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Art in time of war
What we respond to now may take us by surprise
Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic
Saturday, March 22, 2003
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In times like these, a KDFC announcer said on the air a few hours before the Iraq war began, music offers "an island of serenity, refuge and peace. Now more than ever."

Yes, the Brahms-as-balm pitch was pretty cringe-worthy. And the walled-off- island image seemed especially inopportune. But there was something instinctively right about that radio spot all the same.

Like just about everything else in daily life, the arts have been abruptly altered by war. New contexts, new causes, a new reason for tuning in to 102.1 - - all things are possible and perfectly, idiosyncratically reasonable.

That's what makes real art so precious in any collective crisis. It offers a perspective of time and a form of unbounded internal discourse -- abstract, open-ended, nondogmatic, aspiring -- that nothing else does. It's hard not to gorge on talking-head analysis and nerve-racking CNN these days, which is why attending to art, and in the process, to something deeper in ourselves seems so vital.

The theaters, concert halls and museums around town have stayed busy since the bombing began. Of the four events I took in, only the most overtly relevant -- the film "The Quiet American" at the Bridge Theatre -- was sparsely attended. People were out in strength for the San Francisco Symphony's concert of Bach cantatas and a Schubert Mass at Davies Hall, for "Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendor of Poland" at the Palace of the Legion of Honor and for an ODC/San Francisco dance program at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

There is, to be sure, a certain surreal doubleness about sitting in an auditorium or wandering around a museum right now. On my way into Davies Hall the other night, I passed a bus and two vans fully loaded with San Francisco police officers, talking quietly and sipping coffee as they awaited their next move.

After the concert of sacred music, a street prophet on the L-Taraval muttered darkly about the bombing of Baghdad, demanded to know, "Are we a Christian nation?" and got off at the next stop. Within the hour, Ted Koppel was tossing off his polished "Nightline" syntax from somewhere in Kuwait.

Buzzing helicopters filled the clear sky over Yerba Buena at intermission Thursday night. Moments later, with Brenda Way's tense and concussive "Raking Light," the ODC dancers seemed to intuit and intensify the rawness in the city and the world.

At the Palace of the Legion of Honor that afternoon, Celia Hegyi saw the war wherever she looked. "It's everywhere," she said, mentioning the 19th century Bellotto landscapes that were used as models for the reconstruction of Warsaw after that city's devastation in World War II. And there were those Frank Lobdell "Dance" paintings upstairs, made in anguished, gestural protest of the Vietnam War in 1969-71 and immediate all over again.

Hegyi, who lives in New York, was at the museum by happenstance. She'd intended to be downtown but figured that the protesters had made the area inaccessible.

No, two women replied in the next gallery, the war had nothing to do with their visit to "The Splendors of Poland." They'd planned the outing long ago and didn't see the art any differently now than if the world were at peace.

Thinking about your own reactions to anything can create a kind of distance,

a self-conscious dissonance. The true response is often the one you can't program and don't see coming.

"Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen," go the lines of the Bach cantata (BWV 12) that opens this week's San Francisco Symphony program: "Weeping, wailing/ Grieving, fearing." The final performances at Davies, conducted by Bruno Weil, are tonight and Sunday afternoon. Inviting as the connection might have been, the cantata's Christian text didn't evoke, for me, the current dread and foreboding about the war. Instead, it was the conversation of exquisite individual voices and the unity of many in that great hall that seemed more penetrating and somehow pertinent.

As the oboe rolled out its sinuous opening statement and two violins answered back in phrases at once more compact and more probing, Bach's music seemed to open up in limitless, unanswerable yearning. It happened again with the oboe, a bassoon and mezzo-soprano Monica Groop, her voice slowly oscillating between two notes. Tenor John Tessier had his exchange with a muted trumpet, their two musical lines twining upward on the thought that "All suffering will be mere trifle."

Exaltation burst forth in the second cantata (BWV 51), with Glenn Fischthal's trumpet released in excited staccatos and long trills. Phrases kept climbing upward from the depths of a double bass and cello pair. Soprano Heidi Grant Murphy got to expostulate at length on a single "Alleluja!" Stirring, in a different way, was the singleness of effect the huge San Francisco Symphony Chorus made in its hushed phrasing in the Kyrie and massive fortissimos in the shining Gloria of Schubert's Mass No. 5.

Trained as it was on glorifying God, the music at Davies seemed at once more intimate and less specific than that. It was about responsiveness and scale, it seemed to me, a balance of supple phrasing and mighty forces. At a time when the world has gone deaf to just such things, the effect was gravely beautiful.

People at the Legion kept stopping in front of Jan Matejko's "Stanczyk, the King's Jester" and reading the wall label. Here, in the image of a morose jester mourning the loss of the Smolensk borderland to the Muscovite Army in 1514, was a kind of Polish political allegory. Attention to this painting felt dutiful, as if some unseen docent had insisted that we note the war theme.

I was drawn, and then drawn back, to a 17th century "Martyrdom of St. Sebastian" by a follower of Caravaggio. It wasn't so much for the elegant rendering of spears piercing Sebastian's torso or his face, twisted away in shadow, as it was for a figure at the extreme left edge of the frame. For whatever reason -- overwhelming grief? indifference? distraction? complicity? - - he turned away from the suffering.

A crowd of 11 gathered for the 4:40 showing of "The Quiet American." It felt like a private, cautionary screening, eerily well timed. Adapted from the Graham Greene novel and starring Michael Caine as a British correspondent in 1952 Saigon and Brendan Fraser as an altruistic U.S. operative, the film could hardly be more on point.

"There's a war on. People are dying," says Caine's baleful observer, his face filling the screen as witness to America's doomed Vietnamese mission in its earliest stages.

Never mind the analogies between that war and this one. What's so insinuating about director Phillip Noyce's "American" is the way it tells an incipient war story from the ground up, in the panicked faces, murky back alleys, wobbly handheld shots, sly narrative and sudden enveloping chaos of a terrorist bomb. It's war as CNN can't ever capture it.

What could it mean, all those veils the ODC dancers kept flipping on and off their heads in "Aurora?" If references to the dress of women in Middle East are intended, they keep sliding in and out of a piece that moves too quickly from solemn to buoyant, frisky to reverent to be pinned down. (The company's run ends Sunday at Yerba Buena.)

Dance is especially soulful right now. There's something about bodies moving through space, united in their expressive cause, that seems at once harmonious and defiant. At the end of KT Nelson's "Aurora," the veils have all been tossed away. The dancers, exultant and decisive, gleam in Alexander V. Nichols' clear, white light. This is where our great energy can go.

There's one gesture that keeps recurring in the piece, a whirring flutter of the hands. They all do it at one time or another, in fragile submission or soaring flight. Gradually it gets subsumed in the dancers' other pursuits -- their lifts, a mocking line dance, an exchange of gestured kisses. But that flutter never goes away all together. Somehow, in upstage shadow and downstage brilliance, it's a memory of where they came from and who, in some fundamental human way, they are.

E-mail Steven Winn at swinn@sfchronicle.com.

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