Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Of music, history, and music history

A violinist plays for Russian troops during WWII.

There's an inherent problem in assessing performance when experiencing works of genius for the first time - otherwise, I'd be doing handsprings over the recent BSO performances of Shostakovich's Second Cello Concerto and Bruckner's Ninth under the baton of Marek Janowski. Local reaction to the concerts was somewhat muted, however, and this was my first exposure to either work live - so, contrary to my reputation, I'll be a little hesitant in my assessment, and simply say (here goes) that the concert was the most exciting I've seen from the BSO in a very long time. And in some ways whether it was the BSO and Janowski, or Shostakovich and Bruckner, that lit my fire is incidental to a deeper issue: the symphony's stance toward music that is engaged with history.

For as the Globe's Jeremy Eichler pointed out, James Levine has "steered clear" of Shostakovich and Bruckner, even though both are deeply embedded in the global saga of the last century or so. Bruckner, of course, played second fiddle only to Wagner on Hitler's hit list (that's the big guy himself paying his respects to the composer, at left), while Shostakovich served as both Stalin's darling and whipping boy - below he's on the cover of Time during WWII, goading the Russians on with radio addresses and the Leningrad Symphony.

Ever the apologist, Eichler merely comments, "More power to [Levine] for sticking to the works he believes in." I'm more intrigued, however, by what this omission in the maestro's taste might mean. As I've said before, Levine often strikes me as a kind of musical gourmand addicted to the succulence of technical difficulty; he sometimes seems to be picking out modernist challenges like candy from a tray. You can make an Apollonian case for this kind of thing, I suppose, but then when you encounter music that's not merely inwardly-facing but engaged with the world, the former style's brilliance can suddenly seem very hollow. It's hard for me, therefore, to imagine preferring the arcana of Schoenberg or Carter to the gripping sorrow of Shostakovich, and of course the concert world is slowly coming to the same conclusion: the great Russian has become a concert hall staple, and Bruckner is finally emerging from the shadow cast by you-know-who's admiration.

But while both may be great, Bruckner (left) is by far the weirder. Immense, yet truncated (the composer never finished its fourth movement), the Ninth Symphony pushes chromaticism way past its Wagnerian sources, and into uncharted harmonic space, before climaxing in one of the most famously dissonant "crashes" in the repertoire. Occasionally the development of one musical idea suddenly "stops," the symphony observes a moment of silence, and then resumes with an entirely new theme. Add to this the fact that the scherzo is slower than the trio, and that we never get back to our "home key," and you have a very strange musical beast indeed - yet one that is almost insistently compelling, and lit by sudden flashes of nearly ecstatic enlightenment. It's easy to see how the orgiast in Hitler would have responded to the pounding bacchanal in Bruckner, but somehow I managed to appreciate the composer's half-mad glory without leaping into a goose-step. And while the Globe faulted conductor Janowski for not "welding" the piece into a "structurally cohesive whole," to my mind the jagged architecture of the performance was instead an interpretation, a decision, not a failing. At any rate, if it was a mess, it was a thrilling one.

By way of contrast, the Shostakovich (the composer at left, at about the time of the Second Concerto), was all controlled melancholia - but with a sardonic, disorderly edge. Cellist Truls Mørk ably essayed the central melodic lines, but it was generally the orchestral accompaniment that proved most haunting. Here Shostakovich draws from folk song - he even includes a vulgar little ditty called "Come buy my pretzels" - but gives the material an almost savagely ironic spin. Heedlessly happy, and imbued with a lightly cruel energy, the tunes keep returning, even after repeated sighs from the cello, which is itself occasionally silenced by a sudden thwack from the timpani. It's hard to fight the impression that this amounts to a harrowing vision of a Russia gone mad, especially when Shostakovich recapitulates his themes with startling ferocity - in the final conflagration, the pretzel song has become overpowering, and dances this time to the crack of a whip. The concerto ends with a truly eerie effect: quietly, as if at a great distance, the percussion defiantly taps out its little tune - unstoppable, for better or worse.

In many hands all this would have been a meaningless sequence of exquisite effects - but somehow guest conductor Janowski imbued them with what amounted to metaphor. But what is this alchemy, precisely - how were Shostakovich and Janowski able to encapsulate a social comment (much less a whole critique) within a sound? Such effects suggest a sensibility that goes beyond the musical, and encompasses at least the literary and historical - and thus may almost by definition elude James Levine (hence, perhaps, his avoidance of these composers?). But something tells me the music of Shostakovich, hewn as it is from some of the darkest experiences of the twentieth century, will last much longer than the intellectual noodlings of the L.A.-era Schoenberg. If only the BSO had a conductor who could embrace it.

Happy Halloween

This 1931 trailer gives one a pretty good idea of the brilliance that was James Whale's original Frankenstein.

Just because Saturn is always cool

This "movie" is a composite of images taken by the Hubble telescope (at left) over a period of 9 1/2 hours on November 17, 1995. The white dots racing around the planet are four of its moons: Mimas, Enceladus, Dione, and Tethys; that thin line crossing the rings is the shadow of Enceladus . More images from the Hubble are available here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Mother, The Car

When Nicky Martin told me last winter that the Huntington would be premiering Ronan Noone's Brendan this fall, my first reaction was, "Really? Why?" And now, after seeing the smartly-mounted production currently on view at the Wimberley, I'm still wondering the same thing.

You see, I'd already caught Brendan, in a very credible BU student production last season (under the direction of Justin Waldman, who helmed the current show) - when it impressed me as a likeable, in some ways well-crafted but in other ways ungainly, and decidedly minor, addition to the Noone canon. It still impresses me pretty much the same way: not much of an advance for Noone and not much of a challenge for the Huntington - or its audience. (The fact that the Huntington just wrapped another minor Noone drama, The Atheist, while down the plaza a far tinier company mounted the seven-hour Kentucky Cycle, only throws the theatre's lowered-expectations problem into high relief.)

Of course what Brendan has going for it is that it pleases the audience rather than challenges it. Who can't root for Brendan, the shy-but-lovable Irish boy with a wee drinkin' problem (and who hasn't tipped a few too many, Paddy?) and a wee bit of girl trouble too (and who hasn't paid for it, Seamus?), who only longs to be a Real American (and what refugee wouldn't want that, Mr. Cheney?). Well, I suppose I can root for him if I have to, but really, it would be easier if Noone actually followed through on the deeper questions his shy young slip of a play raises. The playwright maintains a smart, satiric tone in half his script - the half which follows Brendan as he romances the girl downstairs while learning to drive (his teacher is his only real friend, the "working girl" he lost his virginity to) in an effort to both hang onto his job and his bid for citizenship. At his finish, Noone goes all sappy on the Land of the (Formerly) Free, but till then his take on what it means to be an American (i.e., a girlfriend and a car) is bracingly clear-eyed. And if we can practically write the ensuing plot for ourselves (it's only a matter of time before the working-girl and the girl-next-door cross paths), its predictability is largely offset by dialogue so taut you could practically bounce a quarter off it.

Alas, it's in the "other half" of Brendan that Noone (at right) falters: his hero's mother has just died - with the withholding of said news operating as her final, strange revenge on him; not to worry, though - like some Gaelic castmember of thartysomething, Ma's ghost pops up on stage, and in her son's subconscious, to henpeck him into achieving his goals. So far, so cute, I suppose - only Noone clearly doesn't know what to do with Ma once he's conjured her, so local star Nancy E. Carroll is left pitching wry punch lines and little else (even though there's dark talk of a past suicide attempt). I suppose half a play is better than noone, so to speak - but isn't this kind of problem precisely what "development" is for? You'd think if the Huntington were going to stage a new script (and stage quite sharply, in a shiny simulacrum of the Hancock Tower by Alexander Dodge), they'd make sure it was finished first. Still, the lack of closure doesn't slow down the cast, with Dashiell Eaves and Kelly McAndrew leading the pack as the sensitive Brendan and his hearty, pay-for-play paramour. Noone, of course, must sense his good fortune to be blessed with not one, but two, Huntington productions in a single season - indeed, I too can only chalk it up to the luck of the Irish.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Of blogs and bloggers

What are the ethics of blogging? It's an intriguing question, perhaps because it's curled around the larger question, "What are blogs for?" After blogging for nearly a year (the anniversary is November 15th), perhaps the time has come for me to ponder that question.

