. 19 at the San Francisco Art Institute.”]



Anachronistic Geopolitics

One of the historic news photographs is the official surrender of the Japanese at the end of World War II. How pathetic they were, those little men, togged out in the formal dress of a bygone era of Western diplomacy, stiff and self-conscious amongst a bunch of hard-boiled American admirals in their working clothes.

Maybe it was only a minor cultural lag, a symbol of the provincialism of the older Japanese; maybe it was more. They may have estimated perfectly the day and hour for the strike at Pearl Harbor, but did they estimate correctly the century?

Anachronistic geopolitics can prove fatal. This is one of the big problems in dealing with the Russians. To an ignorant and starving peasant in a grass hut on the edge of some tropical jungle they may look like the Wave of the Future. Actually, if they are not careful, they may well drown in the Wave of the Past.

This might be a good thing, too, if it just weren’t that they would drown all the rest of us along with themselves.

To find the equivalent of contemporary Russian painting you have to go back, not to the great painters of the 18th century, but to the now-forgotten kitsch — The Stag at Bay, The Doctor’s Visit, A Woman’s Fall, The Death of Nelson.

At his best, Shostakovich sounds like a blowsy Wagnerized Berlioz; Khachaturian is just plain vulgar, far more vulgar than Elgar; only Prokofiev clung to a shred of integrity by making fun of the official taste in music in ways that were far over Stalin’s head.

A Russian diplomatic party is more Victorian than the Victorians. If they really cut loose at a nonofficial function, things may rise to the Edwardian levels of the first act of La Traviata.

They turn out bales of propaganda about their model schools (actually the schools for the kids of the ruling caste). One look at the pictures and you can see that this is an educational system that was going out of date in Switzerland and Italy at the end of the last century.

So too their diplomacy, their power politics, their colonialism, their military philosophy. Just as Marxism is a philosophy born of the revolutions of 1848, so the Narkomindel, the Russian Foreign Office, is still thinking in terms of the international relations of the period from the Congress of Vienna to the resignation of Bismarck.

They may say that they handled Nagy precisely the way we did Aguinaldo. We didn’t; there are some startling differences, but the point is that that was over half a century ago. This is not the world of Castelreagh or Seward or Bismarck and it is very dangerous to suffer from the delusion that it is.

Right now Chairman Khrushchev is acting not unlike Bismarck vis-à-vis Napoleon the Third on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War. This isn’t 1870 and a good many things have changed since then. One of them is firepower.

The men who invented the old diplomatic game of stud poker never expected it to be played with 100-megaton hydrogen bombs.

[September 13, 1961]



An International Business Conference

Goodness gracious, what a lot of activity. Everything from business conferences to the opening of the opera to Greek tragedy. I’ve a notion to go back to the hills.

Next week I will try to do the opera and what other theater turns up. Today I would like to talk a little about what I ended with last week — the rapid maturing of American society.

A few years back I covered another of these international business conferences and was not impressed by the American contributions. What was impressive then was the high level of the speeches by the businessmen and politicians from the former colonial countries — especially the Indians, Burmese and Singhalese.

They were incomparably better educated, more aware of what was going on than their Western colleagues. They knew that the economic development of the Asian and African peoples must depend on a larger percentage of “socialism,” or at least state sponsored, financed and guided capital investment, and that the foreign investment in their countries must be largely state originated.

After all, Point Four and the Marshall Plan were “socialist” in this sense. There simply is not enough private capital available.

The bankers and steel barons of India want to help their country, and they would prefer to keep their own social advantages while doing it. They are members of a tiny elite in a mass of poverty and illiteracy. On this minuscule elite depends the future of Southeast Asia. It floats on dark abysms of poverty, ignorance and imminent starvation, “like a lotus petal on the Ganges.” Any really serious disturbance of the equilibrium of our one-world society, and it will go under — all of it. And that includes the Communists, who are, as a matter of fact, very much a part of the upper classes.

Now the first loyalty of the Asian capitalist is to his caste as a part of his country. He may scheme and struggle to keep power and privilege, but in a showdown he may only be able to do that by identifying himself with his country as a whole. Certainly he has no comparable loyalty to the international business community, and least of all to an abstraction like free enterprise.

Four years ago, at that other conference, the American speeches were all public-relations jobs, slick windy platitudes, vacuous generalities and veiled threats. The polished, worldly, London School of Economics-trained Asians were embarrassed for their hosts. Things have changed. Not much, but a little.

Today ordinary American businessmen comprehend that the problem is the building of foundations for capital accumulation from the bottom up. In some way savings and investments must start with the peasants’ cooperatives and mutual loan and insurance banks and rise throughout the social structure. It does no good to pour dollars on top, like chocolate syrup on ice cream.