The general answer, I suppose, has something to do with "self-expression," although "self-expression" easily morphs into "self-promotion." Thus we find a lot of that in local blogs, as well as a mania for log-rolling and back-scratching. Joel Brown over at HubArts, for example, often uses his blog as a springboard for print gigs: he fluffs Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, where he often works, here, and even posts an article about the fact that he has written an article here. Geoff Edgers at the Exhibitionist is another believer in print-blog synergy: he links to Globe articles here, and also pulls the neat double trick of including a shout-out to Alex Ross, the New Yorker reviewer whose blog and books are called The Rest is Noise. He's also a fan of Lee Rosenbaum, a.k.a. culturegrrl - so it goes without saying that she's also a dead-tree writer, in such prestigious perches as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

Not that there's anything wrong with that - still, is the blogosphere supposed to be so cozy with the MSM? Do you (or I) expect Geoff Edgers to cast as cool an eye on Alex Ross and the New Yorker as he has, say, on the Wang Center? No, of course not - even if many might argue, or even outright believe, that the blogosphere acts as an antagonist to the print media, the cultural blogs - which are, ironically enough, often extensions of the MSM - tend to lean precisely the opposite way (except, of course, me - I'm indebted to the MSM for their reporting - in particular that of Edgers - but my analysis is often at variance with theirs).

This issue of self-promotion impacts me in a different way, however, in that I'm going to be directing a show this winter for Zeitgeist Stage - and so I'm struggling with how to write about that process, how to cover Zeitgeist, and how much to write about other shows in town. Another blogger, Art Hennessy of Mirror Up to Nature, struggles with similar issues, as his wife, Amanda Good Hennessy, is an active local actress.

But should Art and I be so concerned with conflicts of interest when so many blogs are so relentessly self-promotional? (Isn't that, after all, a subtle conflict of interest?) Are there any standards to be broken here at all? I'm beginning to be unsure, particularly given what's been going on over at The Arts Fuse, which hosts the work of Bill Marx. "The Fuse" has been printing posts from "anonymous sources" - indeed, they inform us,

We feel anonymous columns of this kind have a long and glorious history in American journalism, going back to the American Revolution, The Federalist Papers, and, more recently, the original, anonymous Talk of the Town columns from the New Yorker magazine’s golden age. We are pleased that the tradition has recently been revived in this “Age of the Blog.”

But a few examples will demonstrate how this naive policy can go wrong (with my apologies to Alexander Hamilton and William Shawn). I was, for instance, embroiled in an ongoing argument on the site over the "Matter Pollocks." The Arts Fuse's "anonymous source" repeatedly insinuated that the Matter Paintings (currently still on display at the McMullen Museum) were genuine Pollocks, even as the empirical case for their authenticity slipped away (recent press reports, which all but prove Pollock couldn't have had access to many of the pigments in these paintings, have basically shut the book on the case). This struck me as a real breach of whatever ethics the blogosphere might entail: the use of the Internet's anonymity to promote an argument which could deliver a windfall to an unscrupulous party. The Arts Fuse tried to pre-empt any criticism by insisting, "With regard to the recent Pollock Matter Affair posts, The Arts Fuse can assert categorically that no one involved with the disputed paintings themselves, their ownership, their scientific analysis, or their exhibition at the McMullen Museum and its catalogue had anything to do with composing them or had any prior knowledge of their posting." But it's hard to understand why we should believe this - after all, if there is no tie between the site's source and the affair, why would the source demand anonymity?

Now The Arts Fuse has published several nasty posts from a source that once haunted my own e-mailbox, parodying my writing style and generally indulging in a kind of rabid character assassination - all anonymously, of course. I can see the posts are funny, to anyone who's ever been stung by my confident style (and said style is all the more irritating to those who've been on the wrong side of my arguments, as my record reveals few slip-ups so far). No doubt the Arts Fuse feels I "deserve" this because I dared to slap around local critic emeritus Caldwell Titcomb for his fluffing of Harvard's new undergraduate theatre. Still, it's obviously a bad precedent; the seriousness of blogging all but collapses if it devolves into anonymous name-calling, or anonymous "tips" pushing forgeries. It's a little surprising, in fact, that Bill Marx would remain attached to the Arts Fuse, given its obvious ethical quandaries (or again, maybe it's not so surprising).

At any rate, the one thing I can guarantee you (aside from my arrogance in asserting opinions that almost always turn out to be right) is that I'll continue my policy of full disclosure. Of course I'm able to do this because I'm not really trying to eke out a career in journalism; nor am I tied forever to Zeitgeist Stage (much less my alma mater). I'm a free agent - and sometimes I think that's what's really at the bottom of some of the animosity I sense from other writers and critics. I don't have to kow-tow to a witless editor, or tread carefully for fear of rousing the subscriber base. I don't care about these things, and I don't have to - and perhaps that, more than any perceptive edge, is what has enabled me to be so accurate for so long. Still, it's ironic, isn't it, that while everyone professes to support the freedom of the Internet, when said freedom impacts their own self-interest, suddenly everybody's a critic.

Add this to your cool list . . .

They may not be "a new form of life," but Theo Jansen's (that's tay-o yawn-sen's) sand beasts and wind creatures are extremely cool.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Seán Curran brings it home

The Seán Curran Dance Company takes to the air in "Aria/Apology."

Local boy Seán Curran has definitely made good; his company has moved from paying its dancers with subway tokens to headlining festivals, and he's become known as the go-to man for dance in venues as divergent as Broadway and the Met. His hometown return last night at the Tsai Performance Center made it clear why: the entire program was inventively, energetically graceful, with Curran tossing off both witty and weighty ideas with unpretentious clarity. Indeed, in some ways Curran is almost too facile for his own good; we can feel his sensibility clearly, but he never slows down long enough to build his own vocabulary, which is probably the last, tiny step between very, very good and truly great.

But hey, I'll take very, very good any day; and in some ways, Curran's up-to-the-minute insights mesh well with his sometimes-appropriated moves: he's a kind of poet of "the way we feel now" - that is, with escape hatches in every relationship, community, and even feeling. The dancers in "The Nothing That is Not There, and the Nothing That Is," for instance, are constantly moving from one partner to another, in a series of vignettes with titles like "Our Evenings" and "Words Fail Me"; and while they're often touchingly supportive and empathetic in their falls and lifts, there's also always the sense that the dance is evanescent, that the relationships could at any time disappear. (And somehow the high-modern accompaniment - piano selections from Leoš Janáček - only throws the millennial milieu into higher relief.)

This atmosphere is even more potent in "Aria/Apology," which is danced to a suite of mournful Handel arias interspersed with recordings from "The Apology Line," a phone service in which people can off-load their guilt. The contrast between Handel's transcendent arcs of melody and the flat, disaffected confessions - often of sins as chilling as rape and murder - is strangely disturbing, and Curran conjures a complementary mix of classically-inflected modern dance with odd interruptions and reversals. The piece is certainly powerful, and Curran fills the air with a gorgeously tumbling series of jumps (if he has a vocabulary, it's all about the body in mid-air) - but I had the sneaky feeling he hadn't quite met the choreographic challenge of the unsettling contrast between soprano and answering machine.

Sandwiched in between these high points, Curran gave himself a curious little cameo, "St. Petersburg Waltz," set to solo piano by Meredith Monk. An attempt, it seemed, to encapsulate the life-story of East-European Jewry (who were perhaps born in St. Petersburg? or ended up in St. Petersburg, Florida?), the piece moved fluidly in its tropes from folk dance to prayer, but came off as superficial when sliding from the shtetl to Nazi salutes; it was perhaps the evening's one misfire (although Curran himself was eccentrically compelling in his poignantly comic bowler and vest).

Fortunately, Curran had saved the best for last (it's always nice when it works out that way), "Social Discourse," a premiere to songs by Radiohead's Thomas Yorke. The music's incessant beat seemed to free both Curran and his company - and though one could argue the piece is merely an empty, if brilliantly exuberant, display of technique, somehow I think that's the point - the sense of "how-we-live-now" was more potent that ever in its happy, heedless calisthenics (done to Yorke's mournful observation that "I can see you, but I can't reach you"). The piece also marked the introduction to the company of the virtuosic young Winston Dynamite Brown - a dynamo indeed, even without a real solo - whose fire fit nicely into the company mix, which is already distinguished by the soulful grace of Kevin Scarpin and the clean, classic attack of Nora Brickman. We hope to see more of all three in Mr. Curran's ever-more-ambitious choreography.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Of Golijov and global schmaltz

Dawn Upshaw lifts off in Ainadamar.

The Grammy-winning Osvaldo Golijov seems not only to embrace the world, but actually embody a good chunk of it - he's Argentinean, and Jewish, and half-Romanian; he studied music in Israel, but then emigrated to the U.S. - to Newton, MA, in fact. He teaches at Boston Conservatory, but also moves in the boho jet set of Peter Sellars and Dawn Upshaw. And after the popular success of such works as Ayre, and now Ainadamar, he's become the darling of a certain kind of music fan - the kind that adores the idea of fusing the traditions of world music into some overwhelming, amplified mandala - while fusing the worlds of classical music and pop at the same time.

In other words, the kind that isn't me. As I get older, I'm more and more bemused (or is it confused?) by those devoted to the idea of diversity, yet obsessed with a global cultural mash-up which would render real diversity obsolete. I know, I know, they don't see it that way, and they have all the best intentions in the world. But I do see it that way - and as for best intentions, you know what road is paved with them . . .

Such doubts always drive true believers crazy, of course. So I try to explain that I like klezmer. And I like flamenco. But I don't really want to merge them into klezmenco. Aha! the globoculturists say - but isn't the greatest art born of the integration of opposing cultures? Well - . . . but also no. Classical music has drawn on folk music for inspiration (Rite of Spring, New World Symphony, etc., etc.), and "Western" painting has often integrated motifs from "the East" (the impact of Hokusai on van Gogh is one great example).

But said cases always entailed a paradigm shift - the final works were not simply quilts of many colors, but a new synthesis. Yet Golijov, at least to these ears, rarely moves beyond highly refined pastiche - and when he does, I'm afraid it's usually toward a new kind of global kitsch; because the real rub is that Golijov is also trying to merge the traditions of "popular" and "serious" music, too. He wants to elevate pop music, yes, but also hang onto its audience. Not for him are the cool insights of, say, Thomas Adès's Asyla (a shockingly successful transference of disco into the concert hall). No, what Golijov wants to do is wail, and then wail some more - he wants to cry us a river, in fact a Danube, a Nile, and a whole lot more.

So I went into Opera Boston's recent production of his first opera, Ainadamar, knowing it was his party, and he was going to cry if he wanted to. And cry he did, basically nonstop through the whole thing. After all, Ainadamar is loosely translated as "Fountain of Tears," and its supposed subject is the death of Frederico García Lorca, the great gay poet/dramatist of Republican Spain who was gunned down by Falangists in 1936 (the olive tree venerated as the site of his death, at right).

Not that the opera has much to do with the actual Lorca (at left). It literally castrates him (this gay man is played by a woman), then transmutes him into a kind of geisha-Christ in a zoot suit. There's no sex with men here, much less anything of his famous affair with Salvador Dalí - and you can forget about any references to surrealism, either, or communism, or his obsession with death, or really anything that made Lorca what he truly was. Instead, we're offered a sweet victim, who, needless to say, cries a river at his/her execution and you know, suffers for us all.

Golijov can get away with all this by conceptualizing his opera as a memory play, as it were, within the mind of one Margarita Xirgu (left), a compatriot of Lorca whom nobody really cares about anymore. Still, the issue of deracination, not the ghost of Lorca, is what haunts the piece. Golijov, of course, is not Spanish (instead, he's "Latin," kind of), and his star, Dawn Upshaw, may be the whitest soprano in the world - she comes off as some kind of multicultural memsahib. The librettist, David Henry Hwang, is Asian-American, and the director, Peter Sellars, likes to wear kimonos. Note there's not a Spaniard in this crowd - and there's only one in the cast.

Should this matter? Well, no, it shouldn't, not if the Asians and Americans (both North and South) and the half-Romanians and quasi-Israelis, etc., have that Andalusian thang goin' on. But most of them don't. Dawn Upshaw keeps reaching down into her gypsy soul and coming up with not much (and we keep wishing she'd stop overacting and go back to Mozart, where she belongs), while Sellars groups his singers in Greek-tragedy choruses, in which they perform Martha-Graham-like moves. And while Hwang's libretto has by most accounts "gotten better," it still has pretty far to go.

Of course one could argue the whole point isn't really to channel the tragic gypsy fires of Spain; it is, instead, to solemnly enact the political pain of earnest Western multiculturalists. And at this, Ainadamar succeeds brilliantly. Indeed, particularly in its second act, the opera operates very effectively as a kind of rarefied global schmaltz. A lump will rise in your throat, and you will blink back tears - because Golijov (at left) comes through, even if no one else does.

Not that I'm suddenly going out to buy his CDs, mind you. I wouldn't say the music from Ainadamar is actually interesting, not yet - but you can't deny its occasional power. The muezzin-like call that summons Lorca to his execution is chilling, and the ensuing descending vocal line of the word ainadamar is truly haunting. Indeed, Golijov seems to have been somehow invigorated by the entire scene, as he conjures for it a series of eerily mournful textures that in their originality made me forget all about Ayre. Suddenly I began to wonder if Golijov might indeed prove a major composer, instead of just a Grammy-winning one. Even Sellars and Hwang score a dramatic coup, when they have Lorca rise again and again from his grave (like the eternal hope for freedom), only to be mown down by his assassin.

So count me half-converted, although my advice to Golijov would be to drop the whole multicultural crowd and just concentrate on the culture, the drama, instead. Get yourself more Latin singers, not white Mozart specialists trying to tango (Upshaw was upstaged by her co-stars, Kelley O'Connor and Jessica Rivera, anyway). Stop trying to get us to all join hands; don't worry, the world can go buy a Coke all by itself. Meanwhile there are real songs and real operas to write.

Is Nicky Martin headed to Williamstown?

Boston is buzzing about this post in Variety.

Haneke at Harvard

It's been gratifying to finally see Michael Haneke granted the acclaim he has deserved for years, including retrospectives in New York at MOMA, and now at the Harvard Film Archive. I had to miss Haneke's personal appearance last weekend due to the rampaging performing arts schedule (a decision I will always regret, particularly as one of Haneke's great innovations is to design his films as "performances"), but for the uninitiated, there's every reason to check out the series this weekend, which features screenings of Benny's Video, 71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance, The Castle, The Seventh Continent, The Piano Teacher, Code Unknown, and, of course, the original Funny Games. Of these, only The Castle, a meandering treatment of Kafka's fragmentary text, is something of a disappointment (imagine - Haneke produced six films of the highest, most challenging quality in something like a dozen years!). Haneke virgins should, of course, see Funny Games and The Piano Teacher for a sample of the director's full-force shock treatment - just prepare to lie in a limp, quivering pile for the rest of the weekend. Haneke initiates might want to try an "artistic development" schedule - Benny's Video clearly prefigures Funny Games, while 71 Fragments in a Chronology of Chance is a rough sketch of Code Unknown. If you can't make it to the Film Archive, however, you can always catch up with the master on DVD - all these titles are finally available from Kino. Now if only some theatre company would invite him over here to stage a play (he directed a famous Don Giovanni in Paris last year). Are you listening, ART? Imagine a season that included Robert Woodruff and Michael Haneke (and maybe a play by Howard Barker!) . . . trust me, if you pulled that off, all would be forgiven between us!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Beethoven smackdown goes to challenger!

You-know-who got a workout this weekend.

You probably didn't notice, but something of a watershed occurred last weekend - and no, I don't mean the Red Sox winning the pennant; I'm talking about something far more important. In a curious, but perhaps fated, coincidence, two of the city's major music organizations - the BSO and the Handel and Haydn Society - found themselves playing the same piece of music at the same time: Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. It was an important face-off, because many felt it might represent something of a turning point in a polite, but ongoing musical "war" over whether Beethoven is better suited to period or modern instruments. The BSO and other symphonies have long since abandoned Baroque music to the early music movement, and practically ceded Haydn; but Mozart and Beethoven remain sticking points, for financial as well as artistic reasons: if the consensus developed that these two audience draws were best played on period instruments, the BSO would suddenly find the cultural earth moving beneath its feet.