The trick is to do this without a totalitarian social structure, and fast enough to keep ahead of the rising tide of starvation, the population explosion and the “revolution of expectations.” This, not anything resembling the ideas of Karl Marx, is the essence of Bolshevism. It is a political system which can force capital accumulation on a backward peasant economy and make it work and damn the cost in life and liberty.

Four years ago, the people who tried to tell their American colleagues these plain and bitter truths were met with shocked incomprehension. Then, while M.R. Masani, India’s leading conservative, was speaking, one of America’s few highly civilized and very sarcastic capitalists leaned over and whispered in a loud stage whisper to me, “Look at all the Babbitts, they think he’s a Commie!”

This time there was considerable improvement. True, any discussion of economic reality was still over the heads of the majority — but no longer over the heads of a very sizable minority. The days of laissez faire — catch as catch can and the devil take the hindmost — are over.

House-to-house peddlers like to say, “The law of averages will take care of you.” No more. You’ve got to know what you are doing, or you’ll wash down the drain with Ozymandias and Balthazar.

[September 17, 1961]



Negroes and Classical Music

I never go to the Opera, the Ballet, the Symphony, or to concerts in San Francisco without noticing the small number of Negroes. There are always fewer in the audience than you would find in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington or New York. Why is this?

The stereotype picture is of course ridiculous: all Negroes are not born just loving music. Music has been traditionally the one professional career more or less open to them, as well as the one art they could express themselves in without spending too much money.

So certainly an appreciable number of San Francisco Negroes know and love music — Handel or Weber as well as Jelly Roll Morton or Ornette Coleman. (As a matter of fact, much more likely the first pair than the second.) Why don’t they come out to listen to it?

True, the Symphony, the Ballet, the Opera, are not simply swarming with Negro performers and you might think it was a boycott that kept the audiences almost lily white. I am sure it is not. I am equally sure it is not discrimination at the box office. The slightest suspicion of just one such act would raise a tempest of unbelievable proportions.

Is it lack of money? It occurs to me now that you see just as few people of Oriental ancestry, and I know several Chinese and Japanese families who could buy every box at the Opera and never miss it.

Is it lack of “culture”? Certainly not individually. Some of the most civilized people in the community are colored one color or another. Just possibly it is lack of old, deeply rooted “acculturation.”

The Negro population of the Bay Area must have increased near to a hundredfold since the beginning of the last war. Almost all this immigration was of people from the farms and factories of the South — estimable people, but hardly used to going to string quartets.

The tiny business, professional and technical group was overwhelmed by this immigration and in a sense demoralized. Only now as youngsters graduate from college and take over and new people come out from New York and Chicago is the local Negro middle class again finding its footing in the community.

Hamburgers in dime stores aren’t everything. General participation in the cultural life of the city is a community responsibility, incumbent on those who are able to participate.

At the opening of the Opera — and at the Gala — was a Negro couple. No one else knew them, but they were certainly not being discriminated against and they seemed to be having a good time. I sat down at their table and we exchanged pleasantries. Then I learned that once on KPFA I had said essentially what I am saying hear and it had made an abiding impression. Good. I am glad. Sometimes I wonder if all the words of wisdom and solemn advice to the world I pour out are just so much roaring in my own head.

Passed the stadium Sunday and CORE and the NAACP were picketing a commercial football team accused of discrimination. About every 50th couple, laughing and eager with anticipation, hurrying past the picket line, were members of the Negro “middle class.” Oh well.

[September 20, 1961]



An Atrocious New Opera

Opera season again and already I am a little worn.

Maybe it’s just that today I feel like I’d like to go off and start another life on another planet, and incidentally see plays and hear music nobody has ever heard of or ever will. I haven’t a hangover — it’s just critical accidie — a failure of will that used to strike Medieval monks.

Maybe this weariness is due to Blood Moon. I hereby nominate myself president of The Society to Chase the Ford Foundation Out of the Performing Arts and the Negro Race. Really, this has got to stop.

Last year at The Rocks Cry Out a friend, a well-known Negro wit and bon vivant, said, “Let’s come back tomorrow night and throw chitlins and maws at the stage.” This time he just laughed uproariously. I’m sorry. I’m white and I can’t take it that lightly.

Like that lamentable play, the libretto of this opera handled a subject that is shaking the world and convulsing America with the intelligence and finesse of Ten Nights in a Barroom. Furthermore, it was saturated with the same corny sentimentality — utterly stereotyped noble thoughts masking a hidden chauvinism.

When I realized that the dancer behind Mary Costa while she was singing the “Voodoo Song” with its weak attempt at melody represented Jungle Gods Rising Within Her Tainted Blood, I almost stood up and booed. When I read the words, I wished I’d done more than that.