So any BSO spies at Handel and Haydn last weekend would have been dismayed to find (as I think anyone who caught both concerts would have to admit), that H&H left the BSO in the dust. The H&H event was, to be fair, the confluence of a "perfect storm" of musical interest: Grant Llewellyn (at left) who had already demonstrated a passionate mastery of Beethoven in his versions of the First and Second last year, had returned to conduct; the Society had also engaged young South African pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, a brilliant performer, and had even procured a stunningly beautiful fortepiano (in both sound and tone) built in period style by R. J. Regier after Viennese models. (You can see and read about this exquisite instrument here.)

The BSO's forces, of course, were redoubtable, too. The famous Christoph von Dohnänyi, often a favorite of mine, took the baton at Symphony Hall, with the rising young German pianist Lars Vogt (left) at the Steinway. But just moments into the concert, it was evident that the concert was going to be business-as-usual for the BSO. The orchestra sounded far more focused and confident than it had the week before, under Robert Spano; that much I expected. I thought, however, that Dohnänyi, or Vogt, might find some new spark in the Third, especially given the implicit challenge from H&H; but I thought wrong. Vogt crafted a supple, even graceful reading, often with little rushes of plush feeling, while Dohnänyi supplied steady and subtle back-up, but the overall impression was still not so much of musical statement as brand projection: this was a refined version of RCA Victor Beethoven, power music for the power elite.

In contrast, H&H crafted from the same raw material an exciting musical voyage. Bezuidenhout proved a fearless and almost willful performer, exploring the limits of his instrument with a passion, improvising in the cadenza with poetic intelligence, and throwing to the winds any academic concerns about consistent "period" tempo (always a thorn in the early music garden). Rarely have I seen a pianist hold his audience's attention captive - but if Bezuidenhout's fingers hadn't been on the keys, I'd say he had Symphony Hall in the palm of his hand.

His eloquence might have been lost on a lesser instrument, but the Regier fortepiano proved as spectacular as its player. While the sound texture of the period orchestra is by now a fixture on the local scene, the fortepiano is still something of a shock: its reedier tone can sound almost tinny at first blush. The ear unconsciously adjusts to its new aural context, however, and soon unexpected musical vistas emerge. Unlike modern pianos, which are designed to sound much the same up and down their keyboards, fortepianos seem to sport different colors in almost every octave. In particular, the lower reaches of the keyboard are all but revelatory - the fuzzy thud of the average Steinway has here been replaced by a dark forest of different timbres, through which Bezuidenhout darted with ferocious attack. Indeed, when accompanied by the subtly different tones and colors of the period string orchestra, the result was a hypnotic atmosphere of near-counterpoint.

Bezuidenhout wows the crowd on the fortepiano. (Photo by Michael J. Lutch.)

The rest of the concert was almost as thrilling. While over at the BSO, Dohnänyi wrapped the evening with a standard-issue version of the Fifth (rather predictably, the only thing unusual about it was that it was louder than it had to be - the BSO had doubled up on its players), Llewellyn, after being led willingly by Bezuidenhout through the concerto, asserted himself in a spirited rendition of the Seventh. Indeed, I've never understood Wagner's famous description of it as "the apotheosis of dance" till now - under Llewellyn, Handel and Haydn pushed the finale past frenzy and into something like orgasm.

Of course the final accolades have to go to the H&H players themselves, who always exhibit a higher level of musical attention and intelligence than the BSO, if you ask me. The BSO, needless to say, is superb, and each of its players is a superstar; but once you get past the rah-rah, they're-our-musical-Red-Sox aspect of the orchestra, its superbiness is somehow a little dull, and its players sometimes look like an army of idiot savants - waiting patiently for their next cue, but staring at the soloist with marked disinterest. At H&H, meanwhile, the orchestra was clearly riveted by Bezuidenhout - their response was like a mini-drama within the larger one unfolding in the hall. They, like everyone in the audience, knew a home run when they saw one.

When does protest become art?

. . . when Code Pink confronts Condoleeza Rice. I don't think there's much an "artist" could add to this moment. The anger and moral desperation of the protester, Condoleeza's coiffed contempt for the faux pas of pointing out her guilt . . . it's all there, and worthy of Daumier.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Rykine and Cornejo frolic in the forest in La Sylphide.

Few have pointed this out, but Boston Ballet's current double bill of La Sylphide and Balanchine's Serenade all but bookends the tradition of the prima ballerina. The juxtaposition was accidental (other Balanchine dances were originally scheduled), but no less haunting for that. Dating from 1836, La Sylphide is probably the oldest "story ballet" extant, and stamps with straightforward power the template on which Giselle and Swan Lake are but variations. After a century-long run, however, said template (enamored bachelor, doomed sylph) reached its own rendesvouz with destruction (or deconstruction) in Serenade (1934), in which Balanchine took the romance between ballerina and danseur and transmuted it into abstraction.

Alas, the Ballet has set the shorter, later piece first in their program, so said arc happens in reverse; still, its resonance seems to hang over the entire evening. Not that either piece needs much help in the atmosphere department. The Ballet essayed Serenade just a year ago, and performed Sylphide on the road this summer, so both productions impressed with that sense of artistic depth born of experience. Of the two, Serenade struck deeper on opening night; with Larissa Ponomarenko and Eileen Atkins, the Ballet's best Balanchineans, on tap for the leads, and the corps in superb form (as they were in last week's gala), how could it not? From the opening frieze of gauzy femininity (17 women in tulle, posed with one hand crooked to heaven), to the ballerina's final, funereal apotheosis, the corps penetratingly conveyed Balanchine's patterned vision of sex and death. Alas, as is often the case with the Ballet, its men didn't quite seem the equal of its women - Carlos Molina, at least, seemed a bit lost as Balanchine's first danseur (of course that ocean of virginal tulle could daunt anyone); Pavel Gurevitch was more incisive as the final, older and wiser Balanchine figure, who moodily approached the wounded Pomonarenko while blinded by fate - or at least by Lia Cirio, who danced with authority but gave off few spectral vibrations, as the role probably should. Still, the ensuing variations had the elegiac gravitas required, and Pomonarenko's final ascension above the corps was as haunting as it should be.

La Sylphide, by way of contrast, is all highland spirit until a surprisingly poignant denouement, and its simple, almost naively rendered story - of a Scottish bridegroom (Roman Rykine) who deserts his beloved for a magical sylph (Erica Cornejo, with Rykine at left) - was delivered by the company with unapologetic panache. After nailing the delicate precision of the Balanchine, the corps expertly switched gears and began throwing off reels with infectious abandon, and there were exciting turns from Reyneris Reyes (as the swain who finally gets the girl), Kathleen Breen Combes (as said girl), and particularly Elizabeth Olds (as the crone who's at least partly to blame for the eventual tragedy).

The venerable choreography, by Bournonville via Sorella Englund, was often charming, and admirably paced, but Reyes, Combes, and Olds conveyed the power of the piece as much through their acting as their dancing (subtle characterization is becoming a hallmark of the Ballet, in fact). Rykine and Cornejo, meanwhile, though technically accomplished, were dramatically blank. This was particularly surprising in Rykine, who expertly conveyed a similar aristocrat in Giselle, but here seemed able to convey only the hero's hauteur rather than his tortured longing. Cornejo was even less compelling as the eponymous sylph - her technique is truly awe-inspiring, and her en pointe leaps and lands are so gentle they'd be better described as on-pillow. But she was far more coquette than seductress, and cast very little spell beyond the enchantments of her technique (until her death scene, which she seized with unexpected power). It was a measure of the breadth and depth of the Ballet's talent that this gap hardly mattered in what was one of the most pleasurable evenings of dance this year.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Paulettes bury Kubrick - again!

Will it never end? Will the Paulettes never give up on Stanley Kubrick? You'd have thought they'd gotten their last shots in with Eyes Wide Shut - when even the director's death did little to dissuade Pauline Kael, with her trademark class, from calling his final work "a piece of shit" while her acolytes piled on.

But you know, it's a funny thing about genius - it's hard to keep a good one down. Eyes Wide Shut was slowly rehabilitated, after several major magazines ridiculed the dim film-critic consensus (an unheard-of event, right there). Kubrick boxed sets began to be issued with striking regularity. A gigantic coffee-table tome, The Stanley Kubrick Archives, was published. Hollywood's most successful director, Steven Spielberg, completed Kubrick's unfinished A.I. - again, unheard-of (can The Aryan Papers be too far off?).

But the endurance of the Kubrick legend, needless to say, rankled the Paulettes (as Pauline Kael's critical followers are known). After all, they bet big against him. Big. Kael herself called him a pornographer in print and intimated that he was a racist. And just how valid could her continual criticism be if it was directed at the film artist whose oeuvre has emerged possibly the greatest legacy since World War II?

For make no mistake: of Kubrick's thirteen feature films, five are masterpieces (Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey - that's Kubrick directing on its famous centrifuge set, above), three more are flawed but fascinating (Lolita, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut), and one is a sumptuous failure with many brilliant moments (Barry Lyndon). It's an incredible oeuvre - one of the best of the century. No wonder there are endless re-issues of the boxed set (which always lacks, unfortunately, Paths of Glory).

But I suppose, with each re-issue, we'll have to endure another ritual as well; let's call it The Paulettes' Revenge. Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe seems to have taken on the duty of the current roasting in last Sunday's edition, so welcome to yet another episode of (drum roll, please) "Tom Garvey Bitch-Slaps the Globe Critic." And without further ado . . .

Feeney begins his hatchet job with - what else? - an interview with Robert Altman. Ah, yes, Robert Altman - remember him? The director of one masterpiece (Nashville), five or six more very interesting films (M*A*S*H, Images, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, and The Player), and then some thirty more movies that are either mediocre or outright suck? Yeah, him. The guy with the bleached-out, "stoned" camerawork, the muddy soundtracks, the sketchy bohemian stance, and the none-too-subtle mix of malice and misogyny? The guy who was unrelentingly brutal to his characters, and who stripped his actresses naked as often as he possibly could? Yeah, him. That wild party animal!

Unsurprisingly, Feeney informs us, he once interviewed Altman on Kubrick, and guess what: Altman didn't think much of him. Surprise, surprise. As Feeney puts it: "Kubrick was the anti-Altman: not actor-friendly, not improvisational, not prolific, neither slapdash nor shaggy."

No, not prolific - just always interesting. And what's this "not actor-friendly" b.s.? Kubrick's "not actor-friendly" because he clashed with Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining? Please. Few directors have produced more indelible performances: Kubrick's direction gave us Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton in Spartacus; James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers in Lolita; the entire cast of Dr. Strangelove; Douglas Rain in 2001; Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (above left); R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket; Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, and a host of brilliant character performances in almost all his films (even Barry Lyndon includes wonderful performances by Leonard Rossiter, Godfrey Quigley and others). By way of comparison, there are fine performances in early Altman, yes, but one gropes for anything great from his actors after Three Women (and sorry, Altman was never more inept than he was with the sterling British cast of Gosford Park). Indeed, only the ensemble of M*A*S*H achieved anything like the cultural impact of the acting in half of Kubrick's movies.

Actually, Feeney's smart enough to realize he can't make his case against Kubrick on artistic terms - there are just too many highlights to disguise. (And he doesn't even dare to bring up Kubrick's imagery or his soundtracks, because here the gap between Kubrick and just about everybody else is something like a chasm.) So he forgoes art for politics. He just doesn't like Kubrick - and neither should you. Kubrick was pretentious. He was a control freak. He "thrilled to the idea of total authority." He was a dictator - just like some of his villains! And worst of all, no punk band has ever named themselves after him. (I'm not kidding, Feeney really said that - he also says Kubrick's movies "flirt with turning into musicals"!)

Uh-huh. And can you say "beside the point"? Good. Now think about it. Let's take that "pretentious" claim - it's true: Kubrick was pretentious. Some great artists are not pretentious; but others are. Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest artist in any genre, was not pretentious. Mozart was not pretentious. But Beethoven was pretentious. Wagner was pretentious. Matisse was not pretentious; Picasso was pretentious. So by Feeney's logic, you really shouldn't like Beethoven or Picasso.

And how about that "anti-improvisational" claim - only someone who isn't familiar with Kubrick's work history could ever make it. Kubrick was improvisatory on a grand scale, often changing artistic course in mid-production and abandoning early decisions in flights of inspiration. Can you believe that Dr. Strangelove was originally planned as a suspense drama, and that Kubrick entirely re-wrote it with Terry Southern in his limo on the way to the studio? Or that Kubrick commissioned an entire score for 2001, recorded it at great expense, then trashed it for the tracks he'd been listening to in production (he pulled this trick again with The Shining)? That Malcolm McDowell improvised "Singin' in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange? Ditto much of Jack Nicholson's performance in The Shining - and R. Lee Ermey's famous rants in Full Metal Jacket (above)? In short, very few directors have improvised quite as much as Stanley Kubrick - or taken such risky chances.

Of course Kubrick was - or rather, became - highly self-conscious, as is the case with many wildly successful artists. His work process became even more labored, as he felt the weight of living up to his past successes. (His many takes, while rather coldly administered, could also be seen as an opportunity for actor exploration, not directorial control; surely anyone can see that.) Always a loner, he also became more isolated after terrorist threats against his family during the making of Barry Lyndon. Eventually, it's true, he was something of a recluse.

But hold on a minute - isn't this also the maverick artist's dream? Kubrick held onto an astonishing level of control over his projects through the very methods that Feeney decries - obsessive attention to detail, isolation, and cold calculation. If Altman had had those attributes, perhaps his career wouldn't have gone into a tailspin after the failures of bombs like Buffalo Bill, and H.E.A.L.T.H. Maybe we'd have three or four more great Altman movies, instead of twenty crummy ones. Of course there were places Kubrick went that Altman could never go: Altman was never capable of the operatic synthesis that was Kubrick's highest goal - those moments in which sound, image, and drama coalesce into a resonance that only cinema can manage (as in Eyes Wide Shut, above). To the end of his days, Altman essentially directed his films as if they were television (where he began his career); when his scripts were good, the movies were good, and when the scripts were bad, well . . . the movies were, too. But hey, they were great parties, right? What's most poignant about Altman is that he never realized that if you commit yourself to going with the flow, and conjure a constant atmosphere of give-and-take and compromise, then you wind up with, well, movies that are compromised, too.

Seriously, could Altman ever match this image? Or idea?

So can we begin to decouple the bohemian stance from the artistic product? Can we admit that if you run your set like a party, you wind up with Dr. T. and the Women? Can the Paulettes ever just say, "Kubrick's movies are paced too slowly, but they're worth the time and trouble"? And can they stop saying that Kubrick was a pornographer, a racist, a control freak, or as Feeney says, "almost lunatic"? (And can we please drop the junior-high-level observation that HAL is "the most interesting character in 2001"? That's the point, kids.)

In other words, can the Paulettes move on?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Friday, October 19, 2007

She rhymed with "star"

Word reaches us that the wonderful Deborah Kerr (in the words of Louis B. Mayer, her name "rhymed with star") passed away on Tuesday at the age of 86. Nominated six times for the Oscar, she never won, but received an honorary statuette in 1994. For those unacquainted with Kerr's talent and unique screen presence, essential viewing includes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, From Here to Eternity, An Affair to Remember, The King and I, and The Innocents.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

111 Shirtless Men in Abercombie and Fitch

Flash mob subverts the fashionistas! As one commenter on YouTube put it, "There's a word for this, but ironically, I can't remember it."

I live at the mall. No, really, I do . . .

Word reaches us from Providence (via Greg Cook) that artist Michael Townsend was recently sentenced for his ongoing project, The Apartment at the Mall (above), a "studio apartment" he furnished in an abandoned space deep in the bowels of the Providence Place parking garage. Townsend, his wife, Adriana Yoto, and several artist pals had been furnishing the space and/or actually living there for four years before mall security spotted Townsend leaving the "loft" just a few weeks ago.