The music was a string of vacuous clichés. But unlike Herr von Suppe or M’sieu Grofe they weren’t strung together to make any sense, much less melodies. It reminded me of nothing so much as John Cage’s “discipline of accident,” his symphony for twenty radios, dials twirled at random.

Now the tragic thing about this foolish opera was that everybody connected with it went all out. The staging and decor were lovely. The singers worked hard and gave it their best. I don’t care what Mary Costa sings — the multiplication table set by Irving Berlin — I’ll still just love to look and listen. She certainly gave, considering she’s had a miserable cold for weeks, and she even made the last act dignified and almost as convincing as Lucia.

Here she had the help of the best performer of the evening, and the man with the best notes — Keith Engen in the part of Alexandre Dumas. (Note to backdrop designer: Sacre Coeur was not built until two generations later.)

Irene Dalis in brown makeup as Mary Costa’s mother was a most convincing actress in an unconvincing role and sang the prosy music as beautifully as could be.

But all I have to say is, “Henry the Second [i.e. Henry Ford II], would you please turn your attention to the struggle against measles and the uplift of unwed mothers? Please? Pretty please.”

Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the dullest operas still being sung and this time it was read exceptionally slowly. When it was over I felt like I’d been put through a gravel mill.

In contrast to all this weariness, Turandot makes you realize what a great composer Puccini was. A mind that thought in terms of spectacular decor, breaking heartstrings and gaudy, heart-rending music. Except for the three or four that are for adults, what good is an opera if it can’t spot up a boiled shirt front?

Unfortunately, in the court scene, Lucille Udovick insisted on outsinging Sandor Konya. The result was not unlike some of those nights at Minton’s in the heyday of Bop, with everybody “cutting” everybody else. Still, I guess such shrill conduct fits the role. Leontyne Price was of course Leontyne Price — Superlative.

The last act is so false anyway, why doesn’t somebody write another and have the little slave girl rise from the dead and denounce the apotheosis with an aria like “Un bel di”?

I went with my daughter Mary, now 11. I wore a white tie to please her and took her to La Strada and fed her things that flamed at the table and she wore live rose buds in her hair. I explained to her that the opera was posthumous. Afterwards she said, “Daddy, did Puccini die while he was writing the last act?” That child scares me.

[September 24, 1961]



Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov is surely one of the great thoughts of man, like Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony or Raphael’s School of Athens. Last Thursday’s performance was splendidly sung and acted. Giorgio Tozzi, although hardly Chaliapin, is one of the finest interpreters of the role and was in great voice.

Everybody who sings it must perforce be matched with the old man, an unfair comparison, because I am sure Chaliapin was convinced he really was Boris Godunov himself.

There is not much music for the part of Feodor, the Emperor’s son, but it was, as someone said, another triumph for Margot Blum. She not only can sing, she is a fine actress and every year a still better one. It is not easy for so feminine a woman to make a convincing boy. Her young prince was first winsome and then blasted by tragedy.

One thing, somebody should tell them to get an expert on Orthodox ecclesiastical millinery. The costuming was a hodgepodge. There were no icons in the coronation procession, but there were some little Episcopal altar boys on loan from the nearest High Church. No opera, not Aida, not Turandot, lends itself more to gorgeous decor.

Only the Byzantine from which it derived ever surpassed the medieval Russian court for awesome costuming. To be effective, it has to be right. Mistakes and anachronisms spoil one of the theater’s greatest shows — a constant background irritation, like a dripping tap or a buzzing fly.

I am usually most satisfied with Irene Dalis as a knowing interpreter. This time I was not. Marina is not supposed to be all that bad, and if the part is read as a vain shrew, it throws the deeply touching love music out of balance and makes it seem incongruous, if not impossible in such a character.

All through the opera the words of a recent magazine reviewer recurred to me. “In a sense, the 19th century was Russia’s Renaissance.” Indeed it was. What an outburst of creativity — from Dostoyevsky to the mathematician Lobachevsky, from Mussorgsky to Turgenev.

More and more I have come to feel that Bolshevism represents, not the future, but the past, a forcible clinging to the once creative forms of Russia’s great epoch, what Arnold Toynbee has called “archaism.”

It is important to a comprehension of present-day world politics to realize that not one Russian work of art of the 20th century has even approached the level of this opera.

How lovely life would be if the conflicts of nations could be reduced to, or elevated to, the quarrels of realists versus symbolists, abstract versus representational painting, None But the Lonely Heart versus The Hammer Without a Master. Alas, how does a body deal with geopolitical Landseers and Longfellows armed with hydrogen bombs?

[September 27, 1961]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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