The artists claim they spirited two tons worth of stuff into the space during their "residency," including "a sectional sofa, a love seat, a coffee table, a breakfast table with four chairs, lamps, a throw rug, a hutch (at left) and paintings." According to the Providence Journal, despite ongoing efforts to make the space "super-sweet," "Townsend acknowledged that the lack of certain creature comforts, after a while, tended to sap the thrill of being there." Ironically enough, the space was even burglarized during the artists' stay - the thieves made off with the group's Sony Playstation. Townsend pleaded no contest to charges of trespassing, and was sentenced to six months’ probation; he must also pay court costs and an unstated sum of restitution - a combination of plea and disposition that does not constitute a criminal conviction under state law.

As for Providence Place, employees are still recovering from the artistic intervention. Mall spokesman Dante Bellini Jr. explained that "“It was wrong on a number of levels . . . [we] certainly feel violated." At left is a sample of the hardened criminal's previous activity, a work of "tape art" called "Grass." More tape art installations can be seen here.

Starry night, indeed . . .

Yesterday's post title inspired me to check back in at Astronomy Picture of the Day, where I found this stunning shot of the "Elephant's Trunk" nebula, which winds for some twenty million light years through the IC 1396 star cluster in the constellation Cepheus. Kinda makes ya think.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Starry, starry night

The recent Boston Ballet gala, "A Night of Stars," took last year's template to the next level: this benefit is more than ever not merely a choreographic dazzler but an in-depth introduction to the company, past and present. Indeed, before it even began, the production touched on something close to the heart of the company: it was dedicated to the memory of Cathryn S. Keith, who passed away this fall at age 97, and who for years had served as a kind of guardian angel to the company (at every opening she cut an elegant figure in a demure suit with matching headband). Furthering the family-reunion mood, Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen expanded the choreographic contributions from the company itself: the evening featured performances of "Found" by Heather Myers (who had a success last year with "One Constant") and "Crane" by newcomer Boyko Dossev. Even the Ballet's students took the stage in the final défilé (a canny move on the Ballet's part - probably all those parents bought tickets), which proved charming, and even a little touching (given the inevitable gawkiness poking through the carefully studied moves).

More importantly, over the course of the evening, just about every soloist in the Ballet had his or her moment in the spotlight - in a smorgasbord of styles that began to get almost dizzying; there was stark modernism, more than a dash of hyperactive post-modernism, a classic pas de deux, and even a Scottish reel (or "Cubans in Kilts!" as my companion giggled). What was most striking, however, was how well almost everything was brought off, although perhaps the evening didn't have the deeply moving moments that graced last year's event. And there were, of course, a few longeurs: the sticky-sweet "Fairy Doll" was too long by half, and the new work by Myers, "Found," didn't really mark an advance, and seemed to run out of steam. I'm also not really sold on Helen Pickett's "Etesian," which to me looks like watered-down Forsythe (Pickett's still with us, however - she'll have a premiere with the company later in the season).

But almost everything else in the program was brilliant. Most startling was the improvement in the corps, particularly in the Balanchine offerings - the wedding dance from A Midsummer Night's Dream came off with a synchronized grace it lacked last year (above, in a photo for the Globe by Evan Richman), and "Choleric" from The Four Temperaments was finally etched with the icy edge Mr. B intended.

Perhaps as a result, the evening's stars glittered all the brighter. Lorna Feijóo and Reyneris Reyes were in top form as both actors and dancers in a delightfully bawdy excerpt from Taming of the Shrew, while Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine skillfully reprised their elegant, meditative duet from Midsummer. Dossev's "Crane," though a bit clichéd in its sentiments, was still evocative in performance (the interlocking positions that echoed the central origami bird were particularly striking), and Altankhuyag Dugaraa essayed a gripping death scene for a male avian in Roland Petit's "Le Cygne Noir." A brief burst of Jorma Elo's Brake the Eyes proved more exciting than the full work, while Yury Yanowsky and Kathleen Breen Combes made a chill chaser of the twisted pas de deux from Polyphonia. Yanowsky, Combes, and John Lam even pulled off that reel from La Sylphide.

The most stunning moment of the evening, however, came from a brother/sister act - Boston's Erica Cornejo prevailed on brother Herman Cornejo - a star of ABT - to join her in a dazzling display from The Flames of Paris. The ballet is a standard-issue Soviet paean to revolution, but it requires bravura technique, and the Cornejos definitely filled the bill - particularly the electrifying Herman, whose supple strength seemed all but infinite. Alas, Boston still doesn't have a male star who can match that. But as the students of the Boston Ballet School, the Ballet II Company, and finally the Company itself made their way across the stage in the final procession, one couldn't help but scan all that talent, past and future, and think perhaps the brightest stars at Boston Ballet are yet to shine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Song of Experience

Kiri Te Kanawa has always been a class act - and the wonder is, the act seems to be ageless. At sixty something, this Dame is still smashing in something strapless, and her voice sounds even more ravishing than she looks. At what was billed as a "farewell" concert at Symphony Hall last weekend, she soared through a sweetly thrilling evening of twentieth-century art and novelty songs that left the audience crying for more (indeed, she drew out her last farewell to four encores).

That the voice should still be so lustrous is something of a wonder - but it's also clear that we have Dame Kiri's own care and foresight to thank for that. She's always been a bit more "singer" than "actress," and on Sunday her paradoxical mix of frank stage presence (she let us know when a buzzing fly upset her breath control) and thoughtful reserve was very much in evidence: she didn't lavish herself on us, but instead carefully, intelligently projected what is still an instrument to die for, and which she is clearly conserving (she joked that a "farewell concert" hardly means "good-bye," which is good news).

The core of the evening was a set of exquisite love songs by Richard Strauss (with whom she has long been identified) in which she conjured a poignantly melting rapture that seemed to stretch to the very top of her range. (Pianist Warren Jones meanwhile accompanied her with supple subtlety - though he did stretch the tender hush of "Morgen" almost to the breaking point.) Dame Kiri later found subtle variations of the same palette in another suite by Henri Duparc, but tempered all the trembling sensitivity with a witty ditty or two from Francis Poulenc and Aaron Copland (in which the diva gave us an amusing glimpse of her old power with the line, "Why do they shut me out of Heaven? Do I sing TOO LOUD??"). She also introduced a strikingly good new ballad from Jake Heggie (who used to turn pages for her!) set to the haunting final speech from Terrence McNally's Master Class - a perfect choice for a "farewell concert."

The performance lost a little focus as Te Kanawa ventured from the published program without clearly announcing her choices, but the new song, Cilea's "Io son l'umile ancella," was entrancing, and the encores eventually wrapped with that sublime piece of soprano catnip (that every audience secretly craves too), Puccini's "O mio babbino caro." It was, in its way, the perfect farewell - only let's hope it's just adieu, as they say, and not really good-bye.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Garden of Sonic Recapitulation

Sometime in the early nineties, renowned landscape architect Charles Jencks began what would become his most famous project - the "Garden of Cosmic Speculation" (above, in his private park in Dumfries, Scotland), an attempt to embed in landscape the theories of late-twentieth century math and physics. It was an intriguing challenge: how to emulate the great gardens of the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, which not only reflected but actually promulgated the thought of their day (see Stoppard's Arcadia for a witty, perhaps Jencks-inspired contemplation of this theme)? The architect was also enough of a critic to persuasively insist that this was hardly some academic in-joke; instead, he saw the garden as a response to the vacuum at the heart of current arts practice - he was attempting to produce a park devoted to our last theology, and only consensus: our ongoing investigation of the cosmos.

And on the surface, Jencks met with resounding success - his ever-evolving fantasy has become a minor tourist attraction, even though it's open only one day a year ("Black Hole Terrace," above). And no wonder: its thirty acres do distill something of the calmly bizarre romance of chaos and complexity; this is pastoral imbued not with the sylvan, nor the sublime, but instead the strange - or rather, the strangeness that lurks within the pastoral (nature, after all, is built of fractals). Still, it must be said that Jencks sometimes stumbles into mere illustration, as in his chinoiserie bridges devoted to quarks, and whether or not his garden is actually organized according to the theories he holds dear remains a subject of some debate.

Cambridge-based composer Michael Gandolfi is faced with something of the same conundrum in his own Garden of Cosmic Speculation, a kind of companion suite to Jencks's fantasia, which this weekend was given a partial local premiere (four of its eleven movements) by the BSO, under the baton of Robert Spano (an avid support of the composer's work). Gandolfi seems to want his piece to serve as both a walking tour of the Garden (you can choose whatever parts you want to "visit" in performance), and also as a musical embodiment of it - his "Fractal Terrace," for example, "grows" by busily filling in its melodic line with tinier variations of itself (you can hear it here - a fractal "leaf" above left).

Still, all the smarts in the world can't quite make up for a lack of original spark, and Gandolfi's "garden" doesn't so much speculate as recapitulate the work of other composers. Each movement offered a different, pleasing pastiche - a light splicing of Glass and Carter, a sweetened Ligeti, a gentler Stravinsky - but somehow Gandolfi's own voice never came clear. The problem was only underlined by the amusing "Universal Cascade" (its corresponding Jencks landscape is below), which opened with a bang almost as loud as the Big One, and then, while drifting through a Ligeti-derived vacuum, encountered various musical paradigms like passing nebulae (the piece ended with a blast of sci-fi cacophony). The movement, like all of Gandolfi's Garden, was lively and witty - but where was the Gandolfi part?

Still, Garden got the most focused performance of the evening's program, which seemed to pop from one aesthetic state to another like an errant subatomic particle. Spano followed Garden with Poulenc's Concerto for Organ, String Orchestra and Timpani, a piece with which it has few affinities, I'd say, aside from the fact that they're both somewhat abstract curiosities. It was my first exposure to the Concerto, although I'm generally a huge fan of Poulenc's gorgeous textures, and was intrigued by the unusual juxtaposition of organ, timpani, and strings. Alas, much of the writing for organ (this was Poulenc's first composition for the instrument) sounded like something the Phantom of the Opera might dream up for a Mass, and the thoughtful-but-clinical approach of organist Simon Preston didn't help matters. Perhaps sensing Preston's isolation, Spano coordinated little in the way of call-and-response between his separate players - although the piece did catch fire in the overlay of strings and organ, when Poulenc conjured a severe vision of ecstasy through simple harmonic means (essentially dense configurations of major chords).

Spano's last choice for the program, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique, was another surprise: this warhorse is usually a guilty pleasure, but in this ascetic program it felt like an especially creamy dessert. After the precision of Garden, and in its disconnected ways, the Poulenc, the conductor unexpectedly stumbled in the famously melodramatic first movement: his tempi shifted willfully, and the orchestra's sound, though appropriately grand, felt fuzzy and out of sync. Things got better in the ensuing waltz/scherzo, and better still in the propulsive third-movement march; Spano seemed at his best when driving a single mode home, and the orchestra responded with passion - so much so that the audience burst into applause at the climax, all thoughts gone of the concluding Adagio. But then it was the exciting high point, after all, in what had been an uneven musical landscape.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hitchens ni Houlihan

Christopher Hitchens, left (photo by Art Streiber for Vanity Fair), and the man whose death he inspired, Mark Jennings Daily (family photo).

Surely Christopher Hitchens has by now turned the traditional stance of the contrarian into something like amoral, free-form performance art. The famously "scotch-fueled" Oxbridge pundit spent the first decades of his career exoriating the right, and extolling the left, in part from the wacky pages of The Nation - then, after the World Trade Center towers fell, he did an about face and became a cheerleader for the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Yes, I know, a simplification - but this is a short column, and frankly, Hitchens doesn't deserve much better: so just savor, for a moment, the pungent irony of a public intellectual who recognizes the error of his ways - only to get it all wrong, again. God may not be great, but you have to admit, He has a sense of humor. These days, alas, the joke has turned into a sick one: Hitchens is no longer just amusingly wrong, he now has blood on his hands. Literally, as they say in L.A.

Still, you have to hand it to the old dragon - he's always known how to turn, via the alchemy of grotesque self-disclosure (see photo above), the humiliation of intellectual defeat into the thrill of rhetorical victory, and his response to the death of Lieutenant Mark Daily, the idealistic young American who actually fell for his war-mongering, is surely one for the history books.

At first, one imagines a confrontation with the actual toll of his roar might chasten this paper lion; upon reading of the death of Daily, "a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic . . .[with] decided reservations about the war in Iraq," Hitch notices that "writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens . . . deeply influenced him [to sign up]." Hitch's immediate reaction? "I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay."

Wow. A deep pang, huh. Of course said dismay is tinged with ego: "Over dramatizing myself a bit (emphasis added) in the angst of the moment, I found I was thinking of William Butler Years, who was chilled to discover that the Irish rebels of 1916 had gone to their deaths quoting his play Cathleen ni Houlihan." Uh-huh. Rude beast. Slouching off to the Middle East. Gotcha. Don't think, though, that Hitch isn't also simultaneously aware of the fact that he hardly rates a boil on Yeats's dead ass: "Abruptly dismissing any comparison between myself and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, I feverishly clicked on all the links from the article . . ." What he finds is that yes, his writings were crucial to Daily's decision to enlist; and that, incredibly, Daily's family actually "would like to hear from" him.

And this is where the piece descends from conceited, but still possibly sympathetic, moral awareness into something like self-serving dreck. Hitchens begins his self-absolution with the following:

In his brilliant book What Is History?, Professor E. H. Carr asked about ultimate causation. Take the case of a man who drinks a bit too much, gets behind the wheel of a car with defective brakes, drives it round a blind corner, and hits another man, who is crossing the road to buy cigarettes. Who is the one responsible? The man who had one drink too many, the lax inspector of brakes, the local authorities who didn't straighten out a dangerous bend, or the smoker who chose to dash across the road to satisfy his bad habit?

It doesn't take much to perceive that none of this has anything to do with Christopher Hitchens or Mark Daily. Neither the man who had one drink too many, nor the lax inspector of brakes, et. al., were involved in the act of persuasion, which is Hitchens's stock-in-trade, and the crux of the current case. Surely Hitch, who took a degree in philosophy and politics, knows this; indeed, anyone who could pour scorn so precisely on the moral delusions of religion could only be dissembling with this particular gambit. Needless to say, the ethics of persuasion is a tangled intellectual wood - still, if we were all entirely free moral agents, then I doubt Hitchens - or any other writer - would bother writing columns. Hitchens influenced poor Mr. Daily - by his own account, his influence was the deciding factor in the events leading to his death; to pretend otherwise empties all Hitchens's work of its supposed salience. The only question here is: how should Hitchens atone for his acts?

Hitch's answer seems to be to face the tragedy he engendered - the trouble is, he winds up wrapping himself in the nobility of Mr. Daily's shroud. The Dailys invite Hitchens to join in their grief; as he's probably its prime instigator, you'd think Hitch might hesitate - but unsurprisingly, his "I'm-like-Yeats-oh-no-no-not-really" egotism allows him to quell any such qualms. And why should he have qualms? The family assures him that Mr. Daily "signed up with his eyes wide open" and "assured us that if he knew the possible outcome might be this [death], he would still go rather than have the option of living to age 50 and never having served his country." We learn more about the fallen hero's almost amazing earnestness - he writes to his wife that "My desire to 'save the world' is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you," and discover that his death (he was killed by a landmine) was actually precipitated when he traded places with another Humvee which he felt was not fully armored - the occupant of which was a father of seven.

Crying yet? I was too - and that's the whole idea, my friends. Within the space of a few paragraphs, Hitchens expertly obscures his own peculiar position with the heroism of Mr. Daily. But Hitch goes even further - soon he's on Mr. Daily's favorite beach - the scene of his boyhood vacations - strewing his ashes into the sky, and quoting Shakespeare before becoming "a trifle choked up."

Again, I was too - only because I felt like throwing up. The Shakespeare quote was painful enough - it was the speech from the last act of the Scottish tragedy which begins "Your son, my lord has paid a soldier's debt" and ends with "Your cause of sorrow/Must not be measured by his worth, for then/it hath no end." Mark Jennings Daily deserved no less. But soon Hitchens is also citing Orwell's famous line about Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War - "I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for" - and suddenly, the whole conceit of his article falls apart.

Because Iraq was transparently not a state of affairs worth fighting for - it was never, as Hitchens would pretend, "a decent cause . . . hijacked by goons and thugs." The goons and thugs were there from the beginning, and Hitchens willingly threw in his lot with them - and he cried shame on anyone who refused. Yes, Mark Daily's eyes may have been open when he enlisted, but they were young eyes, and youth rarely limns the depravity and cunning of its elders. Indeed, he couldn't even see through Christopher Hitchens.

Poor, beautiful Mr. Daily; perhaps the envy at the world's root festered at his unalloyed virtue and so led Christopher Hitchens his way. Or perhaps God in his mercy used Hitch as an instrument to save those seven from the orphanage - who can say? Hitchens seems willing to face the tragedy he inspired, but only if he can evade responsibility for it. And yet the evidence is stark: Daily trusted Hitchens on Iraq. And Hitchens was old enough - and educated enough, and worldly enough - to know better, far better. Negligence is the best case you can make for him. And even negligence has its debt to pay.

So if Hitchens imagines that choking up a bit on that desolate beach is all he owes Mark Daily's ghost, I'm here to say he's wrong. There is no court to pass judgment on him (just as there is no court to pass judgment on - dare I say it? - Henry Kissinger), but in the court of his own mind, surely Hitchens understands the most appropriate punishment: to disavow his war-mongering. And stop his writing. Now.

Because there's another Mark Daily out there, somewhere. And he deserves to live.

Tonight is "A Night of Stars"

Tonight Boston Ballet kicks off its season with its annual gala, this year titled "A Night of Stars." Highlights include excerpts from such recent hits as Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia, and Jorma Elo's Brake the Eyes, as well as a performance of Flames of Paris by guest artist Herman Cornejo, and a new work by resident dancer Heather Myers, Found (above left is Karine Seneca in La Sylphide). The entire company will be on display - local balletomanes know this annual blow-out is one of the city's most dazzling nights of dance. And it doesn't cost a fortune, either; $25 tickets are available in person at the Wang Theatre box office.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

All seats must go! (The low-cost meme spreads.)

Another theatre (this one in D.C.) converts to the cheap-seat policy - with very positive results.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ingrown empire

Whew! It took me three nights, but I finally got through David Lynch's Inland Empire, the surreal, three-hour "epic" that last year drew raves from the critics but only a handful of hardened Lynch fans to a smattering of screenings.

It's easy to see why. After an opening salvo of seemingly disconnected, but intriguing snippets (including a weird, resonant scene from Lynch's separately-produced "sitcom," Rabbits, above), we're plunged into a plot heavily reminiscent of the director's arthouse triumph, Mulholland Drive: Laura Dern, his perennial muse, stars as Nikki Grace, a slightly-faded actress who's just landed a comeback role in a new film, On High in Blue Tomorrows. Trouble is, even before she's gotten the big call, she's warned (in a typically hammy performance by Lynch's other muse, Grace Zabriskie), that the film is cursed - and once on set, she learns it's actually a remake of an earlier film, 4/7, based on a Polish folk tale, which collapsed upon the death of its stars. Hmmmm. Cue the doomy Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack!

Unsurprisingly, Nikki soon finds her "real" life moving in parallel with the story she's enacting: she's playing a woman cheating on her husband - and is simultaneously drawn to her seductive co-star (Justin Theroux), despite the warnings of her own jealous hubby, who's - yes - Polish. After just a rehearsal or two, Nikki can't distinguish between lines in the script and lines she thinks she's thought up for herself, and we suit up for a standard-issue elliptical, post-structuralist pastiche a la Mulholland.

But then the fun really starts. Nikki slips through a backdoor on a soundstage and finds herself banging around in a scene already experienced in "reality" - she's somehow bifurcated into a living feedback loop - and when, panicked, she desperately dashes to another part of the "set," she finds that she's fallen down yet another rabbit hole (remember that sitcom?) not just into On High in Blue Tomorrows, but also into its previous, Polish-gypsy incarnation, and even its production history.

Dern's in the dark - just like us - through much of Inland Empire.

Needless to say, this is a deeply original idea - out of all the unreliably-narrated, mobius-strippy movies I've seen, none have actually allowed the making of the movie to bleed into the head-trip (we also pop out of the finished product at times, as a girl watches it on TV and weeps). But then Lynch has always been about digging into the comforting fantasy of "reality" to reveal what lies beneath - only here he he takes it to the next level, and lets what lies beneath and above refract each other into some wild, incoherent extrapolation. Everything is in the mix - not just Nikki's "character" (she's an actress, she's a white trash housewife, she's a whore!) and the movie-within-the movie, and the history-of-the-movie-within-the-movie, but also some of Lynch's own oeuvre (Dumbland, Rabbits), and the distraught viewer of the whole train wreck, to boot. We vaguely get the sense, as Nikki/Lynch slides through the slipstream that seems to terminate (surprise!) in the psyche of a doomed hooker, that Lynch is also trying to produce his movie in the same way his heroine is "living" it - through intuition, free association, and dream. Which is fine, as long as we sense an impending - or even possible - synthesis.

But here's the rub - Lynch does achieve a weird, simultaneous sense of extrapolation and tunneling internality as Dern wanders through door after door, but the narrative leaps become repetitive, even obsessive, and said synthesis never happens - or when it does, and Nikki and her movie reach the end of the line and head back into "redemption," we realize that at bottom, Lynch's mentality is a little silly, and deeply melodramatic. He's fascinated/disgusted with his own psyche the way a baby is fascinated/disgusted by the load in its diaper; and sure, his free-form stylings are sometimes inspired, but the rest of us can perceive the crudeness of the core material. Stripped of its ontological hysteria, Inland Empire is essentially Laura Dern tied, like Little Nell, to the psycho-sexual-conceptual train tracks - it's just that emotionally sophisticated.

So I can't help but feel that Lynch isn't well served by all this fearlessly self-indulgent adventure - his subconscious is too sentimental, too obvious. Nor is he well-served by those fans who egg him on, under the pretense that he's some kind of improvisatory, jazzy genius (he's not). The best things in the movie, it turns out, are the humanoid hares from Rabbits. Frankly, their oblique vignettes convey the claustrophobic essence of Lynchiness better than anything else in Inland Empire - and thus it strikes me Lynch might be better at the sonnet than the epic.

Look, up in the sky, it's . . .

. . . an analemma - or rather a "tutulemma."

But what, you may well ask, is a "tutulemma"? To quote Astronomy Picture of the Day, one of my favorite check-in sites:

If you went outside at exactly the same time every day and took a picture that included the Sun, how would the Sun appear to move? With great planning and effort, such a series of images can be taken. The figure-8 path the Sun follows over the course of a year is called an analemma. With even greater planning and effort, the series can include a total eclipse of the Sun as one of the images. Pictured is such a total solar eclipse analemma or Tutulemma - a term coined by the photographers based on the Turkish word for eclipse. The composite image sequence was recorded from Turkey starting in 2005. The base image for the sequence is from the total phase of a solar eclipse as viewed from Side, Turkey on 2006 March 29. Venus was also visible during totality, toward the lower right.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

It's the economy, stupid

A piece today in the New York Times offers the first hard evidence that the aging demographic for the performing arts is based largely on price. The article, by Charles Isherwood, centers on the Signature Theatre company, which two years ago, through an underwriting grant from Time Warner, reduced its ticket price from $45 to $15 (now they're $20). The results:

After the initiative was put in place, 30 percent of audience members were 35 or under; that may not sound like such a hot number, but if you’ve been to a matinee lately, you will not question its significance. The number of attendees with annual income of less than $50,000 grew by 25 percent. A full half of the audience was new to the Signature. Statistics from my own informal eyeballing poll indicate that the audience has acquired the healthy diversity — of age and ethnicity — that you typically see only at the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park.

All the productions in the two seasons the program has been in place have sold out and extended their runs, including the first show of the current, third season, Charles Mee’s “Iphigenia 2.0.” The Signature recently announced that Time Warner would continue the subsidies through the 2010 season.

Now is there a source in Boston for that kind of largesse? Is "diversity" the magic word that could open up the corporate till - even if it's class diversity? Who can step up to the plate for theatre?